It’s a short and sweet review on the blog today, simply because the book in question is so cheerful, chirpy and big-hearted that it doesn’t need any lingering analysis from me. I’ve read Bill Bryson’s previous travel books so I was pretty hopeful of loving this one just as much, but still, when there’s such a sense of anticipation surrounding a new title by a favourite author there’s always the niggling fear that it’s going to turn out to be a disappointment. It wasn’t of course – in fact it was as if he’d never been away.
Bryson has written a few intriguing history books over the past few years, plus his autobiography, but for me, like many readers I expect, it’s his travel writing that’s his real calling card. To spend a couple of hundred pages in his company as he reassesses his adopted country some twenty years after “Notes from a Small Island” is to fall in love with Great Britain all over again. For “The Road to Little Dribbling” the author takes as his starting point a route he dubs “The Bryson Line”, the furthest you can travel across the country in a straight line without having to cross the sea at any point. After some initial experiments with a map and ruler, he discovers that this imaginary line would run from Bognor Regis on the south coast to Cape Wrath at the northern tip of Scotland. So, with his start and finish points determined, Bill sets out on a journey along the full length of the British Isles, meandering quite substantially as it turns out from the line itself, but always striving towards the moment when he can stand with no land left between him and the polar regions. On the way he takes in every imaginable terrain, from the narrow streets of Cornish fishing villages to the expansive landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales, and of course, this being Bill Bryson, he finds plenty to make us laugh along the way.
I can vouch for the fact that this book is laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re feeling a bit low reading this will certainly bring a smile back to your face. Yet what this author can do so deftly is intersperse moments of hilarity with some truly poignant insights into how our landscape, heritage and communities are being eroded and in some cases obliterated by the demands and catastrophic misjudgements of modern life. Many times during his journey, Bryson tells us how lucky we are to enjoy the wealth of history and nature that we do. Being American born and raised he is able to describe our country through the eyes of someone who has seen first-hand the differences between Britain and other places with a far lower concentration of historical and natural diversity, and for me it makes the eulogy so much more powerful. Yes, it made me laugh, but it also made me want to hop on a train and really explore some of those precious places that are so close by and yet forgotten through mere familiarity. I think that’s what all good travel writing should make you do – and Bill Bryson is one of the best.