Bill Bryson’s newest book
is already high on the best seller list, so he needs no plug from me — Victoria here relating some delightful hours spent with Bryson’s insightful, comic, and profound views of and about Britain.
Twenty years ago when he published Notes from a Small Island, I became a fan — having shared a few similar experiences in my travels around the UK and having hailed from the Midwest (he is from Iowa originally). I envied him his continent-traveling work. Now he has moved back to Britain, become a dual citizen, and followed the suggestion of his publishers to do a followup of his popular Notes From A Small Island.
Iconic WWII poster by Artist Frank Newbould
He covers all sorts of subjects such as the ideal of Britain as represented by iconic posters of during the WWII. He searched for and found the source for the poster above, one of the best by Frank Newbould in a series created in 1939 on the eve of the war to inspire the population by giving them reminders of what was worth fighting for. Only slightly altered, Bryson found the Sussex coastline and the Belle Tout lighthouse almost as Newbould painted them.
Nearby he was photographed above the Beachy Head lighthouse.
To shape his rambles, Bryson drew a line as straight as he could from Land’s End at the southwestern tip of Cornwall to the northern most point, Cape Wrath in Scotland.
Along his journey, traveling by bus, train and auto, visited London as well as small towns and villages; he made observations on urbanization, the eccentricities of aging, the joys of public footpaths, and the good and bad of the underground system, among many other subjects. He investigated the area of Heathrow airport and speculated about its future expansion.
One of his favorite London sights is also one of mine: the house and studio of artist Frederic Leighton, president of the Royal Academy in 1878, and a favorite artist of Victoria and Albert. He traveled widely and painted many dramatic desert scenes as well as reproducing the decor in his residence.
Leighton House Museum, London
He visited a village I have enjoyed: Selborne and the home of Gilbert White, who spent his life studying the nature of his home locale, published in 1788. My husband and I visited a few years ago when we were on a Jane Austen binge, for it is near Chawton and White’s book was known to her. We enjoyed the museum, the bountiful garden, and an excellent pub down the street.
Back View of Gilbert White’s House
Bryson did not ignore ancient Britain, stopping at Avebury and Stonehenge. At the all latter site, he was pleased to find the improvements made lately. Though access to the stones is still restricted somewhat, the visitor center, he says, is much better. Perhaps I need a return visit. I remember finding the facilities quite shabby at Stonehenge years ago.
One spot on my “to do” list has to be Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. More than 400 years of a family’s lif
e were spent here. The National Trust acquired the house in 1985 after it had been abandoned for many years. They made the building into a unique experience. Instead of renovation and restoration, they left it as it was, more or less, calling it the ‘un-stately home,’ a jumble of furniture and art, even to the unmade beds.
Calke Abbey library
Like Bill Bryson, I found the Lake District almost impossibly beautiful. And even better is the preservation which has kept development from spoiling it. The main danger, he says, is from the crowd of people who can’t resist its charms. Who can blame them?
Cape Wrath is beyond Scotland’s Highlands, an area I need to visit someday. How have I missed it? I’ve really not been north of Edinburgh. Shame on me.
I hope this short account has whetted your appetite for this wonderful book, filled with insight, opinion and delight. Here’s to good reading!