Imaginative travel: ‘Notes from a Small Island’

Despite ongoing lockdown restrictions and hopes of travel still far from being realised, we are determined not to let hopes dry up. Although we can’t travel in the most traditional sense, COVID-19 has forced us all to use a bit of creativity. So, if we can’t travel physically, why not do it imaginatively?

Additional to being our former chancellor, Bill Bryson is a world-renowned non-fiction author. Perhaps his most famous book, Notes from a Small Island documents Bryson’s final trip around Great Britain before his return to the US. The work spans almost every crevice of the island as Bryson engages with locals from the places he visits right up the most north-eastern location on the mainland of Scotland, John o’ Groats. Whilst journeying around Great Britain, Bryson made an effort (despite failing on a couple of occasions) to only use public transport, making his journey perfectly replicable over twenty-five years on.

Whilst providing a cultural insight throughout his journey through his engagement with local people, Bryson also includes historical accounts and facts about the places he visits along the way. He acknowledges with amazement the sheer scale of British heritage, noting the existence of 445,000 historical buildings and some 120,000 miles of footpaths and public rights-of-way. In considering more recent history, he admires the resilience of the people he encounters having faced the turbulence of the twentieth-century: wars, financial depression, and huge social change. He never fails to conjure a sense of intimacy with his reader, acknowledging at times his unfamiliarity with certain aspects of British culture and language, amusingly admitting that he assumed everything in Britain was ordered via numbers when hearing a customer ask for “Twenty Number 6” when ordering cigarettes.

Having been born and raised in Iowa and settling in the UK in 1977, Bryson provides a uniquely external yet intimate appreciation for the landscape, locals, and culture that he encounters along his journey. He became chancellor of Durham University in 2005, a place he had fondly referred to as a “perfect little city” in Notes from a Small Island, having since gone on to organise nation-wide anti-littering campaigns and publish several accessible books on science and travel, demonstrating his unflagging appreciation for Great Britain and the world alike. 

Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island presents us with an opportunity to travel at the most local level. At a time when we are not able to leave the confines of our local area, Bryson provides us with a light-hearted and heart-warming travelogue which is as informative as it is a pleasure to read.

To finish, here are some stand-out snippets of Bryson’s entertaining logic:     

“What a wondrous place this was – crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possible have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you.”

“The tearoom lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn’t been here twelve hours and they already loved me.”

“It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource.”

“By the time I had finished my coffee and returned to the streets, the rain had temporarily abated, but the streets were full of vast puddles where the drains were unable to cope with the volume of water. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you would think that if one nation ought by now to have mastered the science of drainage, Britain would be it.”

Featured image by Andrew Neel via Pexels.

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