Tag Archives: Britain

Classic Travel Lit 4: Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Destination: England

Book: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (audio book reviewed)

I’m playing catch up with some travel classics.  With the exception of Bruce Chatwin‘s Patagonia, I had not read the highly recommended classic travel literature that I have talked about this week.

Many travelers list Bill Bryson‘s Notes from a Small Island(1996) and In a Sunburned Country(2000) among their favorites for a travel library. When World Hum listed Bryon’s Australian book as one of the best travel books, writer and editor Tom Zwick groused in the comments that Bryson writes about himself rather than about the place to which he travels.

My library had the audiotape of Notes from a Small Island, so I decided to find out which faction I agreed with (travel-writer Zwick, or seemingly the rest of the travel-reading world). I was happy to start with England rather than Australia, because I’ve been to England (although briefly) and my only time in Australia involved changing planes.

In the book, Bill Bryson takes a farewell tour of Britain.  He had lived the expatriate life for many years before he and his British wife decided to move to America with their children. I found Notes from a Small Island to be charming and packed with the kind of detail that helps make the unfamiliar become at least understandable.  The addiction to inane TV shows, the mysterious enthusiasm for bland desserts, the belief that their island is far away from any other land mass, became endearing in Bryson’s telling. Rather than being bored with hearing about his own experiences, actions and reactions, I felt that he deepened my understanding of the people he met along the way.

For the most part he skips the obvious tourist haunts–no Anne Hathaway Cottage, for instance.  And although he does wander through Oxford, he does not recommend a visit. Instead he heads for places that have some personal meaning for him.  Yes, he’s weaving in his memoir and taking us along to places that he chooses for his own sometimes random reasons.  But doesn’t any travel narrative do that?

I sat with my spiral-cover large-scale Michelin road Atlas of the British Isles in front of me as the audio tape played, and followed his route from Dover to Wales and then through Scotland to the farthest north tip of Great Britain.  What fun it would be to literally follow his footsteps, perhaps skipping the things he found painfully ugly and pointless. On the other hand, it would be equally amusing to visit those places and see if he missed any redeeming features.

Bryson loves the English people, despite his making fun of their most un-American habits. He loves London, although he spends very little time talking about central London. (The City) I wish that he would do a guide just of London.

Notes from a Small Island brims over with statistics about population density and number of passenger trains, but he frequently apologizes for these factual diversions.  My husband lost patience with the longish introduction which is all about Bryson and his newspaper jobs before he actually got on the road.

But if you are truly looking for a book to inform you about England and inspire you to travel to lesser known parts of the small island, then read Notes from a Small Island.

(Photo by Phil Leftwich, from Flickr, Creative Commons license)

When you read a travel narrative, are you put off by the writer’s own, perhaps dull or painful, experiences? What do you think of Bill Bryson? Does he add to the traveler’s experience? Let us hear from you.

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Literature of Place

The white house stands at the top of a hill, just a little past two neat stone pillars with the words “Greta Hall” inscribed on them.  As I drove up the drive and parked my minuscule rental car in the turnaround, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of amazement and awe.  For months, I had been researching the lives of the British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and now I was standing in front of the house where Coleridge lived with poet laureate Robert Southey and a house where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy often visited.


As I stood outside the house, I wondered which set of windows was Coleridge’s study, the room where he wrote poems like:  “Frost at Midnight,” and “Dejection:   An Ode.”  I wondered about how Wordsworth approached and even what door he came up to.  You see, these are the things I think about.

For me, the stories in literature come alive when I can see the places that inspired them.  The lives and places of poets and writers have always fascinated me.  As a teacher, I had my students study not just James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the Dublin and Ireland that gave rise to it.  As a traveler, I was the one who chose to go to William Shakespeare’s cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon when my friends hit the pub.  And now, as a writer, I am drawn to subjects connecting the literary with geography.

My first two books were what we’ve called “literary travel guides.”  The first, A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England, explores the nineteenth century New England that fostered the thinking and writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and others.  My second book is one in the same series and is titled A Journey into the Irish Literary Revival.  In it, I was able to visit the towns, towers, and tenement streets that inspired the poetry of William Butler Yeats, the drama of John Millington Synge, and the folk collections of Isabella Augusta Gregory.  Even my third book, Walking Boston, wove in places and stories from writers like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.

In fact, it was what I was doing standing in front of “Greta Hall,” just outside of the town of Keswick in England’s Lake District.  I was there to research Coleridge’s life there and actually spent a full week living in the house (you can rent rooms there), spending a few nights sleeping in Coleridge’s study.  I will tell the stories of that visit in a book I’m still working on, A Journey into the Romantic’s Lake District.

But my favorite story of place and literature actually spans my first two books.  In an earlier post on this A Traveler’s Library, I talked about the impact of Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.  It has been used around the world for everything from buttressing philosophical arguments to selling yoga tapes.  It has inspired world leaders, rock stars, and bumper sticker makers.  It also inspired a young, lanky Irish boy whose father read Walden to him in the mornings before school.  On summer holidays in the west of Ireland, that young boy dreamed of building a cabin on an island and living as Thoreau did. He even picked out the perfect island and spent a night reconnoitering it.  As it turned out, the boy never lived out his dream, but years later in London, the young man, now a poet, heard the sound of water and it reminded him of his former dream.  He then wrote a poem about it.  The poem is called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the boy is the Nobel-prize winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

I love to tell that story at book events because it connects the shore of a small lake in New England and the thoughts and aspirations of a man who lived there for a time with an island in a much larger lake in Ireland and the thoughts and aspirations of a man who wanted to live there.  It shows how literature of place can inspire even the most inspirational of poets.  The echoes of Walden in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” are clear:

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

So, as I wrap up this post, I’m interested in the literary places near you.  What is closest to you and what is special about that place?  What inspirational moments have you had at a literary site?  What do you read and where?  If you leave a comment, you have a chance to win an autographed copy of Walking Boston.  You can also find out more about literary travel at Open Page, Open Road.  You can see more photos from all three books at my Photoshelter page. Good luck and thanks for listening,

Robert Todd Felton

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Filed under Books, Destinations