Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson

Before New York Times bestselling writer invoice Bryson wrote The street to Little Dribbling, he took this delightfully irreverent jaunt round the exceptional floating country of significant Britain, which has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie’s Farm, and areas with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey.

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Can there anywhere on earth be, in such a modest span, a landscape more packed with centuries of busy, productive attainment? I returned to Pegswood lost in a small glow of admiration and caught a train to Newcastle, where I found a hotel and passed an evening in a state of some serenity, walking till late through the echoing streets, surveying the statues and buildings with fondness and respect, and I finished the day with a small thought, which I shall leave you with now. It was this: How is it possible, in this wondrous land where the relics of genius and enterprise confront you at every step, where every realm of human possibility has been probed and challenged and generally extended, where many of the very greatest accomplishments ofindustry, commerce and the arts find their seat, how is it possible in such a place that when at length I returned to my hotel and switched on the television it was Cagney and Lacey again?

Consider it forgotten, sir. So ­ full English breakfast, is it? ' 'Yes, please. ' 'Very good, sir! ' I've never had such good or friendly service anywhere, or felt more like a worm. He brought my food promptly, chattering away about the weather and what a glorious day it promised to be. I couldn't understand why he was so forgiving. Only gradually did it occur to me what a strange sight I must have presented ­ a middle­aged man with a rucksack, visiting a place like Weston out of season for no evident reason, fetching up at their hotel and bellowing and stomping about over a trifling inconvenience.

In the tragic event that you have never been there, I warn you now that Salisbury has long been the most money­keen of English cathedrals. I used to be pretty generally unsympathetic about ecclesiastical structures hectoring visitors for funds, but then I met the vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford ­ the most­visited parish church in England ­ and learned that its 300,000 annual visitors between them deposit a miserly £8,000 in the collection boxes, since which time I have mellowed considerably.

They nearly all looked poor and worn out and twenty years older than I suspect they actually were. Apart from a sprinkling of old men in flat caps and dun­coloured, tightly zippered Marks 8c Spencer's jackets, the passengers were nearly all middle­aged women with unlikely hairdos and the loose, phlegmy laughter of hardened smokers, but they were unfailingly friendly and cheerful and seemed happy enough with their lot. They all called each other 'darlin' and 'love'. The most remarkable thing ­ or perhaps the least remarkable thing, depending on how you look at it ­ was how neat and well looked after were the endless terraces of little houses we passed.

Beside the handsome town hall stood Market Cross House, a building so perilously leaning that you can't help wonder if it was built that way to attract Japanese visitors with cameras. It was now a sandwich bar, but, like most of the other shops on the pretty jumble of cobbled streets around it, it has been about a million things, usually tourist­connected. The last time I was here most of them were selling egg­cups with legs; now they seemed to specialize in twee little cottages and castles. Only Woods of Windsor, a company that manages to get more commercial mileage out of lavender than I would ever have thought possible, is still there selling soaps and toilet water.

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