Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island

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After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson made the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him.

But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had for so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyze what precisely it was he loved about a country that had produced Marmite, a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy, place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey, and Shellow Bowells, people who said "Mustn't grumble," and shows like "Gardener's Question Time."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780788737206
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 11/09/2001
Edition description: Unabridged

About the Author

Bill Bryson's bestselling books include One Summer, A Short History of Nearly Everything, At Home, A Walk in the Woods, Neither Here nor There, Made in America, and The Mother Tongue. He lives in England with his wife.


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

There are certain idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that British summers used to be longer and sunnier. Another is that the England soccer team shouldn't have any trouble with Norway. A third is the idea that Britain is a big place. This last is easily the most intractable.

If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, "Well, now, that's a bit of a tall order," and then they'll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it's better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester, or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swiveling your head in quiet wonderment.

"You know that lay-by outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?" one of them will say. "You know, just past the turnoff for Little Puking but before the B6029 miniroundabout."

At this point, you find you are the only person in the group not nodding vigorously.

"Well, about a quarter of a mile past there, not the first left turning but the second one, there's a lane between two hedgerows — they're mostly hawthorn but with a little hazel mixed in. Well, if you follow that road past the reservoir and under the railway bridge, and take a sharpright at the Buggered Ploughman —"

"Nice little pub," somebody will interject — usually, for some reason, a guy in a bulky cardigan. "They do a decent pint of Old Toejam."

"— and follow the dirt track through the army firing range and round the back of the cement works, it drops down onto the B3689 Ram's Dropping bypass. It saves a good three or four minutes and cuts out the rail crossing at Great Shagging."

"Unless, of course, you're coming from Crewkerne," someone else will add knowledgeably. "Now, if you're coming from Crewkerne..."

Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it's just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the North Circular in London, and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 P.M. on Friday and 10 A.M. on Monday, except bank holidays when you shouldn't go anywhere at all. "Me, I don't even walk to the corner shop on bank holidays," some little guy on the margins will chirp up proudly, as if by staying at home in Clapham he has for years cannily avoided a notorious bottleneck at Scotch Corner.

Eventually, when the intricacies of B-roads, contraflow blackspots, and good places to get a bacon sandwich have been discussed so thoroughly that your ears have begun to seep blood, one member of the party will turn to you and idly ask over a sip of beer when you were thinking of setting off. When this happens, you must never answer truthfully and say, in that kind of dopey way of yours, "Oh, I don't know, about ten, I suppose," because they'll all be off again.

"Ten o'clock?" one of them will say and try to back his head off his shoulders. "As in ten o'clock A.M.?" He'll make a face. "Well, it's entirely up to you, of course, but personally if I was planning to be in Cornwall by three o'clock tomorrow, I'd have left yesterday."

"Yesterday?" someone else will say, chortling softly at this misplaced optimism. "I think you're forgetting, Colin, that it's half term for schools in North Wiltshire and West Somerset this week. It'll be murder between Swindon and Warminster. No, you want to have left a week last Tuesday."

"And there's the Great West Steam Rally and Tractor Pull at Little Dribbling this weekend," somebody from across the room will add, strolling over to join you because it's always pleasant to bring bad motoring news. "There'll be three hundred and seventy-five thousand cars all converging on the Little Chef roundabout at Upton Dupton. We once spent eleven days in a tailback there, and that was just to get out of the car park. No, you want to have left when you were still in your mother's womb, or preferably while you were spermatozoa, and even then you won't find a parking space beyond Bodmin."

Once, when I was younger, I took all these alarming warnings to heart. I went home, reset the alarm clock, roused the family at four to protests and general consternation, and had everyone bundled into the car and on the road by five. As a result, we were in Newquay in time for breakfast and had to wait around for seven hours before the holiday park would let us have one of its wretched chalets. And the worst of it was that I'd only agreed to go there because I thought the town was called Nookie and I wanted to stock up on postcards.

The fact is that the British have a totally private sense of distance. This is most visibly seen in the shared pretense that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea. Of course, the British are all aware, in an abstract sort of way, that there is a substantial landmass called Europe nearby and that from time to time it is necessary to go over there to give old Jerry a drubbing or have a holiday in the sun...

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Notes from a Small Island 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 84 reviews.
Sarah_R More than 1 year ago
I had already read Bryson's A Walk in the Woods when I picked up this one for my trip over to England for a few weeks. I always like to read when I travel. Soon, I found out that I had selected the perfect book for a trip to England. Bryson has this amazing way with words that can actually make a reader laugh out loud-- it's not every day I can find myself on a plane or the Tube with ipod buds in my ears, a book in my hand, and laughing a bit too loudly for the people seated around me. For one, being in the same country Bryson is writing about only adds to the hilarity of his stories. I could chuckle right along with him, feeling as though he's giving me a knowing nudge, when he writes about the enormity of the English breakfast (beans? for breakfast? really?). Or, even better, when in London, he says, watch the ground for a gentle reminder that, in England, you must "Look Right" when you step off the curb. (For those of us from the States, we should look left in our home country.) I'm glad this was a book I picked to read during my trip. I don't think I could have found a better selection. This Bryson travel memoir is, by far, my favorite. And I love all of his books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an Englishman in Houston, I recommend this book to everyone who says 'I keep meaning to go there'. The daily annoyances and minutiae of English life are well dealt with, and I had to fill the stereotype by laughing at myself. Bryson is saddened by the English ability to do away with fine architecture, and fine life, in search of something more modern, but the most surprising thing -- except to an Englishman -- is how little has changed since George Mikes wrote 'How to be an Alien' sixty years ago (not available in the US; try
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very funny and entertaining. Bill Bryson is extremely witty and sarcastic about all of his different experiences he lives through while touring Britain. I lived in England and have read Bryson's other works, so I tried this one out. I think you must be British or very familiar with the culture to fully appreciate this book. Bryson visits the big cities, but also many small towns that I have never heard of, and therefore found hard to imagine. My lack of British knowledge did not gravely affect my enjoying this book very much. Bryson retells his traveling experiences that we all can relate to, and others that we can be glad never happened to us. This book delves deep into the British culture; past London and Dover, and into samll towns and seaside resorts. Bryson also includes his take on life, lightheartedly criticizing different groups of people and expressing his admiration or exasperation regarding these people. I found this book thoroughly enjoyable and a light, funny, and educational read. I recommend this book to the traveled person who has an appreciation for the English culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book brought back memories of visiting southern England. Having read several of Bill Bryson's books, I knew I would not be disappointed. I will be sharing this with a few friends who are his fans, too.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I started to read this book before spending a semester abroad in England. I didn't get a lot of the humor in it before I land in foggy Heathrow, but after barely a week, some of Bryson's observations began to stare me in the face. I saw that I was not the only American who thought some of things merited a good long ponder. Espeically the queuing up... I still don't get it, but I sure can get a giggle from this book. I Highly recommend this to anyone who is going, is currently, or has been in England, and even those who have not. Monty Python makes more sense.
cyderry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have to agree with Kay Dekker, I couldn't gt through this book and it's the second one by this author that I've tried. Guess I'm not one of his fans.Athe only funny line I heard was when he explained why he was taking public transit because his wife wouldn't let him take the car.
ragwaine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Started slow but got funny about 1/3rd of the way through. Still not as funny as walk in the woods.
nog on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There would have been little text if he had just rented a car. Instead, Bryson makes his way around the island by foot and public transport in the autumn. So there's a lot of getting soaked by rain, settling for substandard accommodations, and discovering the downside of British rail. Basically, something rather inconvenient, annoying, or unacceptable occurs day after day, yet in the end he always claims how much affection he has for it all.Without companions to accompany him, there's nothing really happening except inside Bryson's head. It makes for a repetitious read.It all brings back memories of when I traveled around southern England in February in the early 80's. I remember several things about this lone visit: the dirtiness of British trains, awful food, the patronizing attitude of the English toward America and Americans, and the grim determination of Thatcher to privatize everything in sight. (I remember standing on the bank of the Thames, next to the Parliament buildings, gazing across the river at a huge banner declaring how many Brits were unemployed.)It doesn't surprise me that Bryson finds deteriorating infrastructure and the ugly presence of fast food chains and hideous "modern" architecture everywhere. What does surprise me is that he can write about it with humor as his goal, and that the British ate it up.
Wprecht on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the funniest books I have read in a long time. A friend of mine lent me her copy as my wife and I prepared for a honeymoon in London. It was so spot on about the English, just awesome.
Bodagirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson gives a hilarious and endearing portrait of the British as he travels through England and Scotland on a personal farewell to the island he has called home for the past 20 years. With a multitude of tangents about British small pleasures and rants on everything from architecture, to the aristocracy, to towns (including his hotel) closing down after sunset, Bryson leads the reader on a whirlwind tour of the small island.
Katie_H on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I usually really enjoy Bryson, but this one didn't quite live up to my expectations. The travelogue follows Bryson's adventures throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, as he works his way around the island, visiting town after town. He travels by foot, bus, and train, and he visits the major sites, in addition to many unknown attractions. He comments on the culture (of which he was very familiar with after living in England for several years), the accommodations, and his interesting and unusual experiences. He approaches the subject matter with wit and humor, as usual, though I only found it to be mildly funny this time around, not the laugh-out-loud writing that he normally offers. I'd recommend this to people who have traveled extensively in Britain, or better yet, to those currently traveling. I have only visited London, and I think my enjoyment of the book would have been greater if I had experienced more of these areas.
ORFisHome on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My first experience with Bryson. Hilarious! Got a little tedious in parts as it is the same thing over and over at time. Rough language. Great picture of the UK, though, and so funny!
heidialice on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bryson takes a few months to travel England before he leaves it for good. Told in a series of chapters typically covering one or a couple places.Bryson at his best is charming, opinionated and slightly baffled, and there is plenty of that here. It¿s a joy to see his insider/outsider take on both England and the US. With better editing, or more of a focus, or maybe a topical arrangement, I might have enjoyed this as much as the Mother Tongue or A Short History of Nearly Everything. Despite dragging at points, this certainly made me want to visit England.
rrriles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not Bryson's best effort by a long shot, yet still a quietly charming romp through England, his adopted home of 20 years. Despite my low rating, it makes for entirely decent airplane or bedtime fodder.
jing1uk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Incredibly funny. Bill Bryson at his best.
lizzybeans11 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Before I went to London for the first time I began reading this book. I didn't get a lot of the little inside jokes he discusses. This is definitely a book for people "in the know". After spending years in Britain I can now say that this book is one of my favorite books about the British Isles.
mjmbecky on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you're like I am, it can be awfully fun to read a good travel book that coordinates with somewhere you've visited or would like to visit. Having read Bill Bryson's book In a Sunburned Country and laughed endlessly at his anecdotes, I knew I had to read this travel book about the British Isles. I'm jealous that he had the chance to live there for so long and to get a feel for the local context behind how they view themselves. A lot of times, a travel writer can only suppose how the locals view themselves or get inside their heads so that we see their world view. In this case, I really did feel like Bryson was able to explain how Brits view the world and even why. For instance, living in such a small "island" locale, things are only gauged by what's local. What would feel like a little jaunt down to the southern end of my own state, to them feels like a real journey. That just happens to be their frame of reference.One thing you readily pick up on in Bryson's work is his disdain for sterile locations that have no thought for their beauty. If buildings and lots are built over historically significant locations, and even more horrendously out of concrete, you get that he's not happy. Having visited England, but simply traveled a bit, I 100% understand his thoughts on "civilization" and how we put towns together. The well thought out buildings, cathedrals, hedgerows, and historical landmarks make a place and give it the charm we yearn for. Enough said.Bryson has exhaustively backed up his information about the cities and towns he visited with some of the history that went along with it. In some cases, I had been where he discussed, so I was much more interested. In others, I had never even heard of them, so I was less interested. And in a final few more, I've wanted to go visit, so I paid a bit of extra attention. In short, there is a lot of information that can take his books from a "fun read" to a bit of a travelogue. I really do enjoy Bryson's writing style and have grown to trust his knowledge about the places he writes. I appreciate that he digs in and talks about the infrastructure, a bit about the food he ate (only from time to time), and the people he encountered. Even if I haven't been where he is talking about, I feel like I'm tagging along. For this travel buff, that's always a very good thing!
flydodofly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
absolutely brilliant
justine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A must-read for any anglo-phile.
sturlington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While there are some genuinely funny bits in Notes from a Small Island ¿ the opening gambit about driving in Britain comes to mind ¿ this travelogue is largely tedious. Bryson moves from dreary small town to dreary small town, from hotel to indistinguishable hotel, until they all run together, and the reader begins to wish the trip was over already. The main thing the book lacks is a unifying theme, a point to it all. I know Bryson can do better.
maneekuhi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm a bit of an Anglophile, plan to do a tour similar to the one described here, have visited London a few times and enjoyed it immensely, and read a number of novels by Brit authors - so I was looking forward to reading this book very much. And was very disappointed before I got to page 100. Bryson had lived in England for 20 years and was preparing to return to his native USA soon after this trip - and perhaps that was part of the problem for me. He was too British. He didn't have the sense of excitement, awe, wonderment, discovery that a person less familiar with the villages and cities would. And in exchange, we got a fair amount of boring detail. Some of the book was amusing, eg, a Brits penchant for discussing directions from here to there ad nauseum, but there were not enough such moments. And I felt that major portions of his own trip had bored him. Other passages were a bit nasty, e.g., his description of putting down a McDonald's clerk in Edinburgh - what was he thinking when he included this cranky episode? Someone gave me Bryson's "A Walk in the Forest" or whatever - I think it'll be a long while before I crack that open.....
addunn3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mr. Bryson wanders around England from South to North, stopping in towns of all sizes. He rails against the artless urban development and throws complements around where needed. Not his best book - by far. There isn't enough plot to hold it together and not enough "stories" to merit the length of the book. If you are traveling England anywhere near his route, though, it would be worth a quick read.
loralu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a really good read about some of the different towns in Britain. I have been to some of then but not all. Bryson does a good job explaining how different yet alike they are as pieces within a whole, as well as how the fabric has shaped the people and vice versa.
skinglist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Journal entry 3 by SKingList from New York, New York USA on Monday, February 28, 2005BC just ate my entry, and it was a long one too.They are a central part of what makes England England. Without them, it would just be Indiana with steeples.That line, and others like it are what make Bryson Bryson and set him apart from the legion of other travel writers. What I like about Notes, that I also liked about NHNT is that he weaves stories of different trips together, a nice way to see how the country has changed without relying on "That was then and this is now..."I adore Bryson, always have. If you haven't already read it, another author who pulls off some Bryson qualities without trying to be Bryson is Brad Newsham. Take Me With You was a great read and I recommend it to Bryson fans.
rosalita on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I first read this book several years ago, I was helpless with laughter by the end of the first chapter. Re-reading it again just recently, I was pleased to learn that the inadvertant snorts, chuckles and guffaws were just as plentiful the second time around. For that reason, I don't recommend reading this book in public, but I definitely recommend reading it! Bryson's tour of Britain is an affectionate look at the positive, negative and inexplicable traits of the English people (not to mention the Scots and the Welsh).