My Countryside interview: Bill Bryson
The best-selling author discusses the endearing Yorkshire Dales, the success of the South Downs National Park and his shock at becoming a ‘pillock’...
I’ll always have a real soft spot for the Yorkshire Dales. I don’t even know why exactly – they’re intensely beautiful, of course, but I wouldn’t say they’re more beautiful than Scotland, the Lake District or many other places – but for some reason whenever I’m in the Dales, I feel immensely happy. I have a special fondness for Malhamdale, where I lived for a decade or so.
If I were in the North right now, there’s a particular place I would go… a farm gate on a hillside overlooking Malhamdale, and that is my favourite view in the country.
Because I come from America, at first I didn’t understand the concept of ‘walking’ in the British sense of putting on waterproof clothing, booting up and walking in any weather up an enormously taxing hill and thinking it’s enjoyable. That was a totally alien concept when I arrived. No American would exert themselves in that way and call it fun.
The first time I went out walking with my good friend John Price to the Lake District, halfway up the mountain I said, “this is just insane, I’m gasping for air”. And when we got to the summit there were 60 people huddled around some rocky outcrop trying to eat packed lunches in a sleet storm and they’re all happy as anything. I thought, “I get it now, this is amazing, it is really fun.” So that is the one lesson that living in Britain has taught me, that there is pleasure in misery.
When you’re walking, your mind is sort of empty and if I had to sit in a chair in that state, I’d be bored out of my mind, but when my legs are moving underneath me, I’m stimulated and happy. In fresh air and a glorious environment, the world seems kindly and benign, which is invigorating.
Very often, I’ll be writing at my desk all morning and I’ll get stuck on a passage. I’m the kind of person who just keeps fussing over it, getting more and more frustrated and generally get nowhere. And then, in the afternoon, I’ll go for a walk and not think about that piece of work at all, but when I come home, the problem will have resolved itself. And walking is the only activity I know that does that reliably.
My favourite day out is probably walking right the way across Windsor Great Park. It’s beautiful, full of history, with great views from its heights across to London and, unlike many other green areas of London, almost empty. If you go more than 200 yards into it, you’ll have it pretty much to yourself.
The humour of people in the Yorkshire Dales is very direct and has a dryness that I like. They don’t hesitate to insult you, even if they’re fond of you. It’s kind of astounding to find someone telling you that you’re a complete pillock – and I was told that a lot. I’d like to think it was done with a certain amount of affection...
Britain’s never going to stop being beautiful, but some of it has slowly stopped being the Britain we all think of fondly. If you want to keep the country churches and the lovely hedgerows and the little copses and woodlands, the nation collectively has to provide the funding that keeps them going. If I had a magic wand, I’d make all litter disappear from all roadsides everywhere. I’ve been obsessed for years with litter; a lot of people who love the countryside are, as it’s such an insult to a glorious landscape. The short-time solution to littering is a fine; the long-term solution has to be education.
One of the remarkable things about Britain is, although it is an overwhelmingly urban nation, how much affection there is for the countryside, and how much it is used as an amenity by people who live in urban areas. Unlike in America, where getting out into the countryside is really quite an undertaking - to get out there and get out of your car for recreational purposes, you have to drive all the way to a State Park or a National Park. In Britain, you can get on a bus and within half an hour, almost anywhere, even in the biggest cities, you can be somewhere that is green and has footpaths and woods and little rivers to enjoy and walk about in.
If I were a British wild animal, I’d be the badger that comes in every night to destroy my lawn. I would go back into the woods and get all the worms and slugs I wanted there, and I’d leave Bill’s lawn alone.
I feel very hopeful about the future of the countryside. Life would be unbearable if you weren’t hopeful. Mostly with the countryside, we’re talking about a great success story. It’s still there and very much appreciated.
Every year two friends of my own age and I walk a section of long-distance footpath. One year we were doing a section of the Thames pass and there was a swan on the footpath with cygnets. And it wouldn’t let us pass – it was terrifying, squawking at us and flapping its wings and telling us to go away – and we were too cowardly to confront it, so we and about six other walkers all retreated a long way and took a huge detour. We were humiliated by a swan.
My most treasured piece of outdoor kit is a collapsible walking stick that I bought in Colorado, where my son works as a ski patroller. It’s just an aluminium walking stick, but it collapses down to fit into a backpack.
The short-term solution to litter is a fine – people need to think that there’s a chance they might be fined if they throw litter down. The long-term solution has to be education. As far as I know, the government does nothing in schools about encouraging children to understand that litter is not a good thing.
My hobby horse at the moment is the threat to the green belt, which I think is so short-sighted. This idea that it is somehow an inferior landscape just sitting there waiting to be developed is very frustrating. I agree that there ought to be affordable housing everywhere. I’d just remind people that when I first came here, there was an abundance of affordable housing called council housing, and it all got sold off. My argument would be, let’s use all the brownfield land first.
My most heartwarming experience was as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, when we succeeded in our campaign to secure the full proposed boundaries for the South Downs National Park. The reduced proposal would have seen a lot of lovely countryside excluded.
On a scone, I would always put the cream first and then the jam, because then you get a nice dollop of colour on top.
Maria Hodson is production editor at BBC Countryfile Magazine, alongside Margaret Bartlett. Since moving to Bristol in 2014, Maria has made every effort to escape into nature and loves all things wild and watery, from surfing and swimming to paddle-boarding and kayaking. Her adventure highlight in recent years was sea kayaking around remote St Kilda, off the coast north-west Scotland, in 2016. Most weekends, however, are spent exploring the great outdoors with her small child and doing accessible walks. Favourite family adventures are bird-watching at Slimbridge Wetland Centre and exploring the Forest of Dean, as well as an annual pilgrimage to see the starling murmuration on the Somerset Levels.