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Notes from a Small Island

An Affectionate Portrait of Britain

By Bill Bryson
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Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island (1995) was written by American-born author Bill Bryson as he was preparing to leave the small Yorkshire village in which he’d lived for 20 years, and head back to the United States. Before departing, he decided to bid a fond adieu to his adopted island, Great Britain. This travelogue documents his farewell tour of Britain’s landscape, culture, mores and wonderful eccentricities, which he’d come to love so dearly.

Key idea 1 of 9

Britain is a small island packed with memorable places and notable individuals.

After 20 years in Britain, American-born writer Bill Bryson decided to move back to the United States with his family to give his children the experience of sampling life in a different country. Before heading back to the States, however, he hit the road for a farewell tour. His aim was to spend a couple of weeks revisiting his favorite haunts and rediscovering his love for the island that had stolen his heart all those years ago. 

At the top of his list were places of personal significance – towns like Virginia Water just outside London. That was where he first put down roots after arriving in Britain in 1973. Initially, he’d planned on simply visiting old college friends. But soon enough he found himself accepting a job in the local sanatorium. It was there that he met the woman he’d marry just 16 months later.

And what else does Bryson make of his adopted country?

Let’s start with size. Seen through American eyes, the United Kingdom isn’t just different – it’s tiny.

Take the river Thames. It looms large in history, but if it were in the United States, it would only rank as the country’s 108th-largest river! And the Lake District, a mountainous region in the north of England famous for its many bodies of water, is smaller than the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

It may be small, but Britain is much more densely populated than the United States.

To get a feel of just how tightly packed the country is, imagine adding up the populations of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado and Texas and cramming them into an area the size of Iowa!

And it’s not just the density of the population that sets the country apart – it also contains an extraordinary number of important sites and notable people.

A good example is the graveyard in the small village of Sutton Courtenay, near the city of Oxford. While strolling along its paths, Bryson discovered that both the famous author George Orwell and H. H. Asquith, the liberal prime minister of Britain at the outbreak of the First World War, were buried in the same local cemetery.

The tombstones of both men are simple affairs engraved with humble inscriptions. That two figures whose names are known around the world can share the same cemetery with so little fuss suggests that this isn’t uncommon in Britain.

Oxford is brimming with traces of its famous luminaries. The lab in which Edmond Halley discovered his eponymous comet is just a stone’s throw from the racing track where Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Just around the corner? The old home of Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

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