Bill Bryson CPRE president
PUBLISHED: 14:49 10 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:37 20 February 2013
The best-selling author Bill Bryson settles in Norfolk
Norfolk is the best of Britain!
He travelled the world, unravelled the history of the universe, and chose to settle in Norfolk. Rowan Mantell meets best-selling author Bill Bryson.
No-one could have been more surprised than Bill Bryson when he found himself living in Norfolk. After all, it was a county he had swerved, in favour of Retford, in one of his iconic travel books.
And when the humorist from the American plains, and the UKs biggest selling non-fiction author since records began, decided to return to Britain, he was looking for somewhere with hills and ideally an active baseball scene.
But, after eight years in Norfolk, he is smitten.
Norfolk was a happy accident! admits the president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I really wanted to live in a hilly place because I grew up in a flat part of America. It didnt matter to me whether it was Yorkshire or Dorset or Devon, but somewhere a bit hilly.
Then a former rectory came up for sale in less-than-mountainous country near Wymondham.
I didnt think I wanted to live in East Anglia because its too flat, but we really liked the property, moved here, and we can honestly say we have never regretted it for a moment, says Bill.
But he admits it is just possible there could be a mountain range tucked away somewhere in Norfolk, because this world traveller, who has written with immense wit and encyclopaedic knowledge about much of Europe, the USA and Australia, plus linguistics, Shakespeare and the history of the universe, is still to discover vast tracts of Norfolk.
Im so busy, when I come home to Norfolk all we want to do is shut ourselves away. Its the county I knew the least about! he says. However, what he does know, he has fallen in love with.
People are friendly, life is easy and I do think an awful lot of the best parts of Britain are preserved better in Norfolk."
People are friendly, life is easy and I do think an awful lot of the best parts of Britain are preserved better in Norfolk.
We were in north Norfolk recently and for one thing, there is no litter. And theres a good bus service. I think the Coasthopper bus is one of the most wonderful things in the whole county. I really have become very fond of Norfolk.
Litter is something Bill particularly loathes. Hes not a natural hater. But litter (and pylons and the kind of brutal 20th century architecture which was dropped into so many of our cities with no thought for the historic surroundings) is something for which he makes an exception.
Litter is just so unnecessary. Its inexcusable because its unnecessary, he comments.
Bill admits to feeling a little guilty about leaving his public self behind when he comes home to Norfolk: We really wanted it to be the place in the world where we can get away from being on show.
When they moved to their Norfolk hamlet, Bill and his wife Cynthia still had teenagers at home. Now all four of their children are grown up and there are six grandchildren. It is this family life, rather than international awards and accolades including being Britains best-selling non-fiction author and an honorary OBE that 60-year-old Bill considers his greatest achievement.
However, his books are so clever, arresting and amusing that reading one is like being accompanied on a journey through Britain, or the English language, or the history of the universe by a hilarious and preternaturally well-informed friend. Many millions of us feel we know him, and in person, bearded, be-jumpered, he is exactly the same relaxed, friendly, funny, open, interested and interesting. He admits this can cause problems.
His books are a compendium of intriguing facts, fascinating people and telling insights just the stuff of anecdotes, only every time he tries to tell one he says people tend to glaze over and he remembers hes already included it in a book.
Back home Bill and Cynthia enjoy gardening and touring some of Norfolks loveliest gardens. This spring Bill launched the National Gardens Scheme yellow book of Norfolk gardens open for charity and says: A lot of things that you take for granted in this country are really quite thrilling and amazing to me, and the NGS is one of them. It gives so much pleasure and does so much good at the same time.
His very favourite Norfolk garden is at Holkham Hall. He is in awe of the parkland and beach too.
The thing I love about Holkham Hall, if you arrive as a pedestrian, there is no pressure to hand over cash, you dont have to get past a guard. There is wonderful parkland, that amazing beach, and no-one hassling you for cash.It is one of the reasons that there is only one thing he really misses from his home country.
Anything else can be reproduced here, but not baseball. Im full of admiration for cricket but it just doesnt do it for me, he says, his blue-eyes suddenly focused not on the wide skies of Norfolk but on pitching, hitting, strike-outs and curve-balls.
But its not enough to tear up the roots he and Cynthia have put down in the rich soil of Norfolk, and if he writes another tour of Britain he promises to include his adopted home county.
In 2010 he edited a list of the icons of England for the CPRE, which included the Norfolk Broads. So what would Bill designate as the icons of Norfolk? His first is Cley windmill, because it is so instantly recognisable on a stretch of stunning coast. Then there is Norwich Cathedral and Castle. And the Elveden monument. Okay, its not actually in Norfolk, but we know what he means when you see the monument looming out of the heath and forest you know you are nearly home, or, if headed south, it is warning that you are entering foreign parts.
Yes, Bill Bryson, American, traveller, lover of mountains and baseball, really has become a Norfolk man at heart.
Bill Bryson is president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE).
In spring 2012 the Norfolk group of the CPRE launched a campaign to protect and celebrate local footpaths. It focuses on keeping rights of way open and cherished.
With county council budget cuts, CPRE Norfolk wants to ensure these paths are not neglected, and is producing information on how to monitor paths, report issues and take action, as well as celebrating local walks with community parades based on the ancient tradition of walking parish boundaries.
Bill Bryson is also a big supporter of the CPRE Stop the Drop antilittering campaign, and praise the Norfolk volunteers who carry out regular litter picks, saying: I raise my litter-picking stick to them in gratitude and humble recognition of their commitment and tenacity.
For more information on protecting Norfolks footpaths or becoming a local litter warden, visit www.cprenorfolk.org.uk