How the idea to walk through Britain came about
The best travel book writers can be the laziest of travellers. They begin their story with a fantastic itinerary, warming the readers up to the premise of what is to come, and then halfway into the journey they turn their back on their adventure and go home for a while. Paul Theroux did that when he circumnavigated the Mediterranean Sea for The Pillars of Hercules: on one page he sneaks onto a tourist ferry to a Greek island to get out of Albania, and on literally the next page he is, without one letter of explanation, on a cruise out of Nice, France. Bill Bryson never finished the Appalachian Trail, and in his latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, he devices a perfectly straight line through Britain but then doesn’t travel along it.
His “Bryson Line” is what he found to be the longest straight line you can travel in the United Kingdom without crossing salt water: from Bognor Regis in the south of England to Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland. In the prologue of his travelogue, he already makes it clear that he will not follow his Bryson Line literally but rather use it as a beacon to make his way north. Yet, instead of travelling north, he takes the bus out of Bognor Regis to the east. And after he has been only a little bit to the north of Bognor Regis – around Heathrow Airport – he is suddenly down south again, travelling westward of his Bryson Line. And that’s how he pinballs all over England, taking day trips to an interesting variety of English towns, until the last few pages, when he is boarding a train in London in order to travel up to Cape Wrath and legitimately finish the book.
I wanted to know what Bill Bryson would have found if he had followed his famed Bryson Line more religiously and had focused on the country itself rather than the history books at his local library. What kind of people would he have encountered? What kind of conversations would he have had? And what kind of villages would he have found along the way? The transformation process of the island nation between the south of England and the north of Scotland during an ongoing journey would have been a great backbone to a travel book. Unfortunately, we’ll never know about it through Bryson’s eyes.
And so these questions kept haunting me. They unleashed a curiosity in me about Britain that made me want to go there and find out for myself. I had been thinking about the next country to write a book about – Madagascar, Russia, Peru, Armenia. An European nation had not quite been on my top list of countries to cover because Europe is my own continent and wheelchair accessible; it could wait.
Yet here we had Bill Bryson presenting the perfect itinerary.
Bognor Regis is on the Channel; Cape Wrath is on the Atlantic Ocean. If you let Google Maps measure the distance between the two in a straight line – the Bryson Line – you’ll get a distance of 914.92 kilometres (568.51 miles). A perfect distance for a long walk. Following this line closely – floating over Britain using Google Earth – it goes precisely through a hamlet called Cocking, the English city of Reading, the Scottish cities of Edinburgh and Inverness, Peak District National Park, and with a little sidestep of only a handful of kilometres, there’s Loch Ness, too. Lots and lots of communities, filled with people and their stories, are in between, and you can connect them on foot by walking through a land that’s made for walking – no need, in short, to pinball all over England; at most you wander a bit off to the left or to the right, but always in a semi-northerly direction. And because the island is long and narrow, I figured that this line would be representative of most of the accents, mindsets, landscapes, and demography. It seemed perfect and was basically thrown at me. And so, before going to Madagascar, Russia, Peru, or Armenia, I decided to travel the Bryson Line through Britain.
Somebody had to.
The same idea had been conceived on opposite sides of the North Sea
But to my astonishment, I wasn’t the only one, as I found out when I Google’d the idea.
A small group of American expats living in the United Kingdom had also made plans to walk the Bryson Line and, coincidentally, at exactly the same moment. And being American entrepreneurs, they sought public attention for their adventure. They operated a “wealth management firm,” wanted to “give back to their adopted home” by raising ₤100,000 and splitting the money between five UK-based charities, had created a classy website (thebrysonline.com) with their firm’s name worked into the banner at the top, successfully asked Bill Bryson himself to walk along for a portion of the hike, and gave themselves, as to create a challenge, a timeframe of thirty days to complete their walk.
My undertaking was entirely different.
I didn’t need awareness: I was just going to do it for the sake of an adventure and collecting story material.
Also, I was literally going to walk the entire Bryson Line whereas the Americans were only going to walk the equivalent of its length.
Another difference was the amount of people: they were with five, I’d be on my own.
What we had in common, though, was that we were both using that name, The Bryson Line, and both parties based their adventure on The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. We were in the same boat, nobody else in the world but us were doing this walk at that very moment. The same idea had been conceived on opposite sides of the North Sea, and I thought it would be fantastic if we could meet up somewhere: we'd walk in opposite directions.
So, on January 9th 2018, I wrote them a cheery message on Twitter: “@TheBrysonLine Hello, fellow walkers! We might run into each other somewhere along the B-Line. Wishing you all the best!”
And I included a link to the blog post on my website in which I announced the plan, entitled Am I going to be the first man to walk The Bryson Line? (This, by the way, was not my being cheeky, it was simply the only blog post I had written about it at the time. And, again by the way, it’s this very article, but now modified.)
The website’s statistics (normally ranging between 0 and, say, 5 visitors per day) showed about twenty views out of the UK, but there was no further response. Perhaps they felt threatened by my walking the entire line (more than 1,200 kilometres), while they were raising money for the equivalent of its length (915 kilometres). After all, if people initially willing to donate would find out about that, then this could work as an incentive for potential donors to not donate. And so I placed a link on my website to their crowd-funding page.
They never contacted me, but I am a gentleman: I wished them luck on the day they started and on the day they reached their destination. And even these well-intentioned messages were ignored.
Bill Bryson didn't seem to know what to do with me
And what about Bill Bryson? I'd written him a letter to let him know about the plan, he wrote me a letter back wishing me the best of luck. Six weeks into the walk I wrote him an email:
Dear Mr Bryson,
I haven't written earlier as I know you are working hard on a new book, but I felt a quick update would be in order.
I'm almost in Scotland, hopefully by tomorrow night, and have had a great adventure thus far. A foot journey is unlike anything I have undertaken before and brings out the elements in travel many people consider now to be of the past due to the internet - paper maps, resourcefulness, depending on local friendliness and help, finding accommodation when walking into a small village with all the elderly locals hanging out at the only pub at the end of a long day. This trip is on that scale.
There are great days, not so great days, lonely days, days full of talk. The landscape transforms slower than all the different accents I encounter everywhere, so it's the way people talk that defines the progress I'm making.
I wish you all the best with the new book. I know what it means to write a book and you must be under some pressure when people expect a certain standard based on previous work.
Thank you for the inspiration to embark on this journey!
Bill Bryson replied two weeks later:
Congratulations on nearly completing your epic walk. I am glad it has been such a good experience for you. It has certainly been a huge undertaking. I hope it continues to go well and that all else is smooth sailing in your life.
Very best wishes,
That last sentence seemed to imply: 'and don't bother me again.' I don't think he really knew what to do with me. He'd of course committed himself to the American expats and their charities, walking along on their first and their last day, and the expats, too, didn't know what to do with me. Yet it was important to remember that although this was the background - the backstory, if you will - against which the walk took place, the whole undertaking was about the walk itself.
British adventures of a Dutchman
I had some really cool adventures along the way. One of them was a possible encounter with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on an empty country lane. I can't say for certain that it was them (there was no security and I certainly didn't want to disturb their peace), and if it wasn't them, they were perfect lookalikes driving an Audi (like the British royals do).
I also slept one night in a four-poster bed only to sleep the next night on a wooden bench in a dark playground - the contrast couldn't have been bigger. But then this walk was full of contrasts in terms of accommodation. In Britain, there are places to stay in every little town. I stayed at pubs, luxury hotels, campgrounds, hostels, guesthouses.
And the encounters really made this walk worthwhile. I enjoyed hearing from Brexiteers why they wanted to leave the EU. In the north of England I was mesmerised by the genuine friendliness of the people. The three Angolan geology students in Durness (near Cape Wrath) were the only three black boys in the village and felt, they told me, stared at. I tried to engage with as many people as possible, which was a hard thing to do on a long, lonely walk.
The book about the walk
I went home two days after reaching Cape Wrath on July 15th and started writing the book. It's not easy to write a book in your second language. English is an acquired language - my native tongue is Dutch. Thank goodness I have a great editor in the US who can handle my writing and make it shine.
A book requires choices - the story needs to flow. One thing I had to consider was that this book is de facto based on The Road To Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. I didn't want to attempt to write like him because that's what people might expect. No. Instead, I wanted In Britain: The Long Path To Cape Wrath to be a smooth walking story, a look at the UK through Dutch eyes.
Was I really the first person to walk the Bryson Line?
I went through hundreds of Google searches to ensure that nobody else had walked the entire Bryson Line before. Nobody had claimed to have done it before me.
So hereby I claim the right to be called the first person ever to walk the Bryson Line entirely.
Somebody has to.