A day or so later, I met my publisher, a kindly and much loved fellow named Larry Finlay, for lunch in London, to discuss a subject for my next book. Larry lives in quiet dread that I will suggest some ludicrously uncommercial topic — a biography of Mamie Eisenhower, perhaps, or something on Canada — and so always tries to head me off with an alternative suggestion.
“Do you know,” he said, “it’s twenty years since you wrote ‘Notes From a Small Island?’ ”
“Really?” I replied, amazed at how much past one can accumulate without any effort at all.
“Ever thought about a sequel?” His tone was casual, but in his eyes I could see little glinting pound signs where his irises normally were.
I considered for a moment. “Actually there is a certain timeliness to that,” I said. “I’m just about to take out British citizenship, you know.”
“Really?” Larry said. The pound signs brightened and began to pulsate ever so slightly. “You’re giving up your American citizenship?”
“No, I keep it. I’ll have British and American both.”
Larry was suddenly racing ahead. Marketing plans were forming in his head. Underground posters — not the really big ones, the much smaller kind — were springing to mind. “You can take stock of your new country,” he said.
“I don’t want to end up going back to all the same places and writing about all the same things.”
“Then go to different places,” Larry agreed. “Go to” — he searched for a name to nominate, somewhere no one’s ever been — “Bognor Regis.”
I looked at him with interest. “That’s the second reference I have heard to Bognor Regis this week,” I said.
“Think of it as a sign,” Larry said.
Later that afternoon, at home, I pulled out my ancient and falling-apart AA Complete Atlas of Britain (so old that it shows the M25 as a dotted aspiration) just to have a look. Apart from anything else I was curious to see what is the longest distance you can travel in Britain in a straight line. It is most assuredly not from Land’s End to John o’Groats, despite what my official study guide had said. (What it said, for the record, is: “The longest distance on the mainland is from John o’Groats on the north coast of Scotland to Land’s End in the south-west corner of England. It is about 870 miles.”) For one thing, the northernmost outcrop of mainland is not John o’Groats but Dunnet Head, eight miles to the west, and at least six other nubbins of land along that same stretch of coastline are more northerly than John o’Groats. But the real issue is that a journey from Land’s End to John o’Groats would require a series of zigzags. If you allow zigzags, then you could carom about the country in any pattern you wished and thus make the distance effectively infinite. I wanted to know what was the furthest you could travel in a straight line without crossing salt water. Laying a ruler across the page, I discovered to my surprise that the ruler tilted away from Land’s End and John o’Groats, like a deflected compass needle. The longest straight line actually started at the top left-hand side of the map at a lonely Scottish promontory called Cape Wrath. The bottom, even more interestingly, went straight through Bognor Regis.
Larry was right. It was a sign.
For the briefest of periods, I considered the possibility of travelling through Britain along my newly discovered line (the Bryson Line, as I would like it now to become generally known, since I was the one who discovered it), but I could see almost at once that that wouldn’t be practical or even desirable. It would mean, if I took it literally, going through people’s houses and gardens, tramping across trackless fields, and fording rivers, which was clearly crazy; and if I just tried to stay close to it, it would mean endlessly picking my way through suburban streets in places like Macclesfield and Wolverhampton, which didn’t sound terribly rewarding either. But I could certainly use the Bryson Line as a kind of beacon, to guide my way. I determined that I would begin and end at its terminal points, and visit it from time to time en route when I conveniently could and when I remembered to do so, but I wouldn’t force myself to follow it religiously. It would be, rather, my terminus ad quem, whatever exactly that means. Along the way, I would, as far as possible, avoid the places I went on the first trip (too much danger of standing on a corner and harrumphing at how things had deteriorated since I was last there) and instead focus on places I had never been, in the hope I could see them with fresh, unbiased eyes.
I particularly liked the idea of Cape Wrath. I know nothing about it — it could be a caravan park, for all I know — but it sounded rugged and wave-battered and difficult to get to, a destination for a serious traveller. When people asked me where I was bound, I could gaze towards the northern horizon with a set expression and say: “Cape Wrath, God willing.” I imagined my listeners giving a low whistle of admiration and replying, “Gosh, that’s a long way.” I would nod in grim acknowledgement. “Not even sure if there’s a tearoom,” I would add.
But before that distant adventure, I had hundreds of miles of historic towns and lovely countryside to get through, and a visit to the celebrated English seaside at Bognor.
Excerpted from “The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson. Copyright © 2016 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.