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Bill Bryson, Champion of England

PUBLISHED: 14:06 14 November 2009 | UPDATED: 14:45 20 February 2013



BILL BRYSON found fame as a travel writer and he is still on the move. After 10 years in journalism he wrote the first of his shelf full of best-sellers and he is now president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

BILL BRYSON found fame as a travel writer and he is still on the move. After 10 years in journalism he wrote the first of his shelf full of best-sellers and he is now president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

His books are laced with humour and charm derived from his viewpoint as a fascinated and slightly bewildered outsider. But although he is, as he is always described, affable, cheery and jolly, he is starting to get angry.

His presidency of the CPRE follows a long-running personal crusade against litter, but he maintains the air of an accidental hero. The growing piles of litter he saw as he travelled the country annoyed him and he began to ask people at book signings and lectures to contact him if they too felt something ought to be done. He ended up with more than 900 emails in his inbox.

'I found myself at the head of this small army of disgruntled people, and I didn't know what to do with them,' he says. 'I thought, I don't know how to run a campaign - what am I thinking of? But I figured that those 900 people were just a specimen sample of the strength of feeling out there, and that we must tap into this in some way and see if we can't make a difference.'

He approached the CPRE where he was welcomed with open arms and will be officially elected as their president for the next five years, taking over from newspaper columnist and military historian Sir Max Hastings, at the AGM this month.

'Litter and fly-tipping are particular problems I'd like to see progress on; that has got much, much worse in the time I've been over here, it is becoming a chronic problem in some parts of the country and I think it needs to be much more of a priority.

'I have said there should be a shoot to kill policy for offenders - maybe that's a bit much but I do think there should be stiffer fines and community service orders for fly-tippers. That would get the message across loud and clear that it will not be tolerated. A fine of 250 for dropping litter and 2500 for fly-tipping would surely make people think twice.'

He is on a train as we speak, making his way home to Norfolk, and he adds: 'I'm looking out of the window and almost the entire route is lined with litter of one sort or another, and it's the same story along most major roads and railway lines as well, they are lined with unacceptable amounts of litter.

'In the towns there is litter but it gets swept up. In the countryside litter doesn't have a friend. It doesn't have anybody who's saying, wait a minute, this is really starting to get out of control.'

But contacting the CPRE about a litter campaign and becoming their next president are very different things. 'I read all their policy documents before I said yes and there was nothing in there I didn't agree with,' he says.

And he insists the outlook isn't all doom and gloom 'The countryside here is still in pretty wonderful condition. I don't think in any way that what England needed was a foreigner to come in and sort out a load of problems but I would argue that in some ways it's helpful for me to be an outsider because it means I really appreciate what there is here and don't take any of it for granted.'

Bill first came to England in 1973 as part of a European tour and decided to stay after taking a job in a psychiatric hospital in Surrey where he met a nurse called Cynthia who is now his wife and mother of his four children. He returned to the States with her to finish his degree but in 1977 they settled in North Yorkshire where they remained until 1995. He worked for The Times and The Independent but left journalism in 1987 and began work on his books which earned him an honorary OBE last year.

The family re-located to America in 1995, returning in 2003 to live near Norwich but his time away has only served to sharpen his affection for Britain. 'I am and always will be an American but I am settled in Britain, I've lived here about 30 years and it is a wonderful place to live.

'In certain cases the CPRE works to restore what used to be here as well as preserving what is here now. I would like there to be a concerted campaign to put the hedges back in lowland Britain and I am concerned about the death of the family farm and the crisis for farmers.

In some parts of America, such as Iowa where I am from, there are just ghost towns and you can see that problem increasing here. It's getting harder all the time for farmers but the CPRE can speak out on these issues on behalf of farmers and other people with an interest.

'There is roughly one acre of open space per person and every green belt development encroaches on that. In a place as crowded as Britain green space is something that should always be cherished. This is not the manufacturing nation it used to be and there are a lot of brown field sites which could be developed for business parks, shopping centres and housing.'

Critics of the CPRE have described it as a Nimbyish group more concerned with how the countryside looks like than how it operates, but Bill is convinced it is as relevant today as when it was formed in 1926. 'People here have a lot to be very proud about as far as the countryside is concerned but a lot of what the CPRE is about is preserving what's good.

'One of the most fundamental beliefs of the campaign is that farming is central to the future of the countryside. It is unthinkable to have a British countryside that doesn't have actual functioning farmers riding tractors, cows in fields, things like that.

'I'm sure there is hope for the future. It's a case of preserving what's really good, not re-creating it, because it's already there. For all the threats that the countryside faces, it is still a success story. It's not something we need to be depressed about, it's something worth celebrating.'


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