Notes from a Small Island
Author:Bill Bryson

chapter Twenty-Nine
I SPENT ANOTHER DAY IN GLASGOW POKING ABOUT, NOT SO MUCH because I wanted to be there, but because it was a Sunday and I couldn't get a train home beyond Carlisle. (The Settle-to-Carlisle service doesn't run on Sundays in winter because there is no demand for its services. That there may be no demand for its services because it doesn't run appears not to have occurred to British Rail.) So I wandered far and wide through the wintry streets, and had a respectful look round the museums, Botanic Gardens and Necropolis, but really all I wanted to do was go home, which was understandable, I think, because I missed my family and my own bed and, besides, when I walk around my home I don't have to watch out for dog shit and vomit slicks with every step I take.

And so the following morning, in a state of giddy excitement, I boarded the 8.10 from Glasgow Central to Carlisle and there, after a refreshing cup of coffee in the station buffet, caught the 11.40 train to Settle.

The Settle-to-Carlisle line is the most celebrated obscure line in the world. British Rail has been wanting to close it down for years on the grounds that it doesn't pay its way, which is the most mad and preposterous line of argument imaginable.

We've been hearing this warped reasoning for so long about so many things that it has become received wisdom, but when you think about it for even a nanosecond it is perfectly obvious that most worthwhile things don't begin to pay for themselves. If you followed this absurd logic any distance at all, you would have to get rid of traffic lights, lay-bys, schools, drains, national parks, museums, universities, old people and much else besides. So why on earth should something as useful as a railway line, which is generally much more agreeable than old people, and certainly less inclined to bitch and twitter, have to demonstrate even the tiniest measure of economic viability to ensure its continued existence? This is a line of thinking that must be abandoned at once.

Having said that, it can't be denied that the Settle-to-Carlisle line has always had something of the air of folly about it. In 1870, when James Allport, general manager of the Midland Railway, took it into his head to build a main line north, there was already an east coast line and a west coast line, so he decided to drive one up the middle, even though it went from nowhere much to nowhere much by way of nothing at all. The whole thing cost £3.5 million, which doesn't sound much now, but translates to some fantastic sum like £487 trillion billion or something. Anyway, it was enough to convince everyone who knew anything about railways that Allport was totally off his head - as in fact he was.

Because the line went through an insanely bleak and forbidding stretch of the Pennines, Allport's engineers had to come up with all kinds of contrivances to make it work, including twenty viaducts and twelve tunnels. This wasn't some eccentric, pootling narrow-gauge line, you understand; this was the nineteenth century's bullet train, something that would allow passengers to fly across the Yorkshire Dales - if, that is, anyone had wanted to, and hardly anyone did.

So from the very beginning it lost money. But who cares? It is a wonderful line, gorgeous in every respect, and I intended to enjoy every minute of my one-hour-and-forty-minute, 71%-mile journey. Even when you live near Settle, it isn't often you find a reason to use the line, so I sat with my face close to the glass and waited eagerly for the line's famous landmarks - Blea Moor Tunnel, almost 2,300 yards long; Dent Station, the highest in the country; the glorious Ribblehead Viaduct, a quarter of a mile long, 104 feet high and with twenty-four graceful arches - and in between I enjoyed the scenery, which is not just spectacular and unrivalled but speaks to me with a particular siren voice.

I suppose everybody has a piece of landscape somewhere that he finds captivating beyond words and mine is the Yorkshire Dales. I can't altogether account for it because you can easily find more dramatic landscapes elsewhere, even in Britain. All I can say is thatthe Dales seized me like a helpless infatuation when I first saw them and will not let me go. Partly, I suppose, it is the exhilarating contrast between the high fells, with their endless views, and the relative lushness of the valley floors, with their clustered villages and green farms. To drive almost anywhere in the Dales is to make a constant transition between these two hypnotic zones. It is wonderful beyond words. And partly it is the snug air of self-containment that the enclosing hills give, a sense that the rest of the world is far away and unnecessary, which is something you come to appreciate very much when you live there.

Every dale is a little world of its own to an extraordinary degree. I remember one sunny afternoon when we were new to our dale a car overturned in the road outside our gate with a frightful bang and a noise of scraping metal. The driver, it turned out, had clipped a grass bank and run up against a field wall, which had flipped the car onto its roof. I rushed out to find a local woman hanging upside down by her seatbelt, bleeding gently from a scalp wound and muttering dazed sentiments along the lines of having to get to the dentist and that this wouldn't do at all. While I was hopping around and making hyperventilating noises, two farmers arrived in a Land-Rover and climbed out. They gently hauled the lady from the car and sat her down on a rock. Then they righted the car and manoeuvred it out of the way. While one of them led the lady off to have a cup of tea and get her head seen to by his wife, the other scattered sawdust on an oil slick, directed traffic for a minute till the road was clear, then winked at me and climbed into his Land-Rover and drove off. The whole thing was over in less than five minutes and never involved the police or ambulance services or even a doctor. An hour or so later someone came along with a tractor and hauled the car away and it was as if it had never happened.

They do things differently in the Dales, you see. For one thing, people who know you come right in your house. Sometimes they knock once and shout 'Hullo!' before sticking their head in, but often they don't even do that. It's an unusual experience to be standing at the kitchen sink talking to yourself animatedly and doing lavish, raised-leg farts and then turning around to find a fresh pile of mail lying on the kitchen table. And I can't tell you the number of times I've had to dart into the pantry in my underpants at the sound of someone's approach and cowered breathless while they've shouted, 'Hullo! Hullo! Anyone t'home?' For a couple of minutes you can hear them clumping around in the kitchen, examining the messages on the fridge and holding the mail to the light. Then they come over to the pantry door and in a quiet voice they say, 'Just taking six eggs, Bill - all right?'

When we announced to friends and colleagues in London that we were moving to a village in Yorkshire, a surprising number made a sour face and said: 'Yorkshire? What, with Yorkshire people? How very . . . interesting.' Or words to that effect.

I've never understood why Yorkshire people have this terrible reputation for being mean-spirited and uncharitable. I've always found them to be decent and open, and if you want to know your shortcomings, you won't find more helpful people anywhere. It's true that they don't exactly smother you with affection, which takes a little getting used to if you hail from a more gregarious part of the world, like anywhere else. Where I come from in the American Midwest if you move into a village or little town everybody comes to your house to welcome you like this is the happiest day in the history of the community - and everyone brings you a pie. You get apple pies and cherry pies and chocolate-cream pies. There are people in the Midwest who move house every six months just to get the pies.

In Yorkshire, that would never happen. But gradually, little by little, they find a corner for you in their hearts, and begin to acknowledge you when they drive past with what I call the Malhamdale wave. This is an exciting day in the life of any new arrival. To make the Malhamdale wave, pretend for a moment that you are grasping a steering wheel. Now very slowly extend the index finger of your right hand as if you were having a small involuntary spasm. That's it. It doesn't look like much, but it speaks volumes, believe me, and I shall miss it very much.

I lost myself in a little reverie along these lines and then, with a start, I realized I was in Settle and my wife was waving to me from the platform. Suddenly my trip was over. I hastened from the train in a state of confusion, like someone wakened in the middle of the night by an emergency, and felt as if this was somehow not the right termination at all. This was all too abrupt.

We drove home over the tops, a winding, six-mile drive of unutterable loveliness, up on to the Wuthering Heights-like expanses around Kirkby Fell, with boundless views of Northern glory, and then began the descent into the serene, cupped majesty of Malhamdale, the little lost world that had been my home forseven years. Halfway down, I had my wife stop the car by a field gate. My favourite view in the world is there, and I got out to have a look. You can see almost the whole of Malhamdale; sheltered and snug beneath steep, imposing hills, with its arrow-straight drystone walls climbing up impossibly ambitious slopes, its clustered hamlets, its wonderful little two-room schoolhouse, the old church with its sycamores and tumbling tombstones, the roof of my local pub, and in the centre of it all, obscured by trees, our old stone house, which itself is far older than my native land.

It looked so peaceful and wonderful that I could almost have cried, and yet it was only a tiny part of this small, enchanted island. Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bee and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a naval hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.

How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.

All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you. And then I turned from the gate and got in the car and knew without doubt that I would be back.