Bill Bryson: Countryside crusader

Rural England has a new guardian. Paul Mackenzie spoke to best-selling American author Bill Bryson about our beautiful countryside and shooting litter louts

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. He has a great affection for Britain and its countryside. In his book 'Notes from a Small Island', Bill says, 'One of the primary reasons so much of the British landscape is so unutterably lovely and timeless is that most farmers take the trouble to keep it that way.'

But although he is, as he is always described, affable, cheery and jolly, he is starting to get angry. In the same book he says of Liverpool, one of the places he visits on his travels around the country, 'They were having a festival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in rubbish bags.'

Bill's presidency of the CPRE therefore 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.'

Bill approached the CPRE where he was welcomed with open arms and was officially elected as their president for the next five years, taking over from newspaper columnist and military historian Sir Max Hastings, at its AGM in July.

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'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 �2,500 for fly-tipping would surely make people think twice.'

'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.'

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.

'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.'Article taken from August issue of Hertfordshire Life

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