Pointing to a better countryside

Best-selling author and Norfolk resident Bill Bryson is to become the new president of one of the country's longest-running environmental bodies. He tells environment correspondent TARA GREAVES about his crusade to rid the countryside, particularly in his adopted home county, of litter.

Best-selling author and Norfolk resident Bill Bryson is to become the new president of one of the country's longest-running environmental bodies. He tells environment correspondent TARA GREAVES about his crusade to rid the countryside, particularly in his adopted home county, of litter.

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His love of England is obvious. Not only has he upped sticks from America and set up home here (twice) but he has written best-selling books celebrating the eccentricities which make Britain great.

Now Bill Bryson, who lives in south Norfolk, has the chance to add his own mark on part of this country's heritage - our celebrated countryside.

As he prepares to take over as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) - one of the oldest environmental bodies in the country - he makes it clear he is planning to get to the heart of the issues. And top of his hitlist is litter.

“There is quite a lot of it in Norfolk and it is getting worse. Although it must be said, Norfolk is not bad compared with some other places. I spend a lot of time on the A11 and the A47 and there are stretches of both those roads that just break your heart. And it isn't just a Norfolk problem, it's the same as you get into Suffolk and Cambridgeshire,” he said.

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“I talked to a lot of people about it and most don't like it and wish it wasn't there but no one really does anything about it and I just thought I would make this my one crusade in life.”

One of the organisations he spoke to was the CPRE, which has been influencing policy and raising awareness ever since it was founded by Patrick Abercrombie in 1926.

County branches soon started to appear to support CPRE's work at a local level and in November 1933 a meeting was held to form the Norfolk branch.

In the 1930s, hot topics for the charity, which promotes the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of rural England, included advertising hoard-ings, litter and the disappearance of hedgerows.

It seems many of the same issues are still around today.

“I went to see them about two months ago and they were very keen on doing something about litter and invited me to become president,” said Mr Bryson.

“I feel very honoured; this is a big deal for me. The CPRE isn't nearly as famous or nearly as appreciated as it ought to be. It is responsible for an awful lot of things that are wonderful about this country, things like green belts and national parks, which it was instrumental in forming, and much else besides.

“It has been doing this stuff, quietly and heroically, for 80 years, so it is not only a personal honour to be associated with it but it is a wonderful opportunity to work with an organisation which has got so much distinction behind it.”

Mr Bryson, who is being put forward for election at the national organisation's annual general meeting on July 9, will take over from newspaper columnist and military historian Sir Max Hastings.

And if there are any raised eyebrows about an American - albeit one who has spent much of his adult life living in the UK - picking up the mantle for England, CPRE chairman Sir Nigel Thompson said: “We're just delighted that Bill has agreed to be put forward as CPRE president. He's a person who communicates how wonderful and precious England's countryside is to the widest possible audience.

“He has particular concerns about some kinds of damage to the countryside, such as litter, and we'll be working with him on those. But Bill understands and supports our fight across the board.”

James Frost, branch director of CPRE Norfolk, added: “Bill Bryson is someone that has the English countryside at his heart.

“I am delighted that he will be representing CPRE as its president and we look forward to working with him here in Norfolk.

“Having travelled the four corners of the world, Mr Bryson is now settled in our fair county, so clearly the Norfolk landscape is something he feels strongly about. I hope that his profile encourages others to think about the future of our countryside and ensure its vitality for the years to come.”

His anti-litter campaign should get under way in the next few months.

“It is quite simple, there are two things you need to do; you need to stop people dropping litter and I think you do that by educating them, not just in school, but by reminding them that this is a really gorgeous country and you shouldn't trash it. If that doesn't work you punish them and give them fines - and fines that really hurt, that make them think twice before they roll down a window and throw something,” said Mr Bryson.

“The second thing is you have to clean it up when it is dropped. I live near Wymondham and a lot of litter gets dropped on a Saturday night and it all gets swept up but where we are not doing such a good job is in the countryside, in laybys and dual carriageways and places like that.

“I drive by Thetford all the time and there is one particular stretch that is covered in litter and you can see a lot of it has been there for months and it is somebody's legal responsibility to clean it up and it's not happening.”

Although Norfolk has been his family home since 2003, he confesses that he has not seen as much of the county as he would like.

“I am ashamed to say that although I have been living there for four years now and there is so much of it that I have only barely seen or haven't seen at all,” said Mr Bryson, who is married with four children.

“Like most people I really like the north Norfolk coast and when we do have time my wife and I will sometimes go up there for a day out. I especially like it out of season and when it is nippy outside.”

Professionally, his latest book takes yet another fork in the road of his literary career.

“I am releasing a slightly unusual project for me - a book called the Concise Biography of William Shakespeare which is one of a series of concise biographies of famous people,” he said.

“It's not because the world needed another biography of William Shakespeare, there are plenty of those already, but the series is trying to do all the great people and they asked me to do him and I really enjoyed it. It was a huge amount of fun and an interesting project.”

To find out more about the CPRE, visit www.cprenorfolk.org.uk.

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