Please sign in to post.

Your Favorite Travel Writing on England and Wales?

Hi Everyone-
My husband and I are planning a trip to England and Wales this summer, and looking for suggestions for "pre-reading" for the trip. When we went to Scotland a few years ago, someone on this board happened to mention "Raw Spirit" by Iain Banks, and I found a used copy somewhere. Reading it before our trip was an immeasurable gift, and enriched our experience so much...from the joys of driving in Scotland, to regional differences, to restaurant recommendations, and of course the search for the perfect dram. It was also such a fantastic snapshot of a place and a moment in time that really opened our eyes before we even got on the plane, so that we were so much more ready to drink in (no pun intended) the people and the culture when we arrived.
We’ve read (and I’m sure will re-read) the histories and classic fiction, and will brush up on our pop culture as well, but do you have any favorites about England and Wales that we shouldn’t miss? I picked up a copy of “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson, and have also ordered “The English: A Portrait of a People” by Jeremy Paxman and “Watching the English” by Kate Fox. Thanks in advance for your suggestions!


Posted by
4684 posts

"Notes From a Small Island" has some overtones for me of "American angry that Britain isn't the way it looks in movies/TV set in the thirties".

Posted by
964 posts

You already have the 2 I would recommend- Bill Bryson and Jeremy Paxman. I enjoyed both.

Posted by
521 posts

'Real England' by Paul Kingsnorth. The author takes a different and much more radical view of what's wrong with England than Paxman, Fox, Bryson or even Theroux (who I'll come back to later). He paints a depressing but (in my view) entirely accurate picture of this country and the reasons why it has become so bland and homogenous over the last 30 or 40 years - everything he describes is completely recognisable to me, but may come as a shock to visitors who think of England as Bath, the Cotswolds, Stratford, Changing of the Guard and tea at Fortnum and Mason.

Part of Bryson's complaint - that everywhere in England is now the same - is shared by Kingsnorth, although he doesn't go as far as Kingsnorth in attributing blame for this. However, I disagree with Philip's assessment and suggest that in fact 'Notes from a Small Island' is a very sympathetic and even sentimental review of England (he says Britain, but he's really talking about England) in the late 20th century. One of his closing paragraphs summarises this pretty well:

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.

If you want a real American curmugeon's view then you need 'Kingdom by the Sea' by Paul Theroux. It's dated now, telling the story of the author's trip around the English coast in the early 1980s. In many ways it describes a country that no longer exists, although elements of it certainly remain, even if Theroux often seems to have gone out of his way to find the grim, mean and depressing.

Posted by
1625 posts

I've been reading "Black Diamonds, the rise and fall of an English Dynasty" by Catherine Bailey. It's based on the Fitzwilliam family that owned coal mines outside of Sheffield and spans English history from the early 1900's though the 1940's. The HUGE house that the family owned and lived in still exists and is now open for tours. (Wentworth Woodhouse). Not the easiest reading, but has been interesting reading while I'm planning our trip for next fall. I'm currently in pre WWII years, and the Kennedy's have entered the book.

Posted by
1976 posts

These aren't travel books, but I loved All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and other books by James Herriot, a large-animal vet in the Yorkshire Dales. During the second half of the 20th century, he wrote several books about his life as a vet. I read his books when I was in high school and they are the reason I wanted to go to England. His descriptions of the countryside and moors captivated me.

Posted by
1034 posts

An English Bill Bryson.
Stuart Maconie, has two travelogues. Of Pies and Prejudice is my fav...mainly the towns and countryside of the North.
Bill Bryson did a series for Yorkshire tv that may be on youtube.
For the area between the north dales and hadrians Wall.Englands last Wilderness is a good read.
For hikers....One Man and His Bog, and Pennine Walkies by Mark Wallington are easy page tuners

Posted by
5677 posts

So happy to hear that you enjoyed Raw Spirit! I hope you find something similar for other parts of the UK. Sadly, Iain Banks died this past year. But I'll always think of him when driving in Scotland or sipping a whisky.


Posted by
6908 posts

I haven't read any books about Wales but for England I loved Susan Allen Toth's books "My Love Affair With England" and "England As You Like It".

Have you checked RS' recommended reading lists for Great Britain?

Posted by
2249 posts

I loved the non-fiction book, 84Charing Cross Road. It gave a prospective of the food shortage in Uk after WWII as well as being very entertaining. The address was a book store in London which now has sadly become a pizza shop, was so disappointed to finally get there and not be able to see it as it was in the book.

Posted by
54 posts

Thanks to everyone who replied! I've tracked down copies of nearly all your suggestions, and we're looking forward to diving in!

Posted by
332 posts

In Search of London by H.v. Morton. A wonderful book about the city first published in 1951.