American writer Bill Bryson has just been made president of the Campaign To Protect Rural England. He talks exclusively about why he loves and misses Yorkshire so much.
Bill Bryson's first book, The Lost Continent, opens with the deadpan: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."
It may have been the funniest line of any of his books, summing up as it does, in magnificently damning understatement, the flat and featureless agricultural land of the US Midwest – a provenance it's difficult to boast about.
Iowa was the place that repelled young Bill Bryson, causing him to travel the world and, in his mid-20s, put down roots in Britain. Leaving behind millions of acres of cereal crops, he found a smaller and more characterful land to call his home.
Apart from a few years of madness in the late 1990s, when he and his English wife Cynthia took their children to experience life in America by moving to New England, Bryson has made Old England his home.
Before leaving, that home was a stone cottage at Kirkby Malham in the Yorkshire Dales. From there, Bryson launched what was to become a phenomenally successful career as a writer of armchair travel books that dwell more on people than places.
Since their return, the Brysons have lived in a 19th century rectory in Norfolk. Now 56, the writer has, in the last decade, rarely been out of the bestseller lists, with books like Neither Here Nor There, Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, Down Under, and his potted guide to science, A Short History of Nearly Everything.
His compatriots don't get Bryson's wry wit, nor his parodying of himself as a tourist. But Middle England has taken him to its heart, embracing him as the foreigner who mucks in and plays darts, who chuckles at the flutterings of elderly ladies in tea shops and raps sloppy service where he finds it. Bradford may even have recovered from being described as a city whose role is to make other places look good.
Having tramped across more miles of these islands, for work and pleasure, than most of us will do in a lifetime, Bryson has a very real appreciation of the highs and lows of both urban and rural Britain.
Early on, he fell in love with the English countryside. Hailing from Iowa, there was every chance that he would.
"I come from a place where the land is just a resource whose output is maximised, a part of the world where there is very little 'built' history and the people who moved on to the land didn't bother to add features to the landscape.
"I now live in Norfolk, which is also flat but much more appealing, because there are steeples, ponds, pubs, and hedgerows. In the countryside here, so much of what you see is manmade, like the dry stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and North York Moors. They're there for a practical reason, but they also create character and beauty."
Bryson's love-in with the English countryside is, in a sense, mutual. Today he is appointed president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which exists to preserve and enhance the countryside for everyone.
He got the job after approaching the CPRE to suggest a new litter campaign (this is the biggest of his many bug-bears). The incumbent president, writer and broadcaster Max Hastings, was about to leave after five years. Bryson, with his high profile and affection for the countryside that he wears on his sleeve was seen as the ideal successor.
"It's a big honour for me," he says. "It's a job I'm happy to do because England has been very good to me, and anything I can do to help to improve the countryside and give something back I will gladly do."
"I think it's a brilliant achievement that for hundreds and hundreds of years the British people have created countryside that they have made both economically productive and kept beautiful. So much of what we see is man-made, put there for a purpose – but as an accidental by-product it is also attractive, part of the beauty of the landscape. But maybe we take too much for granted in the effort put in by farmers to preserve what is so attractive about the land.
"If you take hill farming, it's never going to be that economically productive, yet if you took the hundreds of sheep off the hillside the landscape would change dramatically and it would return to an almost jungle state, rather than the gorsey hillside we love to walk through.
"Most people don't want that change to happen. But how do we support farmers in the future, so that they continue to look after the land we all want to enjoy and they need a living from? They either go out of business or we help them to stay. We all need to be part of that debate."
Much as he adores our small cramped land, in his 34-year relationship with it he has seen changes he can only lament. His bugbears include the loss of clear starry skies thanks to light pollution from built-up areas.
He's exasperated at the positioning of power company pylons across hill-tops. "They could be put lower down, where they would fade into the landscape behind, but they are put where it is cheapest to put them...
"The country is said to have lost around 250,000 miles of hedgerow since the Second World War. In the 1950s and '60s there was a policy of removing them to make bigger, more productive fields. Like dry stone walls, they are not listed or protected in any way, yet they ought to be considered precious. More recently some farmers have received financial support to put hedgerows back in, but it's all very ad hoc."
Top of Bryson's agenda is the scourge of litter in the countryside. His mild, jovial manner becomes, momentarily, rather agitated. "In towns and cities litter is a problem, but generally there is a decent system for cleaning it up.
"In the countryside, people just drop their cans, paper, bags and clam-shell boxes on grass verges and in lay-bys. There are bins and signs, yet people neither use the bin nor want to take their rubbish home, and so much modern litter does not degrade." His answer would be a campaign of public education alongside much stiffer penalties.
"You need punishment that stings – a 500 fine and a weekend of community service for dropping anything. And fly tipping should be punishable with a 2,500 fine and 10 days in jail. The fines would be a good source of income, part of which could help to look after the countryside."
Bill Bryson thinks that, although he would always get involved in good causes, countryside campaigning would not be such a passion if he'd stayed in the US.
"The British have a different relationship with the countryside than the Americans. People here are much more intimate with it and fond of it, and each hill or wood has a name. This is one of the things I came to love very quickly."
Having seen at close quarters what living in a National Park means both for residents and the landscape itself, Bryson believes every inch of Britain's countryside deserves similar status.
"Most of Britain's countryside is fantastic, so why are the Yorkshire Dales a National Park and Cornwall not? I adored living in Yorkshire, and I miss it every day, but all of the different landscapes are lovely and worthy of special treatment. Of course that means money, but wouldn't it be a worthy investment?"
His next book, out this autumn, is a concise biography of William Shakespeare. In between spells of writing, he reads and walks.
"You can set out and feel your heart sinking at the sight of 800 other people climbing the same hill. But by the time you get to the top you're enjoying the sense of comradeship, the friendliness of others who love the country as you do."