11 Travel Memoirs That Will Transport You to England
These memoirs take readers on a lighthearted journey to the British Isles.
Sometimes reading a good travel memoir can be as enjoyable as taking a trip — and the logistics are certainly easier! England is my happy place and over the years I’ve enjoyed it both in person and vicariously through a host of memoirs about other Americans’ adventures in England. I put together this list of my favorite lighthearted memoirs to help fellow travelers and Anglophiles enjoy their own vicarious trips across The Pond.
The list is arranged roughly in order of the time period in which the authors’ experiences took place. Together, they form an American view of England that spans most of the 20th and early 21st century. Many of the books on this list are less well-known today but are worth seeking out.
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1942) by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
The Roaring Twenties are barely underway when 19-year-old coeds Cornelia Otis and Emily Kimbrough convince their parents to let them take a solo trip to England and France. The pair are soon entangled in one mishap after another, from an unexpected bout of measles that threatens to derail the trip before they even disembark in Southampton, to a traumatic afternoon in the maze at Hampton Court Palace, to a peculiar encounter with the author H.G. Wells. The two flappers rampage across England and then France with all the panache of the young and clueless.
With Malice Toward Some (1938) by Margaret Halsey
Margaret Halsey’s memoir is full of biting yet witty observations about her adjustment to rural Devonshire during the year she and her husband lived there while he was on a faculty exchange. Halsey’s book focuses on a part of England that’s been less well-documented by travel writers over the years, capturing a snapshot of Devonshire in the mid-1930s. This award-winning memoir was a bestseller in its day but can be a bit difficult to find today.
Forty Plus and Fancy Free (1954) by Emily Kimbrough
Emily Kimbrough was a prolific author, and in addition to co-writing Our Hearts Were Young and Gay with Cornelia Otis Skinner, she wrote more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles in magazines such as The New Yorker, Ladies Home Journal, and Atlantic Monthly over the course of her career. Forty Plus and Fancy Free is a humorous account of Kimbrough’s 1953 trip to Italy and England, culminating in her live reporting on CBS Radio during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
84, Charing Cross Road (1970) and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973) by Helene Hanff
84, Charing Cross Road spans 20 years of correspondence (1949–1968) between acerbic New York writer Helene Hanff and reserved English bookseller Frank Doel. The sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, recounts Hanff’s long-anticipated journey to England. I highly recommend reading the two books consecutively (they’re both quick reads and are sometimes published in a single volume); once you’ve read 84, Charing Cross Road, you’ll want to find out what happens when Hanff finally takes her big trip across The Pond. The film adaptation starring Anne Bancroft as Helene, Anthony Hopkins as Frank, and Judi Dench in a small role as Frank’s wife Nora, is one of those rare movie adaptations that actually does the book justice.
My Love Affair with England (1992) by Susan Allen Toth
I was already an avid Anglophile by the time I encountered this book, but I fell even more deeply in love with England as I read Susan Toth’s heartwarming account of her English adventures. From her first visit in 1960 through succeeding visits over the next 30 years, Toth discovers there are many unexpected layers to her love affair with England. Toth also wrote two enjoyable follow-ups, England as You Like It (1995) and England for All Seasons (1997).
Looking for Class (1993) by Bruce Feiler
New York Times columnist and best-selling author Bruce Feiler transports readers to the gleaming spires of Cambridge University as he chronicles the year he spent working on a master’s degree in international relations and jumping headlong into all the cultural and social traditions the venerated university had to offer. By the time you’re done reading it, you’ll feel as if you’ve just spent a year at Cambridge too.
Notes from a Small Island (1995) by Bill Bryson
Undoubtedly the best-known travel memoir on this list, Notes from a Small Island documents Bill Bryson’s ambitious effort to explore the nooks and crannies of Great Britain while relying almost entirely on public transportation. Bryson’s humorous and thoughtful insights into the people he meets, the places he visits, and the history and traditions he encounters made this one of the most popular travel memoirs of the 20th century. In 2003, BBC Radio 4 listeners chose Notes from a Small Island as the book that best represents England, an amazing accolade for a book written by an American author.
The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island (2015) by Bill Bryson
In this witty and endearing follow-up to Notes from a Small Island, Bryson takes to the road again, this time traveling the length of Great Britain, from the seaside town of Bognor Regis in the south of England to Cape Wrath, Scotland, which by his calculation is the northernmost edge of Great Britain. Along the way, he explores parts of the island that are seldom found on a typical tourist itinerary. Bryson’s affectionate tribute to his adopted country — which doesn’t make any attempt to whitewash the UK’s sharp corners — does a beautiful job of explaining why there are so many Anglophiles in the world. I found myself laughing out loud page after page.
The Siren Song of England
The poet Robert Browning famously wrote “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there.” If spring has turned your thoughts to England, dip into some of these travel memoirs for a satisfying armchair trip to the British Isles.