Seeking half-secret lands and the quiet ends of days in England
England's little country town of Saffron Walden hasn't totally escaped the rat race: It manufactures shuttlecocks. Every year the village of Egton honors the grower of the largest gooseberry (''It is measured round the middle and circumnavigated by grave judges''). In York you can find ''one of the happiest little streets in England,'' and one pull at the bell rope sets a cathedral bell to ringing a hundred times. In Ponteland, Yorkshire, ''there are still sharpening marks on the Norman door of the parish church where archers honed their arrows. . . .''
Such useless pearls have an irresistible attraction for me. But they aren't the only reason why I long to quote endlessly from Frank Entwistle's Abroad in England (W.W. Norton, $15). I want to share my delight in his delight in words: ''a company of incurious sheep,'' ''the two quiet ends of the day,'' an ''amiable cottage.''
I want to pluck at someone's sleeve and beg them to discover across ''the brown river Allan . . . a small half-secret land of farms and neat stone cottages,'' or to notice that Cotswold cottages are built of stone that is ''so sensitive to the light, so philanthropic with its colours.''
I want to shout ''yes, yes'' when Mr. Entwistle, commenting on the ideal size for towns, states dogmatically, ''All the best towns can be traversed with ease in less than half an hour by the vicar's mother on a bike.''
But, unlike most travel writers, Mr. Entwistle doesn't wander forever in a picture-postcard land of thatched cottages and ancient castles; he wants to share his enthusiasm for the vigor that is England's. He relishes the cathedral-like space of huge railroad stations, the vigor of new immigrants. He wonders what the Normans, ''who were pretty good themselves at building big and round and high,'' would have made of his beloved Ferrybridge power station.
Mr. Entwistle, a Yorkshireman himself, took to the road for about six months, gathering material for this very best kind of travel book, talking to people, wandering wherever his whim took him, ignoring some ''mandatory sights'' completely. He is no help at all with hotels, since he lived in his van, though he does tell more than I need to know about pubs. The touristy facts he omits are easy to find in the standard guidebooks, but why, oh why, didn't his publishers provide a map? On the other hand, at the head of every chapter they have given us exquisite drawings by John Bigg.
Whenever Frank Entwistle can't take in a favorite spot, he tells us about it anyway:
''As I drove into the many lands of Yorkshire the question was which one to choose. . . . I would like to see the Dales again, where villages lie like low outcrops of fieldstone that have been there since the ice retreated. I wanted to smell sphagnum moss, to climb into Gordale Scar where the white beck drops three hundred feet from rock to rock with no one there to hear the echoes but myself.''
James Herriot country, in fact, is what Mr. Entwistle was describing, and here is Herriot to fill the gap, not with new stories but with a selection of his own favorites about the Yorkshire Dales. But what really makes this magnificent volume (The Best of James Herriott, St. Martin's and the Reader's Digest Association, $19.95) new are its magnificent illustrations - big color photos, lively pen-and-wash sketches, meticulous drawings. Unfortunately, Mr. Herriot, surely the world's most famous veterinary surgeon, can make some of his more gruesome operations almost as vivid as the photographs. Judicial skipping pays off, for he has made friends with the country and its people and knows how to make his readers at home there.
Anglophiles with an historic bent will welcome the publication of an abridged version of The Lisle Letters, edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne (University of Chicago Press, $25), a family correspondence which, for those who are not discouraged by the archaic language, populates the 16th century with flesh-and-blood characters. Anglophiles whose historic leanings are pronounced will prefer the impressive six-volume uncut version.