OF ALL THE HARDY breeds of men to have sprung from the sceptered isle, few are as doughty as the British travel writer, and none is as entertaining. Their heyday fell between the world wars, as they fled gloomy and repressive England in search of the sun, fresh oranges and catamites. Their numbers included D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and W.H. Auden, to name just a handful. The acknowledged masterpiece of the genre was Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana, an account of an arduous, year-long trek through Persia and Afghanistan in the 1930s. The world has shrunk since then, but these journeyers are still out there, floating down rivers, taking dangerous trains, hiking in thin air. The contemporary travel book classics include Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia and Jonathan Raban's Old Glory. Now we have Simon Winchester's The Sun Never Sets, a brilliant and delightful addition to the long and distinguished shelf of British literary odysseys.

These writers are no mere adventurers, as the list above suggests. They are gentlemen-scholars, combining the skills of the navigator, geologist, botanist, meteorologist, naturalist, mechanic, historian, cartographer, pharmacist, detective, novelist, snob, humorist, mimic, and stamp collector. In short, they know bloody everything. This is an extremely annoying British trait, but there it is.

The book is a series of journeys to the "sixteen groups of rocks and atolls and ice-islands" over which the Union Jack still flies. "Not a massive Empire," the author concedes, "but an Empire nonetheless." When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, she could claim as subjects one quarter of the inhabitants of the globe. In 1981 Queen Elizabeth was able to number only 5.2 million overseas subjects -- one eightieth the previous number -- and of those, 5.1 million lived in Hong Kong.

Winchester set out to investigate these remnants of empire. Occasionally this meant very hard going, there being no regular, commercial way of getting to many of these places. His peregrinations landed him in the Falklands on the eve of the late unpleasantness; in Diego Garcia, a strategic flyspeck in the Indian Ocean; on the volcanic and asthma-inducing Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic; as well as amongst the offshore bankers of the Cayman islands and the loathesome apes of Gibraltar.

Britain's first colony was Newfoundland, it's newest Anguilla (1962). Winchester traveled to nearly every remaining one, to Ascension Island, the most lovely; Hong Kong, the most extraordinary, with more Rolls-Royces per head than anywhere else, even Beverly Hills; Bermuda, the oldest remaining Crown Colony; Turks and Caicos, the most neglected; the British Virgin Islands, the most old-fashioned, where they still flog prisoners; the Cayman islands, more telex machines per head than anywhere else; Saint Helena, the "most perfectly preserved Imperial relic." He did not make it to Pitcairn island, of Bounty fame, the most isolated of Britain's colonies, but he includes a marvelous story about a mad American millionaire who tried to buy one of its outlying islands so as to secrete himself from the coming communist invasion.

"Might it be possible, I mused, to visit all these places and catch, possibly for the very last time before progress and political reality snuffed it out for ever, something of the spirit of the old Imperial ambition -- to see what remained, and find out what it had all been like, and why it had been so grand, why it had lasted so long, why it had died so quickly, but yet had seemingly refused to die completely?"

It was. Winchester was well-equipped for his travels. He is anti-imperial and anti-colonial by nature, but he is also wise and sympathetic, and as a result rather open-minded. He carried no idee' fixe in his Gladstone bag. There is, I should warn, a slightly nasty anti-Americanism that creeps into his observations here and there; but he understands as well, and some of his comments are, alas, condign.

AND DESPITE his Manchester Guardian view of things, he turns out to be more of a colonialist than we might suspect, as when he finds himself watching the arrival ceremony for the colonial governor of Saint Helena "through a strange golden haze, which cleared if I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand: the children looked so proud, so eager to please, so keen to touch the hand from England, from the wellspring of their official existence."

He makes a compelling case for the Falklands War having been little more than a tragic waste of 1,300 lives. He blames both the hotheaded jingoes of the Argentine junta and the succession of British governments that failed to comprehend the seriousness with which the Argentines view their claim to their precious Islas Malvinas. The war, he concludes, quoting Jorge Luis Borges, was "like two bald men fighting over a comb."

For me the paramount joy of these books are the encounters, and this one teems with memorable colonial types, from the indomitable to the sad. We meet one formidable British nanny clumping off toward nearby Gibraltar, in sweltering heat, dressed in a severe grey coat and very sensible shoes. Why? "To buy a reliable kipper," she replies. On the other side of the world we find an old British actor, "a man for whom his bottle now seemed more comforting than his lines," reduced to playing the Hong Kong hotels "in place of the West End theaters he had once known."

WINCHESTER is not, on the other hand, a sentimentalist. The celebrated Gibraltar apes, those very symbols of British domination on whose behalf Prime Minister Winston Churchill once intervened, are described as "ogrous packages of green and grey fur, all teeth, stale fruit and urine."

He is an exquisite writer, and a deft anecdoteur. Apparently Napoleon spent his first night in exile on Saint Helena in the same room that months before had been rented out to his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington. Wellington later heard of the coincidence and wrote to the commander of the garrison on the island:

"You may tell 'Bony' . . . that I find his apartments at the Elisee Bourbon very convenient, and that I hope he likes mine (in Saint Helena) . . . It is a droll sequel enough to the affairs of Europe that we should change place of residence . . ."

Such moments are typical. Winchester's erudition, wit and eye for the telling detail produce an ephiphany on nearly every page.

In the end he finds the plight -- and it is just that -- of the remaining colonials lamentable. As the empire diminished, so did the Spirit of Empire. The remaining territories are administered out of a dusty warren in a shabby corner of the Foreign Office, the domain of bloodless Prufrocks who take up to a month to send a badly needed doctor to Saint Helena. Colonial rule is now characterized largely by " . . . poor decisions, ignorance, insouciance, obstruction and unkindness . . . It seems so unfair a lot for so good-hearted and so loyal a people."

Or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, musing on his stay at Reading Gaol, if this is how Her Majesty treats her prisoners, then she doesn't deserve to have any.

Finally, Winchester distills what was at the heart of the empire's success, what allowed it to rule so great a part of the world for so long:

"The ethos of Empire had never been . . . an ethos that had much to do with global dominion, or the fierce assertion of naked power. We had power, of course, and once possessed, power is a difficult thing to relinquish." (Vide Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe.) "But our success in making an Empire, in running it, in handing back and in winning the respect and, yes, the love even of those whom we had ruled -- our success in all this grand endeavour came in no small part because we cared. We felt we had a mission, a divine right. We attended to the There is, I should warn, a slightly nasty anti-Americanism that creeps into his observations here and there; but he understands as well, and some of his comments are, alas, condign.

AND DESPITE his Manchester Guardian view of things, he turns out to be more of a colonialist than we might suspect, as when he finds himself watching the arrival ceremony for the colonial governor of Saint Helena "through a strange golden haze, which cleared if I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand: the children looked so proud, so eager to please, so keen to touch the hand from England, from the wellspring of their official existence."

He makes a compelling case for the Falklands War having been little more than a tragic waste of 1,300 lives. He blames both the hotheaded jingoes of the Argentine junta and the succession of British governments that failed to comprehend the seriousness with which the Argentines view their claim to their precious Islas Malvinas. The war, he concludes, quoting Jorge Luis Borges, was "like two bald men fighting over a comb."

For me the paramount joy of these books are the encounters, and this one teems with memorable colonial types, from the indomitable to the sad. We meet one formidable British nanny clumping off toward nearby Gibraltar, in sweltering heat, dressed in a severe grey coat and very sensible shoes. Why? "To buy a reliable kipper," she replies. On the other side of the world we find an old British actor, "a man for whom his bottle now seemed more comforting than his lines," reduced to playing the Hong Kong hotels "in place of the West End theaters he had once known."

WINCHESTER is not, on the other hand, a sentimentalist. The celebrated Gibraltar apes, those very symbols of British domination on whose behalf Prime Minister Winston Churchill once intervened, are described as "ogrous packages of green and grey fur, all teeth, stale fruit and urine."

He is an exquisite writer, and a deft anecdoteur. Apparently Napoleon spent his first night in exile on Saint Helena in the same room that months before had been rented out to his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington. Wellington later heard of the coincidence and wrote to the commander of the garrison on the island:

"You may tell 'Bony' . . . that I find his apartments at the Elisee Bourbon very convenient, and that I hope he likes mine (in Saint Helena) . . . It is a droll sequel enough to the affairs of Europe that we should change place of residence . . ."

Such moments are typical. Winchester's erudition, wit and eye for the telling detail produce an ephiphany on nearly every page.

In the end he finds the plight -- and it is just that -- of the remaining colonials lamentable. As the empire diminished, so did the Spirit of Empire. The remaining territories are administered out of a dusty warren in a shabby corner of the Foreign Office, the domain of bloodless Prufrocks who take up to a month to send a badly needed doctor to Saint Helena. Colonial rule is now characterized largely by " . . . poor decisions, ignorance, insouciance, obstruction and unkindness . . . It seems so unfair a lot for so good-hearted and so loyal a people."

Or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, musing on his stay at Reading Gaol, if this is how Her Majesty treats her prisoners, then she doesn't deserve to have any.

Finally, Winchester distills what was at the heart of the empire's success, what allowed it to rule so great a part of the world for so long:

"The ethos of Empire had never been . . . an ethos that had much to do with global dominion, or the fierce assertion of naked power. We had power, of course, and once possessed, power is a difficult thing to relinquish." (Vide Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe.) "But our success in making an Empire, in running it, in handing back and in winning the respect and, yes, the love even of those whom we had ruled -- our success in all this grand endeavour came in no small part because we cared. We felt we had a mission, a divine right. We attended to the details of the thing."

When the sun that never set was at high noon, the empire had Kipling to compose the odes. It might surprise some to learn that the immortal saying had nothing to do with sunny In-ja or Singapore or Pitcairn Island. It was written in Germany by Schiller for Phillip II of Spain. But it should not surprise that the empire, in twilight, could produce a Simon Winchester to make the journey, pick up the pieces and try to make sense of the thing.