Journey 4: William Cobbett
William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1821-6) criss-crossed the southern counties – Surrey, Hampshire, Wiltshire. Appropriately they began at the highest point in south east England: Leith Hill, from where a rolling panorama unfolds in every direction.
At the time, England was in flux. The Napoleonic Wars were over, but returning soldiers found the countryside no longer had jobs for them.
Cobbett was convinced this was endemic of a nation tearing its own heart out – that heart being agriculture.
Indignation at the treatment of farm workers resounds throughout Rural Rides. Wages had more than halved while Cobbett had been abroad in the army, and he describes people as reduced to ‘walking skeletons’.
When Cobbett was young, the countryside was a teeming patchwork of small strips, each individually worked. He once counted 84 people in one view, all toiling on their separate pieces of land.
But as he rode round in 1823, this vista was increasingly hard to find.
The cause was ‘enclosure’. Enclosure converted dozens or even hundreds of small strips into large single fields. Single fields suited the emerging machinery, better supplied the booming population and were more profitable for their owners – but they took away a lifestyle and livelihood.
Hunting was another of Cobbett’s passions. To him, it was vital that rural communities had shared activities, and hunting was top of his list.
He’d find plenty of supporters for his views in today’s English shires.
That’s because hunting was under fire in Cobbett’s day, just as it is now. Then, the Evangelical Church targeted it in order to reform the ‘lower orders’. Cobbett fiercely opposed this, claiming that the rural rich and poor alike had a taste for blood and were proud of their ‘manly’ sports.
Although Cobbett’s route is easy to retrace, the experience is often markedly different. The four mile road from Godalming to Guildford, for example, no longer qualifies as among England’s prettiest journeys, which is how Cobbett saw it!About Portsdown Hill
Cobbett felt it “impossible that there can be, anywhere, a better corn country than this.” The oblong hill was covered in the best corn harvest he’d seen for ten years. Today it’s become an urban sprawl: housing, factories, a slag heap…
The New Forest still operates the ancient principle of Commoner’s Rights.
Cobbett felt these rights – to shared grazing land for cows, ponies and especially pigs – was essential for a healthy agricultural economy.
Pigs were everywhere in Cobbett’s day. He describes the ruins of a chapel near Beaulieu as overrun with sow, and waxed lyrical about their importance to “tradition, neighbourliness and good living in community”. Pigs, he believed, would save the working class.
The government claimed Britain’s population was booming in the 1800s. In the first two decades, they estimated it rose from 10 million to 14 million.
Cobbett disagreed, vehemently.
He felt these claims were part of a conspiracy to justify low wages and enclosure. Riding round the Avon Valley, he argued that the astonishing number and size of churches compared to people proved the population must have declined.
Climbing a hill near Salisbury, Cobbett met a labourer who bitterly cursed the times.
“There must be a change,” wrote Cobbett. “A complete and radical change; or England must become a country of the basest slavery that ever disgraced the earth?”
He believed an end to current trends was inevitable, and that when it came it would be dreadful. Just a few years later, in 1830, that end came.
- Nicholas Crane