Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Aug. 31st Aug to Sept. 4th, 1826: Salisbury to Highworth

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"Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail: saying, When will the new moon be gone that we may sell corn? And the Sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit; that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? Shall not the land tremble for this; and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? I will turn your feasting into mourning, saith the Lord God, and your songs into lamentations." --Amos, viii, 4 to 10.

Thursday, August 31, 1826.

THIS place, which is one of the rotten boroughs of Wiltshire, and which was formerly a considerable town, is now but a very miserable affair. Yesterday morning I went into the cathedral at Salisbury about 7 o'clock. When I got into the nave of the church, and was looking up and admiring the columns and the roof, I heard a sort of humming , in some place which appeared to be in the transept of the building. I wondered what it was, and made my way towards the place whence the noise appeared to issue. As I approached it, the noise seemed to grow louder. At last I thought I could distinguish the sounds of the human voice. This encouraged me to proceed; and still following the sound, I at last turned in at a doorway to my left, where I found a priest and his congregation assembled. It was a parson of some sort, with a white covering on him, and five women and four men: when I arrived there were five couple of us. I joined the congregation, until they came to the litany ; and then, being monstrously hungry, I did not think myself bound to stay any longer. I wonder what the founders would say if they could rise from the grave and see such a congregation as this in this most magnificent and beautiful cathedral? I wonder what they would say if they could know to what purpose the endowments of this cathedral are now applied; and above all things, I wonder what they would say if they could see the half-starved labourers that now minister to the luxuries of those who wallow in the wealth of those endowments. There is one thing, at any rate, that might be abstained from, by those that revel in the riches of those endowments; namely, to abuse and blackguard those of our forefathers from whom the endowments came, and who erected the edifice, and carried so far towards the skies that beautiful and matchless spire, of which the present possessors have the impudence to boast, while they represent as ignorant and benighted creatures those who conceived the grand design, and who executed the scientific and costly work. These fellows, in big white wigs, of the size of half a bushel, have the audacity, even within the walls of the cathedrals themselves, to rail against those who founded them; and Rennell and Sturges, while they were actually, literally, fattening on the spoils of the monastry of St. Swithin, at Winchester, were publishing abusive pamphlets against that catholic religion which had given them their very bread. For my part, I could not look up at the spire and the whole of the church at Salisbury without feeling that I lived in degenerate times. Such a thing never could be made now . We feel that, as we look at the building. It really does appear that if our forefathers had not made these buildings we should have forgotten, before now, what the Christian religion was!

At Salisbury, or very near to it, four other rivers fall into the Avon. The Wyly river, the Nadder, the Born, and another little river that comes from Norrington. These all become one, at last, just below Salisbury, and then, under the name of the Avon, wind along down and fall into the sea at Christchurch. In coming from Salisbury, I came up the road which runs pretty nearly parallel with the river Wyly, which river rises at Warminster and in the neighbourhood. This river runs down a valley twenty-two miles long. It is not so pretty as the valley of the Avon; but it is very fine in its whole length from Salisbury to this place (Heytesbury). Here are watered meadows nearest to the river on both sides; then the gardens, the houses, and the corn-fields. After the corn-fields come the downs; but, generally speaking, the downs are not so bold here as they are on the sides of the Avon. The downs do not come out in promontories so often as they do on the sides of the Avon. The Ah-ah , if I may so express it, is not so deep, and the sides of it not so steep, as in the case of the Avon; but the villages are as frequent; there is more than one church in every mile, and there has been a due proportion of mansion-houses demolished and defaced. The farms are very fine up this vale, and the meadows, particularly at a place called Stapleford, are singularly fine. They had just been mowed at Stapleford, and the hay carried off. At Stapleford there is a little cross valley, running up between two hills of the down. There is a little run of water about a yard wide at this time, coming down this little vale across the road into the river. The little vale runs up three miles. It does not appear to be half a mile wide; but in those three miles there are four churches; namely, Stapleford, Uppington, Berwick St. James, and Winterborne Stoke. The present population of these four villages is 769 souls, men, women, and children, the whole of whom could very conveniently be seated in the chancel of the church at Stapleford. Indeed, the church and parish of Uppington seem to have been united with one of the other parishes, like the parish in Kent which was united with North Cray, and not a single house of which now remains. What were these four churches built for within the distance of three miles? There are three parsonage-houses still remaining; but, and it is a very curious fact, neither of them good enough for the parson to live in! Here are seven hundred and sixty souls to be taken care of, but there is no parsonage-house for a soul-curer to stay in, or at least that he will stay in; and all the three parsonages are, in the return laid before parliament, represented to be no better than miserable labourers' cottages, though the parish of Winterborne Stoke has a church sufficient to contain two or three thousand people. The truth is, that the parsons have been receiving the revenues of the livings, and have been suffering the parsonage-houses to fall into decay. Here were two or three mansion-houses, which are also gone, even from the sides of this little run of water.

To-day has been exceedingly hot. Hotter, I think, for a short time, than I ever felt it in England before. In coming through a village called Wishford, and mounting a little hill, I thought the heat upon my back was as great as I had ever felt it in my life. There were thunderstorms about, and it had rained at Wishford a little before I came to it.

My next village was one that I had lived in for a short time, when I was only about ten or eleven years of age. I had been sent down with a horse from Farnham, and I remember that I went by Stonehenge , and rode up and looked at the stones. From Stonehenge I went to the village of Steeple Langford, where I remained from the month of June till the fall of the year. I remembered the beautiful villages up and down this valley. I also remembered, very well, that the women at Steeple Langford used to card and spin dyed wool. I was, therefore, somewhat filled with curiosity to see this Steeple Langford again; and indeed, it was the recollection of this village that made me take a ride into Wiltshire this summer. I have, I dare say, a thousand times talked about this Steeple Langford and about the beautiful farms and meadows along this valley. I have talked of these to my children a great many times; and I formed the design of letting two of them see this valley this year, and to go through Warminster to Stroud, and so on to Gloucester and Hereford. But when I got to Everley, I found that they would never get along fast enough to get into Herefordshire in time for what they intended; so that I parted from them in the manner I have before described. I was resolved, however, to see Steeple Langford myself, and I was impatient to get to it, hoping to find a public-house, and a stable to put my horse in, to protect him, for a while, against the flies, which tormented him to such a degree that to ride him was work as hard as threshing. When I got to Steeple Langford, I found no public-house, and I found it a much more miserable place than I had remembered it. The Steeple , to which it owed its distinctive appellation, was gone; and the place altogether seemed to me to be very much altered for the worse. A little further on, however, I came to a very famous inn, called Deptford Inn, which is in the parish of Wyly. I stayed at this inn till about four o'clock in the afternoon. I remembered Wyly very well, and thought it a gay place when I was a boy. I remembered a very beautiful garden belonging to a rich farmer and miller. I went to see it; but, alas! though the statues in the water and on the grass-plat were still remaining, everything seemed to be in a state of perfect carelessness and neglect. The living of this parish of Wyly was lately owned by Dampier (a brother of the judge), who lived at, and I believe had the living of, Meon Stoke in Hampshire. This fellow, I believe, never saw the parish of Wyly but once, though it must have yielded him a pretty good fleece. It is a rectory, and the great tithes must be worth, I should think, six or seven hundred pounds a year, at the least.

This Deptford Inn was a famous place of meeting for the yeomanry cavalry in glorious anti-jacobin times, when wheat was twenty shillings a bushel, and when a man could be crammed into gaol for years for only looking awry. This inn was a glorious place in the days of Peg Nicholson and her knights. Strangely altered now. The shape of the garden shows you what revelry used to be carried on here. Peel's bill gave this inn, and all belonging to it, a terrible souse. The unfeeling brutes, who used to brandish their swords, and swagger about, at the news of what was called "a victory," have now to lower their scale in clothing, in drink, in eating, in dress, in horseflesh, and everything else. They are now a lower sort of men than they were. They look at their rusty sword and their old dusty helmet and their once gay regimental jacket. They do not hang these up now in the "parlour" for everybody to see them: they hang them up in their bedrooms, or in a cockloft; and when they meet their eye, they look at them as a cow does at a bastard calf, or as the bridegroom does at a girl that the overseers are about to compel him to marry. If their children should happen to see these implements of war twenty or thirty years hence, they will certainly think that their fathers were the greatest fools that ever walked the face of the earth; and that will be a most filial and charitable way of thinking of them; for it is not from ignorance that they have sinned, but from excessive baseness; and when any of them now complain of those acts of the government which strip them (as the late Order in Council does) of a fifth part of their property in an hour, let them recollect their own base and malignant conduct towards those persecuted reformers, who, if they had not been suppressed by these very yeomen, would long ago have put an end to the cause of that ruin of which these yeomen now complain. When they complain of their ruin, let them remember the toasts which they drank in anti-jacobin times; let them remember their base and insulting exultations on the occasion of the 16th of August at Manchester; let them remember their cowardly abuse of men who were endeavouring to free their country from that horrible scourge which they themselves now feel.

Friday, Sept . 1.

I set out from Heytesbury this morning about six o'clock. Last night, before I went to bed, I found that there were some men and boys in the house who had come all the way from Bradford, about twelve miles, in order to get nuts . These people were men and boys that had been employed in the cloth factories at Bradford and about Bradford. I had some talk with some of these nutters, and I am quite convinced, not that the cloth making is at an end , but that it never will be again what it has been . Before last Christmas these manufacturers had full work, at one shilling and threepence a yard at broad-cloth weaving. They have now a quarter work, at one shilling a yard! One and threepence a yard for this weaving has been given at all times within the memory of man! Nothing can show more clearly than this, and in a stronger light, the great change which has taken place in the remuneration for labour . There was a turn out last winter, when the price was reduced to a shilling a yard; but it was put an end to in the usual way; the constable's staff, the bayonet, the gaol. These poor nutters were extremely ragged. I saved my supper, and I fasted instead of breakfasting. That was three shillings which I had saved, and I added five to them, with a resolution to save them afterwards, in order to give these chaps a breakfast for once in their lives. There were eight of them, six men and two boys ; and I gave them two quartern loaves, two pounds of cheese, and eight pints of strong beer. The fellows were very thankful, but the conduct of the landlord and landlady pleased me exceedingly. When I came to pay my bill, they had said nothing about my bed, which had been a very good one; and when I asked why they had not put the bed into the bill, they said they would not charge anything for the bed since I had been so good to the poor men. Yes, said I, but I must not throw the expense upon you. I had no supper, and I have had no breakfast; and, therefore, I am not called upon to pay for them: but I have had the bed. It ended by my paying for the bed, and coming off, leaving the nutters at their breakfast, and very much delighted with the landlord and his wife; I must here observe, that I have pretty generally found a good deal of compassion for the poor people to prevail amongst publicans and their wives.

From Heytesbury to Warminster is a part of the country singularly bright and beautiful. From Salisbury up to very near Heytesbury you have the valley as before described by me. Meadows next the water; then arable land; then the downs; but when you come to Heytesbury, and indeed, a little before, in looking forward you see the vale stretch out, from about three miles wide to ten miles wide, from high land to high land. From a hill before you come down to Heytesbury you see through this wide opening into Somersetshire. You see a round hill rising in the middle of the opening; but all the rest a flat enclosed country, and apparently full of wood. In looking back down this vale one cannot help being struck with the innumerable proofs that there are of a decline in point of population. In the first place, there are twenty-four parishes, each of which takes a little strip across the valley, and runs up through the arable land into the down. There are twenty-four parish churches, and there ought to be as many parsonage-houses ; but seven of these, out of the twenty-four, that is to say, nearly one-third of them, are, in the returns laid before parliament (and of which returns I shall speak more particularly by and by), stated to be such miserable dwellings as to be unfit for a parson to reside in. Two of them, however, are gone. There are no parsonage-houses in those two parishes: there are the sites; there are the glebes; but the houses have been suffered to fall down and to be totally carried away. The tithes remain, indeed, and the parson sacks the amount of them. A journeyman parson comes and works in three or four churches of a Sunday; but the master parson is not there. He generally carries away the produce to spend it in London, at Bath, or somewhere else, to show off his daughters; and the overseers, that is to say, the farmers, manage the poor in their own way, instead of having, according to the ancient law, a third-part of all the tithes to keep them with.

Sunday Morning, Sept . 3.

I left Warminster yesterday at about one o'clock. It is contrary to my practice to set out at all unless I can do it early in the morning; but at Warminster I was at the south-west corner of this county, and I had made a sort of promise to be to-day at Highworth, which is at the north-east corner, and which parish, indeed, joins up to Berkshire. The distance, including my little intended deviations, was more than fifty miles; and not liking to attempt it in one day, I set off in the middle of the day, and got here in the evening, just before a pretty heavy rain came on.

Before I speak of my ride from Warminster to this place, I must once more observe that Warminster is a very nice town; everything belonging to it is solid and good . There are no villainous gingerbread houses running up, and no nasty, shabby-genteel people; no women trapesing about with showy gowns and dirty necks; no jew-looking fellows with dandy coats, dirty shirts and half-heels to their shoes. A really nice and good town. It is a great corn-market: one of the greatest in this part of England; and here things are still conducted in the good old honest fashion. The corn is brought and pitched in the market before it is sold; and, when sold, it is paid for on the nail; and all is over, and the farmers and millers gone home by daylight. Almost everywhere else the corn is sold by sample; it is sold by juggling in a corner; the parties meet and drink first; it is night work; there is no fair and open market; the mass of the people do not know what the prices are; and all this favours that monopoly which makes the corn change hands many times, perhaps, before it reaches the mouth, leaving a profit in each pair of hands, and which monopoly is, for the greater part, carried on by the villainous tribe of Quakers, none of whom ever work , and all of whom prey upon the rest of the community, as those infernal devils, the wasps, prey upon the bees.

Besides the corn market at Warminster, I was delighted and greatly surprised to see the meat . Not only the very finest veal and lamb that I had ever seen in my life, but so exceedingly beautiful that I could hardly believe my eyes. I am a great connoisseur in joints of meat; a great judge, if five-and-thirty years of experience can give sound judgment. I verily believe that I have bought and have roasted more whole sirloins of beef than any man in England; I know all about the matter; a very great visitor of Newgate market; in short, though a little eater, I am a very great provider. It is a fancy, I like the subject, and therefore I understand it; and with all this knowledge of the matter I say I never saw veal and lamb half so fine as what I saw at Warminster. The town is famed for fine meat; and I knew it, and, therefore, I went out in the morning to look at the meat. It was, too, 2d. a pound cheaper than I left it at Kensington.

My road from Warminster to Devizes lay through Westbury, a nasty, odious, rotten borough, a really rotten place. It has cloth factories in it, and they seem to be ready to tumble down as well as many of the houses. God's curse seems to be upon most of these rotten boroughs. After coming through this miserable hole, I came along on the north side of the famous hill called Bratton Castle, so renowned in the annals of the Romans and of Alfred the Great. Westbury is a place of great ancient grandeur; and it is easy to perceive that it was once ten or twenty times its present size. My road was now the line of separation between what they call South Wilts and North Wilts, the former consisting of high and broad downs and narrow valleys with meadows and rivers running down them; the latter consisting of a rather flat, enclosed country: the former having a chalk bottom; the latter a bottom of marl, clay, or flat stone: the former a country for lean sheep and corn; and the latter a country for cattle, fat sheep, cheese, and bacon: the former, by far, to my taste, the most beautiful; and I am by no means sure that it is not, all things considered, the most rich. All my way along, till I came very near to Devizes, I had the steep and naked downs up to my right, and the flat and enclosed country to my left. Very near to Bratton Castle (which is only a hill with deep ditches on it) is the village of Eddington, so famed for the battle fought here by Alfred and the Danes. The church in this village would contain several thousands of persons; and the village is reduced to a few straggling houses. The land here is very good; better than almost any I ever saw; as black and, apparently, as rich as the land in the market-gardens at Fulham. The turnips are very good all along here for several miles; but this is, indeed, singularly fine and rich land. The orchards very fine; finely sheltered, and the crops of apples and pears and walnuts very abundant. Walnuts ripe now , a month earlier than usual. After Eddington I came to a hamlet called Earl's Stoke, the houses of which stand at a few yards from each other, on the two sides of the road; every house is white; and the front of every one is covered with some sort or other of clematis, or with rose-trees, or jasmines. It was easy to guess that the whole belonged to one owner; and that owner I found to be a Mr. Watson Taylor, whose very pretty seat is close by the hamlet, and in whose park-pond I saw what I never saw before, namely, some black swans . They are not nearly so large as the white, nor are they so stately in their movements. They are a meaner bird.

Monday, Sept . 4.

I got here yesterday after a ride, including my deviations, of about thirty-four miles, and that, too, without breaking my fast . Before I got into the rotten borough of Calne I had two tributes to pay to the aristocracy; namely, two Sunday tolls ; and I was resolved that the country in which these tolls were extorted should have not a farthing of my money that I could, by any means, keep from it. Therefore I fasted until I got into the free-quarters in which I now am. I would have made my horse fast too if I could have done it without the risk of making him unable to carry me.

William Cobbett, Rural Rides (Letchworth: Temple Press, 1932)

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