Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Sept. 12th to 27th, 1826: Malmsbury to Worcestershire

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Tuesday Forenoon, Sept . 12, 1826.

I SET off from Malmsbury this morning at 6 o'clock, in as sweet and bright a morning as ever came out of the heavens, and leaving behind me as pleasant a house and as kind hosts as I ever met with in the whole course of my life, either in England or America; and that is saying a great deal indeed. This circumstance was the more pleasant, as I had never before either seen or heard of these kind, unaffected, sensible, sans-fa?ons , and most agreeable friends. From Malmsbury I first came, at the end of five miles, to Tutbury, which is in Gloucestershire, there being here a sort of dell or ravine, which, in this place, is the boundary line of the two counties, and over which you go on a bridge, one-half of which belongs to each county. And now, before I take my leave of Wiltshire, I must observe that, in the whole course of my life (days of courtship excepted, of course), I never passed seventeen pleasanter days than those which I have just spent in Wiltshire. It is, especially in the southern half, just the sort of country that I like; the weather has been pleasant; I have been in good houses and amongst good and beautiful gardens; and, in every case, I have not only been most kindly entertained, but my entertainers have been of just the stamp that I like. I saw again, this morning, large flocks of goldfinches feeding on the thistle-seed on the roadside. The French call this bird by a name derived from the thistle, so notorious has it always been that they live upon this seed. Thistle is, in French, chardon ; and the French call this beautiful little bird chardonaret . I never could have supposed that such flocks of these birds would ever be seen in England. But it is a great year for all the feathered race, whether wild or tame: naturally so, indeed; for every one knows that it is the wet , and not the cold , that is injurious to the breeding of birds of all sorts, whether land-birds or water-birds. They say that there are, this year, double the usual quantity of ducks and geese: and, really, they do seem to swarm in the farm-yards, wherever I go. It is a great mistake to suppose that ducks and geese need water, except to drink. There is, perhaps, no spot in the world, in proportion to its size and population, where so many of these birds are reared and fatted as in Long Island; and it is not in one case out of ten that they have any ponds to go to, or that they ever see any water other than water that is drawn up out of a well.

A little way before I got to Tutbury I saw a woman digging some potatoes In a strip of ground making part of a field nearly an oblong square, and which field appeared to be laid out in strips. She told me that the field was part of a farm (to the homestead of which she pointed); that it was, by the farmer, let out in strips to labouring people; that each strip contained a rood (or quarter of a statute acre); that each married labourer rented one strip; and that the annual rent was a pound for the strip. Now the taxes being all paid by the farmer; the fences being kept in repair by him; and, as appeared to me, the land being exceedingly good: all these things considered, the rent does not appear to be too high. This fashion is certainly a growing one; it is a little step towards a coming back to the ancient life and leaseholds and common-fields! This field of strips was, in fact, a sort of common-field; and the "agriculturists," as the conceited asses of landlords call themselves, at their clubs and meetings, might, and they would if their skulls could admit any thoughts except such as relate to high prices and low wages; they might, and they would, begin to suspect that the "dark age" people were not so very foolish when they had so many common-fields, and when almost every man that had a family had also a bit of land, either large or small. It is a very curious thing that the enclosing of commons, that the shutting out of the labourers from all share in the land; that the prohibiting of them to look at a wild animal, almost at a lark or a frog; it is curious that this hard-hearted system should have gone on until at last it has produced effects so injurious and so dangerous to the grinders themselves that they have, of their own accord and and for their own safety, begun to make a step towards the ancient system, and have, in the manner I have observed, made the labourers sharers, in some degree, in the uses, at any rate, of the soil. The far greater part of these strips of land have potatoes growing in them; but in some cases they have borne wheat, and in others barley, this year; and these have now turnips; very young most of them, but in some places very fine, and in every instance nicely hoed out. The land that will bear 400 bushels of potatoes to the acre will bear 40 bushels of wheat; and the ten bushels of wheat to the quarter of an acre would be a crop far more valuable than a hundred bushels of potatoes, as I have proved many times in the Register.

Just before I got into Tutbury I was met by a good many people, in twos, threes, or fives, some running, and some walking fast, one of the first of whom asked me if I had met an "old man" some distance back. I asked what sort of a man: "A poor man." "I don't recollect, indeed; but what are you all pursuing him for?" "He has been stealing ." "What has he been stealing?" "Cabbages." "Where?" "Out of Mr. Glover, the hatter's, garden." "What do you call that stealing ; and would you punish a man, a poor man, and therefore, in all likelihood, a hungry man too, and moreover an old man; do you set up a hue-and-cry after, and would you punish, such a man for taking a few cabbages, when that Holy Bible, which, I dare say, you profess to believe in, and perhaps assist to circulate, teaches you that the hungry man may, without committing any offence at all, go into his neighbour's vineyard and eat his fill of grapes, one bunch of which is worth a sack-full of cabbages?" "Yes; but he is a very bad character." "Why, my friend, very poor and almost starved people are apt to be 'bad characters'; but the Bible, in both Testaments, commands us to be merciful to the poor, to feed the hungry, to have compassion on the aged; and it makes no exception as to the 'character' of the parties." Another group or two of the pursuers had come up by this time; and I, bearing in mind the fate of Don Quixote when he interfered in somewhat similar cases, gave my horse the hint, and soon got away; but though doubtless I made no converts, I, upon looking back, perceived that I had slackened the pursuit! The pursuers went more slowly; I could see that they got to talking; it was now the step of deliberation rather than that of decision; and though I did not like to call upon Mr. Glover, I hope he was merciful. It is impossible for me to witness scenes like this; to hear a man called a thief for such a cause; to see him thus eagerly and vindictively pursued for having taken some cabbages in a garden: it is impossible for me to behold such a scene, without calling to mind the practice in the United States of America, where, if a man were even to talk of prosecuting another (especially if that other were poor or old) for taking from the land, or from the trees, any part of a growing crop, for his own personal and immediate use; if any man were even to talk of prosecuting another for such an act, such talker would be held in universal abhorrence: people would hate him; and, in short, if rich as Ricardo or Baring, he might live by himself; for no man would look upon him as a neighbour.

Tutbury is a very pretty town, and has a beautiful ancient church. The country is high along here for a mile or two towards Avening, which begins a long and deep and narrow valley, that comes all the way down to Stroud. When I got to the end of the high country, and the lower country opened to my view, I was at about three miles from Tutbury, on the road to Avening, leaving the Minchinghampton road to my right. Here I was upon the edge of the high land, looking right down upon the village of Avening, and seeing, just close to it, a large and fine mansion-house, a beautiful park, and, making part of the park, one of the finest, most magnificent woods (of 200 acres, I dare say), lying facing me, going from a valley up a gently-rising hill. While I was sitting on my horse, admiring this spot, a man came along with some tools in his hand, as if going somewhere to work as plumber. "Whose beautiful place is that?" said I. "One 'Squire Ricardo, I think they call him, but . . ." You might have "knocked me down with a feather," as the old women say . . . "but" (continued the plumber) "the Old Gentleman's dead, and . . ." "God -- the old gentleman and the young gentleman too!" said I; and, giving my horse a blow, instead of a word, on I went down the hill. Before I got to the bottom, my reflections on the present state of the "market" and on the probable results of "watching the turn of it," had made me better humoured; and as one of the first objects that struck my eye in the village was the sign of the Cross, and of the Red, or Bloody, Cross too, I asked the landlord some questions, which began a series of joking and bantering that I had with the people, from one end of the village to the other. I set them all a laughing; and though they could not know my name, they will remember me for a long while. This estate of Gatcomb belonged, I am told, to a Mr. Shepperd, and to his fathers before him. I asked where this Shepperd was NOW? A tradesman-looking man told me that he did not know where he was; but that he had heard that he was living somewhere near to Bath! Thus they go! Thus they are squeezed out of existence. The little ones are gone; and the big ones have nothing left for it but to resort to the bands of holy matrimony with the turn of the market watchers and their breed. This the big ones are now doing apace; and there is this comfort at any rate; namely, that the connection cannot make them baser than they are, a boroughmonger being, of all God's creatures, the very basest.

From Avening I came on through Nailsworth, Woodchester, and Rodborough to this place. These villages lie on the sides of a narrow and deep valley, with a narrow stream of water running down the middle of it, and this stream turns the wheels of a great many mills and sets of machinery for the making of woollen-cloth . The factories begin at Avening, and are scattered all the way down the valley. There are steam-engines as well as water powers. The work and the trade is so flat that in, I should think, much more than a hundred acres of ground, which I have seen to-day, covered with rails or racks, for the drying of cloth, I do not think that I have seen one single acre where the racks had cloth upon them. The workmen do not get half wages; great numbers are thrown on the parish; but overseers and magistrates in this part of England do not presume that they are to leave anybody to starve to death; there is law here; this is in England, and not in "the north," where those who ought to see that the poor do not suffer, talk of their dying with hunger as Irish 'squires do; aye, and applaud them for their patient resignation!

The Gloucestershire people have no notion of dying with hunger; and it is with great pleasure that I remark that I have seen no woe-worn creature this day. The sub-soil here is a yellowish ugly stone. The houses are all built with this; and it being ugly, the stone is made white by a wash of some sort or other. The land on both sides of the valley, and all down the bottom of it, has plenty of trees on it; it is chiefly pasture land, so that the green and the white colours, and the form and great variety of the ground, and the water, altogether make this a very pretty ride. Here are a series of spots, every one of which a lover of landscapes would like to have painted. Even the buildings of the factories are not ugly. The people seem to have been constantly well off. A pig in almost every cottage sty; that is the infallible mark of a happy people. At present this valley suffers; and though cloth will always be wanted, there will yet be much suffering even here, while at Uly and other places they say the suffering is great indeed.

Wednesday, Sept . 13.

This morning was most beautiful. There has been rain here now, and the grass begins (but only begins) to grow. When I got within two hundred yards of Mr. Palmer's, I had the happiness to meet my son Richard, who said that he had been up an hour. As I came along I saw one of the prettiest sights in the flower way that I ever saw in my life. It was a little orchard; the grass in it had just taken a start, and was beautifully fresh; and very thickly growing amongst the grass was the purple flowered Colchicum , in full bloom. They say that the leaves of this plant, which come out in the spring and die away in the summer, are poisonous to cattle if they eat much of them in the spring. The flower, if standing by itself, would be no great beauty; but contrasted thus with the fresh grass, which was a little shorter than itself, it was very beautiful.

Monday, Sept . 25.

I set off from Mr. Palmer's yesterday, after breakfast, having his son (about 13 years old) as my travelling companion. We came across the country, a distance of about 22 miles, and having crossed the Severn at Upton, arrived here, at Mr. John Price's, about two o'clock.

The Avon (this is the third Avon that I have crossed in this ride) falls into the Severn just below Tewkesbury, through which town we went in our way to Mr. Hanford's. These rivers, particularly the Severn, go through, and sometimes overflow, the finest meadows of which it is possible to form an idea. Some of them contain more than a hundred acres each ; and the number of cattle and sheep feeding in them is prodigious. Nine-tenths of the land in these extensive vales appears to me to be pasture, and it is pasture of the richest kind. The sheep are chiefly of the Leicester breed, and the cattle of the Hereford, white face and dark red body, certainly the finest and most beautiful of all horn-cattle. The grass, after the fine rains that we have had, is in its finest possible dress; but here, as in the parts of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire that I have seen, there are no turnips, except those which have been recently sown; and though, amidst all these thousands upon thousands of acres of the finest meadows and grass land in the world, hay is, I hear, seven pounds a ton at Worcester. However, unless we should have very early and even hard frosts, the grass will be so abundant that the cattle and sheep will do better than people are apt to think. But be this as it may, this summer has taught us that our climate is the best for produce , after all; and that we cannot have Italian sun and English meat and cheese. We complain of the drip ; but it is the drip that makes the beef and the mutton.

Mr. Hanford's house is on the side of Bredon Hill, about a third part up it, and is a very delightful place. The house is of ancient date, and it appears to have been always inhabited by, and the property of, Roman Catholics; for there is, in one corner of the very top of the building, up in the very roof of it, a Catholic chapel, as ancient as the roof itself. It is about twenty-five feet long and ten wide. It has arch-work to imitate the roof of a church. At the back of the altar there is a little room, which you enter through a door going out of the chapel; and adjoining this little room there is a closet, in which is a trap-door made to let the priest down into one of those hiding-places which were contrived for the purpose of evading the grasp of those greedy Scotch minions, to whom that pious and tolerant Protestant, James I, delivered over those English gentlemen who remained faithful to the religion of their fathers, and to set his country free from which greedy and cruel grasp that honest Englishman, Guy Fawkes, wished, as he bravely told the king and his Scotch council, "to blow the Scotch beggars back to their mountains again." Even this king has, in his works (for James was an author), had the justice to call him "the English Scaevola"; and we Englishmen, fools set on by knaves, have the folly, or the baseness, to burn him in effigy on the 5th November, the anniversary of his intended exploit! In the hall of this house there is the portrait of Sir Thomas Winter, who was one of the accomplices of Fawkes, and who was killed in the fight with the sheriff and his party. There is also the portrait of his lady, who must have spent half her life-time in the working of some very curious sacerdotal vestments, which are preserved here with great care, and are as fresh and as beautiful as they were the day they were finished.

Tuesday, Sept . 26.

Mr. Price rode with us to this city, which is one of the cleanest, neatest, and handsomest towns I ever saw: indeed, I do not recollect to have seen any one equal to it. The cathedral is, indeed, a poor thing, compared with any of the others, except that of Hereford; and I have seen them all but those of Carlisle, Durham, York, Lincoln, Chester, and Peterborough; but the town is, I think, the very best I ever saw; and which is, indeed, the greatest of all recommendations, the people are, upon the whole, the most suitably dressed and most decent looking people. The town is precisely in character with the beautiful and rich country, in the midst of which it lies. Everything you see gives you the idea of real, solid wealth; aye! and thus it was, too, before, long before , Pitt, and even long before, "good Queen Bess" and her military law and her Protestant racks, were ever heard or dreamed of.

At Worcester, as everywhere else, I find a group of cordial and sensible friends, at the house of one of whom, Mr. George Brooke, I have just spent a most pleasant evening, in company with several gentlemen whom he had had the goodness to invite to meet me. I here learned a fact which I must put upon record before it escape my memory. Some few years ago (about seven, perhaps), at the public sale by auction of the goods of a then recently deceased attorney of the name of Hyde in this city, there were, amongst the goods to be sold, the portraits of Pitt, Burdett , and Paine , all framed and glazed. Pitt, with hard driving and very lofty praises, fetched fifteen shillings; Burdett fetched twenty-seven shillings. Paine was, in great haste, knocked down at five pounds; and my informant was convinced that the lucky purchaser might have had fifteen pounds for it. I hear Colonel Davies spoken of here with great approbation: he will soon have an opportunity of showing us whether he deserve it.

The hop-picking and bagging is over here. The crop, as in the other hop-countries, has been very great, and the quality as good as ever was known. The average price appears to be about 75s. the hundredweight. The reader (if he do not belong to a hop-country) should be told that hop-planters, and even all their neighbours, are, as hop-ward, mad , though the most sane and reasonable people as to all other matters. They are ten times more jealous upon this score than men ever are of their wives; aye, and than they are of their mistresses, which is going a great deal farther. I, who am a Farnham man, was well aware of this foible; and therefore, when a gentleman told me that he would not brew with Farnham hops, if he could have them as a gift, I took special care not to ask him how it came to pass that the Farnham hops always sold at about double the price of the Worcester; but if he had said the same thing to any other Farnham man that I ever saw, I should have preferred being absent from the spot: the hops are bitter, but nothing is their bitterness compared to the language that my townsman would have put forth.

Wednesday Morning, Sept . 27.

In a letter which I received from Sir Thomas Winnington (one of the members of this county) last year, he was good enough to request that I would call upon him if I ever came into Worcestershire, which I told him I would do; and accordingly here we are in his house, situated, certainly, in one of the finest spots in all England. We left Worcester yesterday about ten o'clock, crossed the Severn, which runs close by the town, and came on to this place, which lies in a north-western direction from Worcester, at 14 miles distance from that city, and at about six from the borders of Shropshire. About four miles back we passed by the park and through the estate of Lord Foley, to whom is due the praise of being a most indefatigable and successful planter of trees . He seems to have taken uncommon pains in the execution of this work; and he has the merit of disinterestedness, the trees being chiefly oaks, which he is sure he can never see grow to timber. We crossed the Teme river just before we got here. Sir Thomas was out shooting; but he soon came home, and gave us a very polite reception. I had time, yesterday, to see the place, to look at trees, and the like, and I wished to get away early this morning; but being prevailed on to stay to breakfast, here I am, at six o'clock in the morning, in one of the best and best-stocked private libraries that I ever saw; and, what is more, the owner, from what passed yesterday, when he brought me hither, convinced me that he was acquainted with the insides of the books. I asked, and shall ask, no questions about who got these books together; but the collection is such as, I am sure, I never saw before in a private house. The house and stables and courts are such as they ought to be for the great estate that surrounds them; and the park is everything that is beautiful. On one side of the house, looking over a fine piece of water, you see a distant valley, opening between lofty hills: on another side the ground descends a little at first, then goes gently rising for a while and then rapidly, to the distance of a mile perhaps, where it is crowned with trees in irregular patches, or groups, single and most magnificent trees being scattered all over the whole of the park; on another side, there rise up beautiful little hills, some in the form of barrows on the downs, only forty or a hundred times as large, one or two with no trees on them, and others topped with trees; but on one of these little hills, and some yards higher than the lofty trees which are on this little hill, you see rising up the tower of the parish church, which hill is, I think, taken all together, amongst the most delightful objects that I ever beheld.

"Well, then," says the devil of laziness, "and could you not be contented to live here all the rest of your life; and never again pester yourself with the cursed politics?" "Why, I think I have laboured enough. Let others work now. And such a pretty place for coursing and for hare-hunting and woodcock shooting, I dare say; and then those pretty wild ducks in the water, and the flowers and the grass and the trees and all the birds in spring and the fresh air, and never, never again to be stifled with the smoke that from the infernal Wen ascendeth for ever more and that every easterly wind brings to choke me at Kensington!" The last word of this soliloquy carried me back, slap, to my own study (very much unlike that which I am in), and bade me think of the GRIDIRON; bade me think of the complete triumph that I have yet to enjoy: promised me the pleasure of seeing a million of trees of my own, and sown by my own hands this very year. Ah! but the hares and the pheasants and the wild ducks! Yes, but the delight of seeing Prosperity Robinson hang his head for shame: the delight of beholding the tormenting embarrassments of those who have so long retained crowds of base miscreants to revile me; the delight of ousting spitten-upon Stanley and bound-over Wood! Yes, but, then, the flowers and the birds and the sweet air! What, then, shall Canning never again hear of the "revered and ruptured Ogden!" Shall he go into his grave without being again reminded of "driving at the whole herd, in order to get at the ignoble animal !" Shall he never again be told of Six-Acts and of his wish "to extinguish that accursed torch of discord for ever !" Oh! God forbid! farewell hares and dogs and birds! what, shall Sidmouth, then, never again hear of his Power of Imprisonment Bill , of his Circular , of his Letter of Thanks to the Manchester Yeomanry ! I really jumped up when this thought came athwart my mind, and, without thinking of the breakfast, said to George who was sitting by me, "Go, George, and tell them to saddle the horses;" for it seemed to me that I had been meditating some crime. Upon George asking me whether I would not stop to breakfast? I bade him not order the horses out yet; and here we are, waiting for breakfast.

Wednesday Night, Sept . 27.

After breakfast we took our leave of Sir Thomas Winnington, and of Stanford, very much pleased with our visit. We wished to reach Ryall as early as possible in the day, and we did not, therefore, stop at Worcester. We got here about three o'clock, and we intend to set off, in another direction, early in the morning.

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

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