‘Started at day-break in a hazy frost, for
Reading. The horses’ manes and ears covered
with the hoar before we got across Windsor
Park, which appeared to be a blackguard soil,
pretty much like Hounslow Heath, only not flat’
William Cobbett was one of the most remarkable characters of the 19th century. Born in Surrey and raised as a ploughboy or ‘human scarecrow in a little blue smock’ as he put it, he became a soldier and then a political journalist, covering the revolution in France and later based in Philadelphia. In 1821, having returned home from America, he began a series of journeys across southern England to see how the countryside there had changed since his childhood. The resulting book, Rural Rides, is a classic portrait of rural life just before the industrial revolution. Praised by writers from Matthew Arnold to A. J. P. Taylor, it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1830.
These ‘rides’ take Cobbett back to his roots at a wonderfully intimate and leisurely pace. He goes to Selborne in Hampshire, where a parson has recently been shot at, and Thursley in Surrey, where the entire parish is eagerly awaiting a fox-hunt, ‘as happy as if all were young and all just going to be married’. With a farmer’s insight, he notes the crops and the condition of the soil, and he is passionate about the condition of the poor and what he sees as the steady decline of rural life in the face of urban expansion. Though much of what he encountered has long vanished, many of Cobbett’s observations – on the losses made by farmers, the corruption of politicians and the devaluation of currency – strike a chord today.
Robust and delightfully plain-speaking, Cobbett pours scorn on the Martello Towers built to repulse Napoleon (‘I dare say they cost MILLIONS’), on the ‘bullfrog’, or greedy landowner, and on the ‘Wen’, or boil, as he calls London. He is eloquent on the beauties of the English countryside, and on the importance for labourers of the three Bs: bacon, bread and beer. As Richard Ingrams points out in a new introduction, Cobbett possessed ‘an attitude of mind distinctly English, combining radical beliefs with conservative instincts, an obstinate individuality and, above all, the ability to make his readers laugh’. Rural Rides is a masterful portrait, both of an age and of a towering personality.