Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Aug. 28th to 30th, 1826: Down the valley of the Avon in Wiltshire

Next Selection Previous Selection


"Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn; and, The labourer is worthy of his reward."--Deuteronomy, xxv, 4; I Cor. ix, 9; I Tim. v. 9.

Monday, August 28.

I CAME off this morning on the Marlborough road about two miles, or three, and then turned off, over the downs, in a north-westerly direction, in search of the source of the Avon river, which goes down to Salisbury. I had once been at Netheravon, a village in this valley; but I had often heard this valley described as one of the finest pieces of land in all England; I knew that there were about thirty parish churches, standing in a length of about thirty miles, and in an average width of hardly a mile; and I was resolved to see a little into the reasons that could have induced our fathers to build all these churches, especially if, as the Scotch would have us believe, there were but a mere handful of people in England until of late years.

The first part of my ride this morning was by the side of Sir John Astley's park. This man is one of the members of the county (gallon-loaf Bennet being the other). They say that he is good to the labouring people; and he ought to be good for something , being a member of parliament of the Lethbridge and Dickenson stamp. However, he has got a thumping estate; though, be it borne in mind, the working-people and the fund-holders and the dead-weight have each their separate mortgage upon it; of which this baronet has, I dare say, too much justice to complain, seeing that the amount of these mortgages was absolutely necessary to carry on Pitt and Perceval and Castlereagh wars; to support Hanoverian soldiers in England; to fight and beat the Americans on the Serpentine river; to give Wellington a kingly estate; and to defray the expenses of Manchester and other yeomanry cavalry; besides all the various charges of Power-of-Imprisonment Bills and of Six-Acts. These being the cause of the mortgages, the "worthy baronet" has, I will engage, too much justice to complain of them. In steering across the down, I came to a large farm, which a shepherd told me was Milton Hill Farm. This was upon the high land, and before I came to the edge of this Valley of Avon , which was my land of promise; or at least, of great expectation; for I could not imagine that thirty churches had been built for nothing by the side of a brook (for it is no more during the greater part of the way) thirty miles long. The shepherd showed me the way towards Milton; and at the end of about a mile, from the top of a very high part of the down, with a steep slope towards the valley, I first saw this Valley of Avon ; and a most beautiful sight it was! Villages, hamlets, large farms, towers, steeples, fields, meadows, orchards, and very fine timber trees, scattered all over the valley. The shape of the thing is this: on each side downs , very lofty and steep in some places, and sloping miles back in other places; but each out-side of the valley are downs. From the edge of the downs begin capital arable fields generally of very great dimensions, and, in some places, running a mile or two back into little cross-valleys , formed by hills of downs. After the corn-fields come meadows on each side, down to the brook or river . The farmhouses, mansions, villages, and hamlets are generally situated in that part of the arable land which comes nearest the meadows.

Great as my expectations had been, they were more than fulfilled. I delight in this sort of country; and I had frequently seen the vale of the Itchen, that of the Bourn, and also that of the Teste in Hampshire; I had seen the vales amongst the South Downs; but I never before saw anything to please me like this valley of the Avon. I sat upon my horse and looked over Milton and Easton and Pewsey for half an hour, though I had not breakfasted. The hill was very steep. A road, going slanting down it, was still so steep, and washed so very deep by the rains of ages, that I did not attempt to ride down it, and I did not like to lead my horse, the path was so narrow. So seeing a boy with a drove of pigs going out to the stubbles, I beckoned him to come up to me; and he came and led my horse down for me. But now, before I begin to ride down this beautiful vale, let me give, as well as my means will enable me, a plan or map of it, which I have made in this way: a friend has lent me a very old map of Wiltshire describing the spots where all the churches stand, and also all the spots where manor-houses or mansion-houses stood. I laid a piece of very thin paper upon the map, and thus traced the river upon my paper, putting figures to represent the spots where churches stand, and putting stars to represent the spots where manor-houses or mansion-houses formerly stood. Endless is the variety in the shape of the high lands which form this valley. Sometimes the slope is very gentle, and the arable lands go back very far. At others, the downs come out into the valley almost like piers into the sea, being very steep in their sides, as well as their ends towards the valley. They have no slope at their other ends: indeed they have no back ends , but run into the main high land. There is also great variety in the width of the valley; great variety in the width of the meadows ; but the land appears all to be of the very best; and it must be so, for the farmers confess it.

It seemed to me that one way, and that not, perhaps, the least striking, of exposing the folly, the stupidity, the inanity, the presumption, the insufferable emptiness and insolence and barbarity, of those numerous wretches who have now the audacity to propose to transport the people of England, upon the principle of the monster Malthus, who has furnished the unfeeling oligarchs and their toad-eaters with the pretence that man has a natural propensity to breed faster than food can be raised for the increase ; it seemed to me that one way of exposing this mixture of madness and of blasphemy was to take a look, now that the harvest is in, at the produce, the mouths, the condition, and the changes that have taken place, in a spot like this, which God has favoured with every good that he has had to bestow upon man. From the top of the hill I was not a little surprised to see, in every part of the valley that my eye could reach, a due, a large, portion of fields of swedish turnips, all looking extremely well. I had found the turnips of both sorts by no means bad from Salt Hill to Newbury; but from Newbury through Burghclere, Highclere, Uphusband, and Tangley, I had seen but few. At and about Ludgarshall and Everley I had seen hardly any. But when I came this morning to Milton Hill Farm, I saw a very large field of what appeared to me to be fine swedish turnips. In the valley, however, I found them much finer, and the fields were very beautiful objects, forming, as their colour did, so great a contrast with that of the fallows and the stubbles, which latter are, this year, singularly clean and bright. Having gotten to the bottom of the hill, I proceeded on to the village of Milton, the church of which is, in the map, represented by the figure 3. I left Easton (2) away at my right, and I did not go up to Watton Rivers (1) where the river Avon rises, and which lies just close to the south-west corner of Marlborough Forest, and at about 5 or 6 miles from the town of Marlborough. Lower down the river, as I thought, there lived a friend, who was a great farmer, and whom I intended to call on. It being my way, however, always to begin making inquiries soon enough, I asked the pig-driver where this friend lived; and, to my surprise, I found that he lived in the parish of Milton. After riding up to the church, as being the centre of the village, I went on towards the house of my friend, which lay on my road down the valley. I have many, many times witnessed agreeable surprise; but I do not know that I ever in the whole course of my life saw people so much surprised and pleased as this farmer and his family were at seeing me. People often tell you that they are glad to see you; and in general they speak truth. I take pretty good care not to approach any house, with the smallest appearance of a design to eat or drink in it, unless I be quite sure of a cordial reception; but my friend at Fifield (it is in Milton parish) and all his family really seemed to be delighted beyond all expression.

When I set out this morning, I intended to go all the way down to the city of Salisbury (31) to-day; but I soon found that to refuse to sleep at Fifield would cost me a great deal more trouble than a day was worth. So that I made my mind up to stay in this farm-house, which has one of the nicest gardens, and it contains some of the finest flowers, that I ever saw, and all is disposed with as much good taste as I have ever witnessed. Here I am, then, just going to bed after having spent as pleasant a day as I ever spent in my life. I have heard to-day that Birkbeck lost his life by attempting to cross a river on horseback; but if what I have heard besides be true, that life must have been hardly worth preserving; for they say that he was reduced to a very deplorable state; and I have heard, from what I deem unquestionable authority, that his two beautiful and accomplished daughters are married to two common labourers, one a Yankee and the other an Irishman, neither of whom has, probably, a second shirt to his back, or a single pair of shoes to put his feet into! These poor girls owe their ruin and misery (if my information be correct), and, at any rate, hundreds besides Birkbeck himself, owe their utter ruin, the most scandalous degradation, together with great bodily suffering, to the vanity, the conceit, the presumption of Birkbeck, who, observe, richly merited all that he suffered, not excepting his death; for he sinned with his eyes open; he rejected all advice; he persevered after he saw his error; he dragged thousands into ruin along with him; and he most vilely calumniated the man who, after having most disinterestedly, but in vain, endeavoured to preserve him from ruin, endeavoured to preserve those who were in danger of being deluded by him. When, in 1817, before he set out for America, I was, in Catherine Street, Strand, London, so earnestly pressing him not to go to the back countries, he had one of these daughters with him. After talking to him for some time, and describing the risks and disadvantages of the back countries, I turned towards the daughter and, in a sort of joking way, said: "Miss Birkbeck, take my advice: don't let anybody get you more than twenty miles from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore." Upon which he gave me a most dignified look and observed: "Miss Birkbeck has a father sir, whom she knows it to be her duty to obey." This snap was enough for me. I saw that this was a man so full of self-conceit that it was impossible to do anything with him. He seemed to me to be bent upon his own destruction. I thought it my duty to warn others of their danger: some took the warning; others did not; but he and his brother adventurer, Flower, never forgave me, and they resorted to all the means in their power to do me injury. They did me no injury, no thanks to them; and I have seen them most severely, but most justly, punished.

Tuesday, August 29.

I set off from Fifield this morning, and got here (25 on the map) about one o'clock, with my clothes wet. While they are drying, and while a mutton chop is getting ready, I sit down to make some notes of what I have seen since I left Enford . . . but here comes my dinner: and I must put off my notes till I have dined.

Wednesday, August 30.

My ride yesterday, from Milton to this city of Salisbury, was, without any exception, the most pleasant; it brought before me the greatest number of, to me, interesting objects, and it gave rise to more interesting reflections than I remember ever to have had brought before my eyes, or into my mind, in any one day of my life; and therefore, this ride was, without any exception, the most pleasant that I ever had in my life, as far as my recollection serves me. I got a little wet in the middle of the day; but I got dry again, and I arrived here in very good time, though I went over the Accursed Hill (Old Sarum), and went across to Laverstoke, before I came to Salisbury.

Let us now, then, look back over this part of Wiltshire, and see whether the inhabitants ought to be "transported" by order of the "Emigration Committee." I have. before described this valley generally; let me now speak of it a little more in detail. The farms are all large, and generally speaking, they were always large, I dare say; because sheep is one of the great things here; and sheep, in a country like this, must be kept in flocks , to be of any profit. The sheep principally manure the land. This is to be done only by folding ; and to fold, you must have a flock . Every farm has its portion of down, arable, and meadow; and, in many places, the latter are watered meadows, which is a great resource where sheep are kept in flocks; because these meadows furnish grass for the suckling ewes early in the spring; and indeed, because they have always food in them for sheep and cattle of all sorts. These meadows have had no part of the suffering from the drought this year. They fed the ewes and lambs in the spring, and they are now yielding a heavy crop of hay; for I saw men mowing in them, in several places, particularly about Netheravon (18 in the map), though it was raining at the time.

The turnips look pretty well all the way down the valley; but I see very few, except swedish turnips. The early common turnips very nearly all failed, I believe. But the stubbles are beautifully bright; and the rick-yards tell us that the crops are good, especially of wheat. This is not a country of pease and beans, nor of oats, except for home consumption. The crops are wheat, barley, wool and lambs, and these latter not to be sold to butchers, but to be sold, at the great fairs, to those who are going to keep them for some time, whether to breed from or finally to fat for the butcher. It is the pulse and the oats that appear to have failed most this year; and, therefore, this valley has not suffered. I do not perceive that they have many potatoes ; but what they have of this base root seem to look well enough. It was one of the greatest villains upon earth (Sir Walter Raleigh) who (they say) first brought this root into England. He was hanged at last! What a pity, since he was to be hanged, the hanging did not take place before he became such a mischievous devil as he was in the latter two-thirds of his life!

The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey (4 in map), another at Fittleton (16 in map), each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory (14 in map), I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!

A little while before I came to this farm-yard I saw, in one piece, about four hundred acres of wheat-stubble, and I saw a sheep-fold which, I thought, contained an acre of ground, and had in it about four thousand sheep and lambs. The fold was divided into three separate flocks; but the piece of ground was one and the same; and I thought it contained about an acre. At one farm, between Pewsey and Upavon, I counted more than 300 hogs in one stubble. This is certainly the most delightful farming in the world. No ditches, no water-furrows, no drains, hardly any hedges, no dirt and mire, even in the wettest seasons of the year: and though the downs are naked and cold, the valleys are snugness itself. They are, as to the downs, what ah-ahs are in parks or lawns. When you are going over the downs, you look over the valleys, as in the case of the ah-ah ; and if you be not acquainted with the country, your surprise, when you come to the edge of the hill, is very great. The shelter in these valleys, and particularly where the downs are steep and lofty on the sides, is very complete. Then the trees are everywhere lofty. They are generally elms, with some ashes, which delight in the soil that they find here. There are, almost always, two or three large clumps of trees in every parish, and a rookery or two (not rag- rookery) to every parish. By the water's edge there are willows; and to almost every farm there is a fine orchard, the trees being, in general, very fine, and this year they are, in general, well loaded with fruit. So that, all taken together, it seems impossible to find a more beautiful and pleasant country than this, or to imagine any life more easy and happy than men might here lead if they were untormented by an accursed system that takes the food from those that raise it, and gives it to those that do nothing that is useful to man.

Here the farmer has always an abundance of straw. His farm-yard is never without it. Cattle and horses are bedded up to their eyes. The yards are put close under the shelter of a hill, or are protected by lofty and thick-set trees. Every animal seems comfortably situated; and in the dreariest days of winter these are, perhaps, the happiest scenes in the world; or, rather, they would be such, if those, whose labour makes it all, trees, corn, sheep and everything, had but their fair share of the produce of that labour. What share they really have of it one cannot exactly say; but I should suppose that every labouring man in this valley raises as much food as would suffce for fifty or a hundred persons, fed like himself!

In taking my leave of this beautiful vale, I have to express my deep shame, as an Englishman, at beholding the general extreme poverty of those who cause this vale to produce such quantities of food and raiment. This is, I verily believe it, the worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth . Dogs and hogs and horses are treated with more civility; and as to food and lodging, how gladly would the labourers change with them! This state of things never can continue many years! By some means or other there must be an end to it; and my firm belief is that that end will be dreadful. In the meanwhile I see, and I see it with pleasure, that the common people know that they are ill used; and that they cordially, most cordially, hate those who ill-treat them. During the day I crossed the river about fifteen or sixteen times, and in such hot weather it was very pleasant to be so much amongst meadows and water. I had been at Netheravon (18) about eighteen years ago, where I had seen a great quantity of hares. It is a place belonging to Mr. Hicks Beach , or Beech, who was once a member of parliament. I found the place altered a good deal; out of repair; the gates rather rotten; and (a very bad sign!) the roof of the dog-kennel falling in! There is a church at this village of Netheravon large enough to hold a thousand or two of people, and the whole parish contains only 350 souls, men, women, and children. This Netheravon was formerly a great lordship, and in the parish there were three considerable mansion-houses, besides the one near the church. These mansions are all down now; and it is curious enough to see the former walled gardens become orchards , together with other changes, all tending to prove the gradual decay in all except what appertains merely to the land as a thing of production for the distant market. But, indeed, the people and the means of enjoyment must go away. They are drawn away by the taxes and the paper-money. How are twenty thousand new houses to be, all at once, building in the Wen, without people and food and raiment going from this valley towards the Wen? It must be so; and this unnatural, this dilapidating, this ruining and debasing work must go on, until that which produces it be destroyed.

When I came down to Stratford Dean (29 in map) I wanted to go across to Laverstoke, which lay to my left of Salisbury; but just on the side of the road here, at Stratford Dean, rises the Accursed Hill . It is very lofty. It was originally a hill in an irregular sort of sugar-loaf shape: but it was so altered by the Romans, or by somebody, that the upper three-quarter parts of the hill now, when seen from a distance, somewhat resemble three cheeses , laid one upon another; the bottom one a great deal broader than the next, and the top one like a Stilton cheese, in proportion to a Gloucester one. I resolved to ride over this Accursed Hill. As I was going up a field towards it, I met a man going home from work. I asked how he got on . He said, very badly. I asked him what was the cause of it. He said the hard times . "What times ," said I; "was there ever a finer summer, a finer harvest, and is there not an old wheat-rick in every farmyard?" "Ah!" said he, "they make it bad for poor people, for all that." "They ?" said I "who is they ?" He was silent. "Oh, no, no! my friend," said I, "it is not they ; it is that Accursed Hill that has robbed you of the supper that you ought to find smoking on the table when you get home." I gave him the price of a pot of beer, and on I went, leaving the poor dejected assemblage of skin and bone to wonder at my words.

The hill is very steep, and I dismounted and led my horse up. Being as near to the top as I could conveniently get, I stood a little while reflecting, not so much on the changes which that hill had seen, as on the changes, the terrible changes, which, in all human probability, it had yet to see , and which it would have greatly helped to produce . It was impossible to stand on this accursed spot without swelling with indignation against the base and plundering and murderous sons of corruption. I have often wished, and I, speaking out loud, expressed the wish now; "May that man perish for ever and ever, who, having the power, neglects to bring to justice the perjured, the suborning, the insolent and perfidious miscreants, who openly sell their country's rights and their own souls."

From the Accursed Hill I went to Laverstoke where "Jemmy Burrough" (as they call him here), the judge, lives. I have not heard much about "Jemmy" since he tried and condemned the two young men who had wounded the game-keepers at Ashton Smith and Lord Palmerston. His lordship (Palmerston) is, I see, making a tolerable figure in the newspapers as a share-man ! I got into Salisbury about half-past seven o'clock, less tired than I recollect ever to have been after so long a ride; for, including my several crossings of the river and my deviation to look at churches and farm-yards and rick-yards, I think I must have ridden nearly forty miles.

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

Next Selection Previous Selection