Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Aug. 30th to Sept. 1st, 1823: Sussex and Kent

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Saturday, August 30

I CAME from Worth about seven this morning, passed through East Grinstead, over Holthigh Common, through Ashurst, and thence to this place. The morning was very fine, and I left them at Worth making a wheat-rick. There was no show for rain till about one o'clock, as I was approaching Ashurst. The spattering that came at first I thought nothing of; but the clouds soon grew up all round, and the rain set in for the afternoon. The buildings at Ashurst (which is the first parish in Kent on quitting Sussex) are a mill, an alehouse, a church, and about six or seven other houses. I stopped at the alehouse to bait my horse; and, for want of bacon, was compelled to put up with bread and cheese for myself. I waited in vain for the rain to cease or to slacken, and the want of bacon made me fear as to a bed . So, about five o'clock, I, without greatcoat, got upon my horse, and came to this place, just as fast and no faster than if it had been fine weather. A very fine soaking! If the South Downs have left any little remnant of the hooping-cough, this will take it away to be sure. I made not the least haste to get out of the rain, I stopped, here and there, as usual, and asked questions about the corn, the hops, and other things. But the moment I got in I got a good fire, and set about the work of drying in good earnest. It costing me nothing for drink, I can afford to have plenty of fire. I have not been in the house an hour; and all my clothes are now as dry as if they had never been wet. It is not getting wet that hurts you, if you keep moving while you are wet. It is the suffering of yourself to be inactive , while the wet clothes are on your back.

The country that I have come over to-day is a very pretty one. The soil is a pale yellow loam, looking like brick earth, but rather sandy; but the bottom is a softish stone. Now and then, where you go through hollow ways (as at East Grinstead), the sides are solid rock. And, indeed, the rocks sometimes (on the sides of hills) show themselves above ground, and, mixed amongst the woods, make very interesting objects. On the road from the Wen to Brighton, through Godstone and over Turner's Hill, and which road I crossed this morning in coming from Worth to East Grinstead; on that road, which goes through Lindfield, and which is by far the pleasantest coach-road from the Wen to Brighton; on the side of this road, on which coaches now go from the Wen to Brighton, there is a long chain of rocks, or, rather, rocky hills, with trees growing amongst the rocks, or apparently out of them, as they do in the woods near Ross in Herefordshire, and as they do in the Blue Mountains in America, where you can see no earth at all; where all seems rock, and yet where the trees grow most beautifully. At the place of which I am now speaking, that is to say, by the side of this pleasant road to Brighton, and between Turner's Hill and Lindfield, there is a rock, which they call "Big-upon-Little" ; that is to say, a rock upon another, having nothing else to rest upon, and the top one being longer and wider than the top of the one it lies on. This big rock is no trifling concern, being as big, perhaps, as a not very small house. How, then, came this big upon little? What lifted up the big? It balances itself naturally enough ; but what tossed it up? I do not like to pay a parson for teaching me, while I have "God's own word " to teach me; but if any parson will tell me how big came upon little, I do not know that I shall grudge him a trifle. And if he cannot tell me this: if he say, All that we have to do is to admire and adore ; then I tell him, that I can admire and adore without his aid , and that I will keep my money in my pocket.

To return to the soil of this country, it is such a loam as I have described with this stone beneath; sometimes the top soil is lighter and sometimes heavier; sometimes the stone is harder and sometimes softer; but this is the general character of it all the way from Worth to Tonbridge Wells. This land is what may be called the middle kind . The wheat crop about 20 to 24 bushels to an acre, on an average of years. The grass fields not bad, and all the fields will grow grass; I mean make upland meadows. The woods good, though not of the finest. The land seems to be about thus divided: three-tenths woods , two-tenths grass , a tenth of a tenth hops , and the rest corn-land . These make very pretty surface, especially as it is a rarity to see a pollard-tree , and as nobody is so beastly as to trim trees up like the elms near the Wen. The country has no flat spot in it; yet the hills are not high. My road was a gentle rise or a gentle descent all the way. Continual new views strike the eye; but there is little variety in them: all is pretty, but nothing strikingly beautiful. The labouring people look pretty well. They have pigs. They invariably do best in the woodland and forest and wild countries. Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye , they can get but little. These are cross-roads, mere parish roads; but they are very good. While I was at the alehouse at Ashurst, I heard some labouring men talking about the roads; and they having observed that the parish roads had become so wonderfully better within the last seven or eight years, I put in my word, and said: "It is odd enough, too, that the parish roads should become better and better as the farmers become poorer and poorer !" They looked at one another, and put on a sort of expecting look; for my observation seemed to ask for information . At last one of them said, "Why, it is because the farmers have not the money to employ men , and so they are put on the roads." "Yes," said I, "but they must pay them there." They said no more, and only looked hard at one another . They had, probably, never thought about this before. They seemed puzzled by it, and well they might, for it has bothered the wigs of boroughmongers, parsons and lawyers, and will bother them yet. Yes, this country now contains a body of occupiers of the land, who suffer the land to go to decay for want of means to pay a sufficiency of labourers; and, at the same time, are compelled to pay those labourers for doing that which is of no use to the occupiers! There, Collective Wisdom! Go: brag of that! Call that "the envy of surrounding nations and the admiration of the world." This is a great nut year. I saw them hanging very thick on the wayside during a great part of this day's ride; and they put me in mind of the old saying, "That a great nut year is a great year for that class whom the lawyers, in their Latin phrase, call the 'sons and daughters of nobody.'" I once asked a farmer, who had often been overseer of the poor, whether he really thought that there was any ground for this old saying, or whether he thought it was mere banter? He said that he was sure that there were good grounds for it; and he even cited instances in proof, and mentioned one particular year, when there were four times as many of this class as ever had been born in a year in the parish before; an effect which he ascribed solely to the crop of nuts of the year before. Now, if this be the case, ought not Parson Malthus, Lawyer Scarlett, and the rest of that tribe, to turn their attention .to the nut-trees? The Vice Society too, with that holy man Wilberforce at its head, ought to look out sharp after these mischievous nut-trees. A law to cause them all to be grubbed up, and thrown into the fire, would, certainly, be far less unreasonable than many things which we have seen and heard of.

The corn from Worth to this place is pretty good. The farmers say it is a small crop; other people, and especially the labourers, say that it is a good crop. I think it is not large and not small; about an average crop; perhaps rather less, for the land is rather light, and this is not a year for light lands. But there is no blight, no mildew, in spite of all the prayers of the "loyal." The wheat about a third cut, and none carried. No other corn begun upon. Hops very bad till I came within a few miles of this place when I saw some, which I should suppose would bear about six hundredweight to the acre. The orchards no great things along here. Some apples here and there; but small and stunted. I do not know that I have seen to-day any one tree well loaded with fine apples.

Monday (Noon), Sept. 1 .

From Tenterden I set off at five o'clock, and got to Appledore after a most delightful ride, the high land upon my right, and the low land on my left. The fog was so thick and white along some of the low land that I should have taken it for water, if little hills and trees had not risen up through it here and there. Indeed, the view was very much like those which are presented in the deep valleys, near the great rivers in New Brunswick (North America) , at the time when the snows melt in the spring, and when, in sailing over those valleys, you look down from the side of your canoe, and see the lofty woods beneath you! I once went in a log canoe across a sylvan sea of this description, the canoe being paddled by two Yankees. We started in a stream; the stream became a wide water, and that water got deeper and deeper, as I could see by the trees (all was woods), till we got to sail amongst the top branches of the trees . By and by we got into a large open space; a piece of water a mile or two, or three or four wide, with the woods under us ! A fog, with the tops of trees rising through it, is very much like this; and such was the fog that I saw this morning in my ride to Appledore. The church at Appledore is very large. Big enough to hold 3000 people; and the place does not seem to contain half a thousand old enough to go to church.

In coming along I saw a wheat-rick making, though I hardly think the wheat can be dry under the bands. The corn is all good here; and I am told they give twelve shillings an acre for reaping wheat.

In quitting this Appledore I crossed a canal and entered on Romney Marsh. This was grass-land on both sides of me to a great distance. The flocks and herds immense. The sheep are of a breed that takes its name from the marsh. They are called Romney Marsh sheep. Very pretty and large. The wethers, when fat, weigh about twelve stone, or one hundred pounds. The faces of these sheep are white; and, indeed, the whole sheep is as white as a piece of writing-paper. The wool does not look dirty and oily like that of other sheep. The cattle appear to be all of the Sussex breed. Red, loosed-limbed, and, they say, a great deal better than the Devonshire. How curious is the natural economy of a country! The forests of Sussex; those miserable tracts of heath and fern and bushes and sand called Ashdown Forest and Saint Leonard's Forest, to which latter Lord Erskine's estate belongs; these wretched tracts and the not much less wretched farms in their neighbourhood, breed the cattle which we see fatting in Romney Marsh! They are calved in the spring; they are weaned in a little bit of grass-land; they are then put into stubbles and about in the fallows for the first summer; they are brought into the yard to winter on rough hay, peas-haulm, or barley-straw; the next two summers they spend in the rough woods or in the forests; the two winters they live on straw; they then pass another summer on the forest or at work ; and then they come here or go elsewhere to be fatted. With cattle of this kind and with sheep such as I have spoken of before, this Marsh abounds in every part of it; and the sight is most beautiful.

At three miles from Appledore I came through Snargate, a village with five houses, and with a church capable of containing two thousand people! The vagabonds tell us, however, that we have a wonderful increase of population! These vagabonds will be hanged by and by, or else justice will have fled from the face of the earth.

At Brenzett (a mile further on) I with great difficulty got a rasher of bacon for breakfast. The few houses that there are, are miserable in the extreme. The church here (only a mile from the last) nearly as large; and nobody to go to it. What! will the vagabonds attempt to make us believe that these churches were built for nothing ! "Dark ages" indeed those must have been, if these churches were erected without there being any more people than there are now. But who built them? Where did the means , where did the hands come from? This place presents another proof of the truth of my old observation: rich land and poor labourers . From the window of the house in which I could scarcely get a rasher of bacon, and not an egg, I saw numberless flocks and herds fatting, and the fields loaded with corn!

The next village, which was two miles further on, was Old Romney, and along here I had, for great part of the way, cornfields on one side of me and grass-land on the other. I asked what the amount of the crop of wheat would be. They told me better than five quarters to the acre. I thought so myself. I have a sample of the red wheat and another of the white. They are both very fine. They reap the wheat here nearly two feet from the ground; and even then they cut it three feet long! I never saw corn like this before. It very far exceeds the corn under Portsdown Hill, that at Gosport and Titchfield. They have here about eight hundred large, very large, sheaves to an acre. I wonder how long it will be after the end of the world before Mr. Birkbeck will see the American "Prairies" half so good as this Marsh. In a garden here I saw some very fine onions, and a prodigious crop; sure sign of most excellent land. At this Old Romney there is a church (two miles only from the last, mind!) fit to contain one thousand five hundred people, and there are for the people of the parish to live in twenty-two or twenty-three houses! And yet the vagabonds have the impudence to tell us, that the population of England has vastly increased! Curious system that depopulated Romney Marsh and peopled Bagshot Heath! It is an unnatural system. It is the vagabond ' system. It is a system that must be destroyed, or that will destroy the country.

The rotten borough of New Romney came next in my way; and here, to my great surprise, I found myself upon the sea-beach; for I had not looked at a map of Kent for years, and perhaps, never. I had got a list of places from a friend in Sussex, whom I asked to give me a route to Dover, and to send me through those parts of Kent which he thought would be most interesting to me. Never was I so much surprised as when I saw a sail . This place, now that the squanderings of the THING are over, is, they say, become miserably poor.

From New Romney to Dimchurch is about four miles: all along I had the sea-beach on my right, and, on my left, sometimes grass-land and sometimes corn-land. They told me here, and also further back in the Marsh, that they were to have 15s. an acre for reaping wheat.

From Dimchurch to Hythe you go on the sea-beach, and nearly the same from Hythe to Sandgate, from which last place you come over the hill to Folkestone. But let me look back. Here has been the squandering! Here has been the pauper-making work! Here we see some of these causes that are now sending some farmers to the workhouse and driving others to flee the country or to cut their throats! I had baited my horse at New Romney, and was coming jogging along very soberly, now looking at the sea, then looking at the cattle, then the corn, when my eye, in swinging round, lighted upon a great round building, standing upon the beach. I had scarcely had time to think about what it could be, when twenty or thirty others, standing along the coast, caught my eye; and if any one had been behind me, he might have heard me exclaim, in a voice that made my horse bound, "The Martello Towers , by ----!" Oh, Lord! To think that I should be destined to behold these monuments of the wisdom of Pitt and Dundas and Perceval! Good God! Here they are, piles of bricks in a circular form about three hundred feet (guess) circumference at the base, about forty feet high, and about one hundred and fifty feet circumference at the top. There is a door-way, about midway up, in each, and each has two windows. Cannons were to be fired from the top of these things, in order to defend the country against the French Jacobins!

I think I have counted along here upwards of thirty of these ridiculous things, which I dare say cost five, perhaps ten, thousand pounds each; and one of which was, I am told, sold on the coast of Sussex, the other day, for two hundred pounds! There is, they say, a chain of these things all the way to Hastings! I dare say they cost millions. But far indeed are these from being all, or half, or a quarter of the squanderings along here. Hythe is half barracks ; the hills are covered with barracks; and barracks most expensive, most squandering, fill up the side of the hill. Here is a canal (I crossed it at Appledore) made for the length of thirty miles (from Hythe, in Kent, to Rye, in Sussex) to keep out the French ; for those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube, were to be kept back by a canal, made by Pitt, thirty feet wide at the most! All along the coast there are works of some sort or other; incessant sinks of money; walls of immense dimensions; masses of stone brought and put into piles. Then you see some of the walls and buildings falling down; some that have never been finished. The whole thing, all taken together, looks as if a spell had been, all of a sudden, set upon the workman; or, in the words of the Scripture, here is the "desolation of abomination, standing in high places ." However, all is right. These things were made with the good will of those who are now coming to ruin in consequence of the debt, contracted for the purpose of making these things! This is all just . The load will come, at last, upon the right shoulders.

Between Hythe and Sandgate (a village at about two miles from Hythe) I first saw the French coast. The chalk cliffs at Calais are as plain to the view as possible, and also the land, which they tell me is near Boulogne.

Folkestone lies under a hill here, as Reigate does in Surrey, only here the sea is open to your right as you come along. The corn is very early here, and very fine. All cut, even the beans; and they will be ready to cart in a day or two. Folkestone is now a little place; probably a quarter part as big as it was formerly. Here is a church one hundred and twenty feet long and fifty feet wide. It is a sort of little cathedral. The churchyard has evidently been three times as large as it is now.

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

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