Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Oct. 31st, 1825: Winchester to Burghclere

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Monday Morning, October 31, 1825.

WE had, or I had, resolved not to breakfast at Winchester yesterday: and yet we were detained till nearly noon. But at last off we came, fasting . The turnpike-road from Winchester to this place comes through a village called Sutton Scotney, and then through Whitchurch, which lies on the Andover and London road, through Basingstoke. We did not take the cross-turnpike till we came to Whitchurch. We went to King's Worthy; that is about two miles on the road from Winchester to London; and then.turning short to our left, came up upon the downs of the north of Winchester race-course. Here, looking back at the city and at the fine valley above and below it, and at the many smaller valleys that run down from the high ridges into that great and fertile valley, I could not help admiring the taste of the ancient kings, who made this city (which once covered all the hill round about, and which contained 92 churches and chapels) a chief place of their residence. There are not many finer spots in England; and if I were to take in a circle of eight or ten miles of semi-diameter, I should say that I believe there is not one so fine. Here are hill, dell, water, meadows, woods, corn-fields, downs: and all of them very fine and very beautifully disposed. This country does not present to us that sort of beauties which we see about Guildford and Godalming, and round the skirts of Hindhead and Blackdown, where the ground lies in the form that the surface-water in a boiling copper would be in, if you could, by word of command, make it be still , the variously-shaped bubbles all sticking up; and really, to look at the face of the earth, who can help imagining that some such process has produced its present form? Leaving this matter to be solved by those who laugh at mysteries, I repeat, that the country round Winchester does not present to us beauties of this sort ; but of a sort which I like a great deal better. Arthur Young calls the vale between Farnham and Alton the finest ten miles in England. Here is a river with fine meadows on each side of it, and with rising grounds on each outside of the meadows, those grounds having some hop-gardens and some pretty woods. But, though I was born in this vale, I must confess that the ten miles between Maidstone and Tunbridge (which the Kentish folks call the Garden of Eden) is a great deal finer; for here, with a river three times as big, and a vale three times as broad, there are, on rising grounds six times as broad, not only hop-gardens and beautiful woods, but immense orchards of apples, pears, plums, cherries and filberts, and these, in many cases, with gooseberries and currants and raspberries beneath; and, all taken together, the vale is really worthy of the appellation which it bears. But even this spot, which I believe to be the very finest, as to fertility and diminutive beauty, in the whole world, I, for my part, do not like so well; nay, as a spot to live on , I think nothing at all of it, compared with a country where high downs prevail, with here and there a large wood on the top or the side of a hill, and where you see, in the deep dells, here and there a farm-house, and here and there a village, the building sheltered by a group of lofty trees.

This is my taste, and here, in the north of Hampshire, it has its full gratification. I like to look at the winding side of a great down, with two of three numerous flocks of sheep on it, belonging to different farms; and to see, lower down, the folds, in the fields, ready to receive them for the night. We had, when we got upon the downs, after leaving Winchester, this sort of country all the way to Whitchurch. Our point of destination was this village of Burghclere, which lies close under the north side of the lofty hill at Highclere, which is called Beacon-hill, and on the top of which there are still the marks of a Roman encampment. We saw this hill as soon as we got on Winchester downs; and without any regard to roads , we steered for it, as sailors do for a land-mark. Of these 13 miles (from Winchester to Whitchurch) we rode about eight or nine upon the green-sward , or fields equally smooth. And here is one great pleasure of living in countries of this sort: no sloughs, no ditches, no nasty dirty lanes, and the hedges, where there are any, are more for boundary marks than for fences. Fine for hunting and coursing: no impediments; no gates to open; nothing to impede the dogs, the horses, or the view. The water is not seen running ; but the great bed of chalk holds it , and the sun draws it up for the benefit of the grass and the corn; and whatever inconvenience is experienced from the necessity of deep wells, and of driving sheep and cattle far to water, is amply made up for by the goodness of the water, and by the complete absence of floods, of drains, of ditches and of water-furrows. As things now are , however, these countries have one great draw-back: the poor day-labourers suffer from the want of fuel, and they have nothing but their bare pay . For these reasons they are greatly worse off than those of the woodland countries ; and it is really surprising what a difference there is between the faces that you see here, and the round, red faces that you see in the wealds and the forests , particularly in Sussex, where the labourers will have a meat-pudding of some sort or other; and where they will have a fire to sit by in the winter.

After steering for some time, we came down to a very fine farm-house, which we stopped a little to admire; and I asked Richard whether that was not a place to be happy in. The village, which we found to be Stoke-Charity, was about a mile lower down this little vale. Before we got to it, we overtook the owner of the farm, who knew me, though I did not know him; but when I found it was Mr. Hinton Bailey, of whom and whose farm I had heard so much, I was not at all surprised at the fineness of what I had just seen. I told him that the word charity , making, as it did, part of the name of this place, had nearly inspired me with boldness enough to go to the farm-house, in the ancient style, and ask for something to eat; for that we had not yet breakfasted. He asked us to go back; but at Burghclere we were resolved to dine . After, however, crossing the village, and beginning again to ascend the downs, we came to a labourer's (once a farm-house) , where I asked the man whether he had any bread and cheese , and was not a little pleased to hear him say "Yes." Then I asked him to give us a bit, protesting that we had not yet broken our fast. He answered in the affirmative, at once, though I did not talk of payment. His wife brought out the cut loaf, and a piece of Wiltshire cheese, and I took them in hand, gave Richard a good hunch, and took another for myself. I verily believe that all the pleasure of eating enjoyed by all the feeders in London in a whole year does not equal that which we enjoyed in gnawing this bread and cheese, as we rode over this cold down, whip and bridle-reins in one hand, and the hunch in the other. Richard, who was purse bearer, gave the woman, by my direction, about enough to buy two quartern loaves: for she told me that they had to buy their bread at the mill , not being able to bake themselves for want of fuel ; and this, as I said before, is one of the draw-backs in this sort of country. I wish every one of these people had an American fireplace . Here they might then, even in these bare countries, have comfortable warmth. Rubbish of any sort would, by this means, give them warmth. I am now, at six o'clock in the morning, sitting in a room where one of these fireplaces, with very light turf in it, gives as good and steady a warmth as it is possible to feel, and which room has, too, been cured of smoking by this fireplace.

Just after we had finished the bread and cheese, we crossed the turnpike-road that goes from Basingstoke to Stockbridge; and Mr. Bailey had told us that we were then to bear away to our right, and go to the end of the wood (which we saw one end of), and keep round with that wood, or coppice, as he called it, to our left; but we, seeing Beacon Hill more to the left, and resolving to go, as nearly as possible, in a straight line to it, steered directly over the fields; that is to say, pieces of ground from 30 to 100 acres in each. But a hill which we had to go over, had here hidden from out sight a part of this "coppice," which consists, perhaps, of 150 or 200 acres, and which we found sweeping round, in a crescent-like form so far, from towards our left, as to bring our land-mark over the coppice at about the mid-length of the latter. Upon this discovery we slackened sail; for this coppice might be a mile across; and though the bottom was sound enough, being a coverlet of flints upon a bed of chalk, the underwood was too high and too thick for us to face, being, as we were, at so great a distance from the means of obtaining a fresh supply of clothes. Our leather leggings would have stood anything; but out coats were of the common kind; and before we saw the other side of the coppice we should, I dare say, have been as ragged as forest-ponies in the month of March. In this dilemma I stopped, and looked at the coppice. Luckily two boys, who had been cutting sticks (to sell , I dare say, at least I hope so), made their appearance, at about half a mile off on the side for the coppice. Richard galloped off to the boys, from whom he found that, in one part of the coppice, there was a road cut across, the point of entrance into which road they explained to him. This was to us what the discovery of a canal across the isthmus of Darien would be to a ship in the Gulf of Mexico wanting to get into the Pacific without doubling Cape Horn. A beautiful road we found it. I should suppose the best part of a mile long, perfectly straight, the surface sound and smooth, about eight feet wide, the whole length seen at once, and, when you are at one end, the other end seeming to be hardly a yard wide. When we got about half way, we found a road that crossed this. These roads are, I suppose, cut for the hunters. They are very pretty, at any rate, and we found this one very convenient; for it cut our way short by a full half mile.

From this coppice to Whitchurch is not more than about four miles, and we soon reached it, because here you begin to descend into the vale in which this little town lies, and through which there runs that stream which turns the mill of 'Squire Portal, and which mill makes the Bank of England note-paper! Talk of the Thames and the Hudson with their forests of masts; talk of the Nile and the Delaware bearing the food of millions on their bosoms; talk of the Ganges and the Mississippi sending forth over the world their silks and their cottons; talk of the Rio de la Plata and the other rivers, their beds pebbled with silver and gold and diamonds. What as to their effect on the condition of mankind, as to the virtues, the vices, the enjoyments and the sufferings of men; what are all these rivers put together compared with the river of Whitchurch , which a man of threescore may jump across dry-shod, which moistens a quarter of a mile wide of poor, rushy meadow, which washes the skirts of the park and game preserves of that bright patrician who wedded the daughter of Hanson, the attorney and late solicitor to the Stamp Office, and which is, to look at it, of far less importance than any gutter in the Wen! Yet this river, by merely turning a wheel, which wheel sets some rag-tearers and grinders and washers and re-compressers in motion, has produced a greater effect on the condition of men than has been produced on that condition by all the other rivers, all the seas, all the mines and all the continents in the world. The discovery of America, and the consequent discovery and use of vast quantities of silver and gold, did, indeed, produce great effects on the nations of Europe. They changed the value of money, and caused, as all such changes must, a transfer of property , raising up new families and pulling down old ones, a transfer very little favourable either to morality , or to real and substantial liberty . But this cause worked slowly ; its consequences came on by slow degrees ; it made a transfer of property, but it made that transfer in so small a degree, and it left the property quiet in the hands of the new possessor for so long a time , that the effect was not violent, and was not, at any rate, such as to uproot possessors by whole districts, as the hurricane uproots the forests. Not so the product of the little sedgy rivulet of Whitchurch! It has, in the short space of a hundred and thirty-one years, and, indeed, in the space of the last forty , caused greater changes as to property than had been caused by all other things put together in the long course of seven centuries, though during that course there had been a sweeping Protestant reformation.

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

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