Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Sept. 6th to 11th, 1826: Highworth to Malmsbury

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Wednesday , 6 Sept.

THE great object of my visit to the northern border of Wiltshire will be mentioned when I get to Malmsbury, whither I intend to go to-morrow, or next day, and thence, through Gloucestershire, in my way to Herefordshire. But an additional inducement was to have a good long political gossip with some excellent friends who detest the borough ruffians as cordially as I do, and who, I hope, wish as anxiously to see their fall effected, and no matter by what means. There was, however, arising incidentally, a third object, which, had I known of its existence, would of itself have brought me from the south-west to the north-east corner of this county. One of the parishes adjoining to Highworth is that of Coleshill, which is in Berkshire, and which is the property of Lord Radnor, or Lord Folkestone, and is the seat of the latter. I was at Coleshill twenty-two or three years ago, and twice at later periods. In 1824, Lord Folkestone bought some locust-trees of me; and he has several times told me that they were growing very finely; but I did not know that they had been planted at Coleshill; and, indeed, I always thought that they had been planted somewhere in the south of Wiltshire. I now found, however, that they were growing at Coleshill, and yesterday I went to see them, and was, for many reasons, more delighted with the sight than with any that I have beheld for a long while. These trees stand in clumps of 200 trees in each, and the trees being four feet apart each way. These clumps make part of a plantation of 30 or 40 acres, perhaps 50 acres. The rest of the ground--that is to say, the ground where the clumps of locusts do not stand-- was, at the same time that the locust clumps were, planted with chestnuts, elms, ashes, oaks, beeches, and other trees. These trees were stouter and taller than the locust trees were when the plantation was made. Yet, if you were now to place yourself at a mile's distance from the plantation, you would not think that there was any plantation at all, except the clumps. The fact is, that the other trees have, as they generally do, made, as yet, but very little progress; are not, I should think, upon an average, more than 4 feet, or 5 feet, high; while the clumps of locusts are from 12 to 20 feet high; and I think I may safely say that the average height is 16 feet. They are the most beautiful clumps of trees that I ever saw in my life. They were, indeed, planted by a clever and most trusty servant, who to say all that can be said in his praise, is, that he is worthy of such a master as he has.

The trees are, indeed, in good land, and have been taken good care of; but the other trees are in the same land; and, while they have been taken the same care of since they were planted, they had not, I am sure, worse treatment before planting than these locust-trees had. At the time when I sold them to my Lord Folkestone, they were in a field at Worth, near Crawley, in Sussex. The history of their transport is this. A Wiltshire waggon came to Worth for the trees on the 14th of March 1824. The waggon had been stopped on the way by the snow; and, though the snow was gone off before the trees were put upon the waggon, it was very cold, and there were sharp frosts and harsh winds. I had the trees taken up, and tied up in hundreds by withs, like so many fagots. They were then put in and upon the waggon, we doing our best to keep the roots inwards in the loading, so as to prevent them from being exposed but as little as possible to the wind, sun, and frost. We put some fern on the top, and, where we could, on the sides; and we tied on the load with ropes, just as we should have done with a load of fagots. In this way they were several days upon the road; and I do not know how long it was before they got safe into the ground again. All this shows how hardy these trees are, and it ought to admonish gentlemen to make pretty strict inquiries, when they have gardeners, or bailiffs, or stewards, under whose hands locust-trees die, or do not thrive.

N.B. Dry as the late summer was, I never had my locust-trees so fine as they are this year. I have some, they write me, five feet high, from seed sown just before I went to Preston-Candover the first time, that is to say, on the 13th of May. I shall advertise my trees in the next Register . I never had them so fine, though the great drought has made the number comparatively small. Lord Folkestone bought of me 13,600 trees. They are, at this moment, worth the money they cost him, and in addition the cost of planting, and in addition to that, they are worth the fee simple of the ground (very good ground) on which they stand; and this I am able to demonstrate to any man in his senses. What a difference in the value of Wiltshire if all its elms were locusts! As fuel, a foot of locust-wood is worth four or five of any English wood. It will burn better green than almost any other wood will dry. If men want woods, beautiful woods, and in a hurry , let them go and see the clumps at Coleshill. Think of a wood 6 feet high, and I may say 20 feet high, in twenty-nine months from the day of planting; and the plants, on an average, not more than two feet high when planted! Think of that: and any one may see it at Coleshill. See what efforts gentlemen make to get a wood ! How they look at the poor slow-growing things for years; when they might, if they would, have it at once: really almost at a wish; and, with due attention, in almost any soil; and the most valuable of woods into the bargain. Mr. Palmer, the bailiff, showed me, near the house at Coleshill, a locust tree which was planted about 35 years ago, or perhaps 40. He had measured it before. It is eight feet and an inch round at a foot from the ground. It goes off afterwards into two principal limbs; which two soon become six limbs, and each of these limbs is three feet round. So that here are six everlasting gate posts to begin with. This tree is worth ?20 at the least farthing.

I saw also at Coleshill the most complete farm-yard that I ever saw, and that I believe there is in all England, many and complete as English farm-yards are. This was the contrivance of Mr. Palmer, Lord Folkestone's bailiff and steward. The master gives all the credit of plantation, and farm, to the servant; but the servant ascribes a good deal of it to the master. Between them, at any rate, here are some most admirable objects in rural affairs. And here, too, there is no misery amongst those who do the work; those without whom there could have been no locust-plantations and no farm-yard. Here all are comfortable; gaunt hunger here stares no man in the face. That same disposition which sent Lord Folkestone to visit John Knight in the dungeons at Reading, keeps pinching hunger away from Coleshill. It is a very pretty spot all taken together. It is chiefly grazing land; and though the making of cheese and bacon is, I dare say, the most profitable part of the farming here, Lord Folkestone fats oxen, and has a stall for it, which ought to be shown to foreigners, instead of the spinning jennies. A fat ox is a finer thing than a cheese, however good. There is a dairy here too, and beautifully kept. When this stall is full of oxen, and they all fat, how it would make a French farmer stare! It would make even a Yankee think that "Old England" was a respectable "mother," after all. If I had to show this village off to a Yankee, I would blindfold him all the way to, and after I got him out of, the village, lest he should see the scarecrows of paupers on the road.

Monday, Sept . 11.

I was detained at Highworth partly by the rain and partly by company that I liked very much. I left it at six o'clock yesterday morning, and got to this town about three or four o'clock in the afternoon, after a ride, including my deviations, of 34 miles; and as pleasant a ride as man ever had. I got to a farm-house in the neighbourhood of Cricklade to breakfast, at which house I was very near to the source of the river Isis, which is, they say, the first branch of the Thames. They call it the "Old Thames," and I rode through it here, it not being above four or five yards wide, and not deeper than the knees of my horse. The land here, and all round Cricklade, is very fine. Here are some of the very finest pastures in all England, and some of the finest dairies of cows, from 40 to 60 in a dairy, grazing in them. Was not this always so? Was it created by the union with Scotland; or was it begotten by Pitt and his crew? Aye, it was always so; and there were formerly two churches here, where there is now only one, and five, six, or ten times as many people. I saw in one single farm-yard here more food than enough for four times the inhabitants of the parish; and this yard did not contain a tenth, perhaps, of the produce of the parish; but while the poor creatures that raise the wheat and the barley and cheese and the mutton and the beef are living upon potatoes, an accursed canal comes kindly through the parish to convey away the wheat and all the good food to the tax-eaters and their attendants in the Wen! What, then, is this "an improvement?" Is a nation richer for the carrying away of the food from those who raise it, and giving it to bayonet men and others, who are assembled in great masses? I could broom-stick the fellow who would look me in the face and call this "an improvement." What! was it not better for the consumers of the food to live near to the places where it was grown? We have very nearly come to the system of Hindostan, where the farmer is allowed by the Aumil , or tax-contractor, only so much of the produce of his farm to eat in the year! The thing is not done in so undisguised a manner here: here are assessor, collector, exciseman, supervisor, informer, constable, justice, sheriff, jailer, judge, jury, jack-ketch, barrack-man. Here is a great deal of ceremony about it; all is done according to law; it is the free-est country in the world: but, somehow or other, the produce is, at last, carried away ; and it is eaten, for the main part, b y those who do not work. I observed, some pages back, that, when I got to Malmsbury, I should have to explain my main object in coming to the north of Wiltshire. In the year 1818, the parliament, by an Act , ordered the bishops to cause the beneficed clergy to give in an account of their livings, which account was to contain the following particulars relating to each parish:

  1. Whether a rectory, vicarage, or what.
  2. In what rural deanery.
  3. Population.
  4. Number of churches and chapels.
  5. Number of persons they (the churches and chapels) can

In looking into this account, as it was finally made up and printed by the parliamentary officers, I saw that it was impossible for it to be true. I have always asserted, and indeed I have clearly proved, that one of the two last population returns is false, barefacedly false; and I was sure that the account of which I am now speaking was equally false. The falsehood consisted, I saw principally, in the account of the capacity of the church to contain people; that is, under the head No. 5, as above stated. I saw that, in almost every instance, this account must of necessity be false, though coming from under the pen of a beneficed clergyman. I saw that there was a constant desire to make it appear that the church was now become too small! And thus to help along the opinion of a great recent increase of population, an opinion so sedulously inculcated by all the tax-eaters of every sort, and by the most brutal and best public instructor. In some cases the falsehood of this account was impudent almost beyond conception; and yet it required going to the spot to get unquestionable proof of the falsehood. In many of the parishes, in hundreds of them, the population is next to nothing, far fewer persons than the church porch would contain. Even in these cases the parsons have seldom said that the church would contain more than the population! In such cases they have generally said that the church can contain "the population!" So it can; but it can contain ten times the number! And thus it was that, in words of truth, a lie in meaning was told to the parliament, and not one word of notice was ever taken of it. Little Langford, or Landford, for instance, between Salisbury and Warminster, is returned as having a population under twenty, and a church that "can contain the population." This church, which I went and looked at, can contain, very conveniently, two hundred people! But there was one instance in which the parson had been singularly impudent; for he had stated the population at eight persons, and had stated that the church could contain eight persons! This was the account of the parish of Sharncut, in this county of Wilts. It lies on the very northernmost edge of the county, and its boundary, on one side, divides Wiltshire from Gloucestershire. To this Sharncut, therefore, I was resolved to go, and to try the fact with my own eyes. When, therefore, I got through Cricklade, I was compelled to quit the Malmsbury road, and go away to my right. I had to go through a village called Ashton Keines, with which place I was very much stricken. It is now a straggling village; but, to a certainty, it has been a large market town. There is a market-cross still standing in an open place in it; and there are such numerous lanes, crossing each other, and cutting the land up into such little bits, that it must, at one time, have been a large town. It is a very curious place, and I should have stopped in it for some time, but I was now within a few miles of the famous Sharncut, the church of which, according to the parson's account, could contain eight persons! At the end of about three miles more of road, rather difficult to find, but very pleasant, I got to Sharncut, which I found to consist of a church, two farm-houses, and a parsonage-house, one part of the buildings of which had become a labourer's house. The church has no tower, but a sort of crowning-piece (very ancient) on the transept. The church is sixty feet long, and, on an average, twenty-eight feet wide; so that the area of it contains one thousand six hundred and eighty square feet; or one hundred and eighty-six square yards! I found in the church eleven pews that would contain, that were made to contain, eighty-two people; and these do not occupy a third part of the area of the church; and thus more than two hundred persons, at least, might be accommodated, with perfect convenience, in this church, which the parson says "can contain eight" ! Nay, the church porch, on its two benches, would hold twenty people, taking little and big promiscuously. I have been thus particular, in this instance, because I would leave no doubt as to the barefacedness of the lie. A strict inquiry would show that the far greater part of the account is a most impudent lie, or rather string of lies. For as to the subterfuge, that this account was true, because the church "can contain eight," it is an addition to the crime of lying. What the parliament meant was, what "is the greatest number of persons that the church can contain at worship;" and therefore to put the figure of 8 against the church of Sharncut was to tell the parliament a wilful lie. This parish is a rectory; it has great and small tithes; it has a glebe, and a good solid house, though the parson says it is unfit for him to live in! In short, he is not here; a curate that serves, perhaps, three or four other churches, comes here at five o'clock in the afternoon.

The motive for making out the returns in this way is clear enough. The parsons see that they are getting what they get in a declining and a mouldering country. The size of the church tells them, everything tells them, that the country is a mean and miserable thing compared with what it was in former times. They feel the facts; but they wish to disguise them, because they know that they have been one great cause of the country being in its present impoverished and dilapidated state. They know that the people look at them with an accusing eye: and they wish to put as fair a face as they can upon the state of things. If you talk to them, they will never acknowledge that there is any misery in the country; because they well know how large a share they have had in the cause of it. They were always haughty and insolent, but the anti-jacobin times made them ten thousand times more so than ever. The cry of Atheism, as of the French, gave these fellows of ours a fine time of it: they became identified with loyalty and, what was more, with property; and, at one time, to say, or hint, a word against a parson, do what he would, was to be an enemy of God and of all property! Those were the glorious times for them. They urged on the war: they were the loudest of all the trumpeters. They saw their tithes in danger. If they did not get the Bourbons restored there was no chance of re-establishing tithes in France; and then the example might be fatal. But they forgot that to restore the Bourbons a debt must be contracted; and that, when the nation could not pay the interest of that debt, it would, as it now does, begin to look hard at the tithes! In short, they over-reached themselves; and those of them who have common sense now see it: each hopes that the thing will last out his time; but they have, unless they be half-idiots, a constant dread upon their minds: this makes them a great deal less brazen than they used to be; and, I dare say, that if the parliamentary return had to be made out again, the parson of Sharncut would not state that the church "can contain eight persons ." From Sharncut I came through a very long and straggling village, called Somerford, another called Ocksey, and another called Crudwell. Between Somerford and Ocksey I saw, on the side of the road, more goldfinches than I had ever seen together; I think fifty times as many as I had ever seen at one time in my life. The favourite food of the goldfinch is the seed of the thistle . This seed is just now dead ripe. The thistles are all cut and carried away from the fields by the harvest; but they grow alongside the roads; and, in this place, in great quantities. So that the goldfinches were got here in flocks, and, as they continued to fly along before me, for nearly half a mile, and still sticking to the road and the banks, I do believe I had, at last, a flock of ten thousand flying before me. Birds of every kind, including partridges and pheasants and all sorts of poultry, are most abundant this year. The fine, long summer has been singularly favourable to them; and you see the effect of it in the great broods of chickens and ducks and geese and turkeys in and about every farm-yard. The churches of the last-mentioned villages are all large, particularly the latter, which is capable of containing, very conveniently, 3000 or 4000 people. It is a very large church; it has a triple roof, and is nearly 100 feet long; and master parson says, in his return, that it "can contain three hundred people"! At Ocksey the people were in church as I came by. I heard the singers singing; and, as the churchyard was close by the road-side, I got off my horse and went in, giving my horse to a boy to hold. The fellow says that his church "can contain two hundred people." I counted pews for about 450; the singing gallery would hold 40 to 50; two-thirds of the area of the church have no pews in them. On benches these two-thirds would hold 2000 persons, taking one with another! But this is nothing rare; the same sort of statement has been made, the same kind of falsehoods, relative to the whole of the parishes, throughout the country, with here and there an exception. Everywhere you see the indubitable marks of decay in mansions, in parsonage-houses and in people. Nothing can so strongly depict the great decay of the villages as the state of the parsonage-houses, which are so many parcels of public property, and to prevent the dilapidation of which there are laws so strict. Since I left Devizes, I have passed close by, or very near to, thirty-two parish churches; and in fifteen out of these thirty-two parishes the parsonage-houses are stated, in the parliamentary return, either as being unfit for a parson to live in or as being wholly tumbled down and gone! What then, are there Scotch vagabonds; are there Chalmerses and Colquhounds, to swear, "mon," that Pitt and Jubilee George begat all us Englishmen; and that there were only a few stragglers of us in the world before! And that our dark and ignorant, fathers, who built Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals, had neither hands nor money!

When I got in here yesterday, I went, at first, to an inn; but I very soon changed my quarters for the house of a friend, who and whose family, though I had never seen them before, and had never heard of them until I was at Highworth, gave me a hearty reception, and precisely in the style that I like. This town, though it has nothing particularly engaging in itself, stands upon one of the prettiest spots that can be imagined. Besides the river Avon, which I went down in the south-east part of the country, here is another river Avon, which runs down to Bath, and two branches, or sources, of which meet here. There is a pretty ridge of ground, the base of which is a mile or a mile and a half wide. On each side of this ridge a branch of the river runs down, through a flat of very fine meadows. The town and the beautiful remains of the famous old abbey stand on the rounded spot which terminates this ridge; and, just below, nearly close to the town, the two branches of the river meet; and then they begin to be called the Avon . The land round about is excellent, and of a great variety of forms. The trees are lofty and fine: so that what with the water, the meadows, the fine cattle and sheep, and, as I hear, the absence of hard- pinching poverty, this is a very pleasant place. There remains more of the abbey than, I believe, of any of our monastic buildings, except that of Westminster, and those that have become cathedrals. The church service is performed in the part of the abbey that is left standing. The parish church has fallen down and is gone; but the tower remains, which is made use of for the bells; but the abbey is used as the church, though the church-tower is at a considerable distance from it. It was once a most magnificent building; and there is now a doorway which is the most beautiful thing I ever saw, and which was, nevertheless, built in Saxon times, in "the dark ages," and was built by men who were not begotten by Pitt nor by Jubilee George. What fools , as well as ungrateful creatures, we have been and are! There is a broken arch, standing off from the sound part of the building, at which one cannot look up without feeling shame at the thought of ever having abused the men who made it. No one need tell any man of sense; he feels our inferiority to our fathers upon merely beholding the remains of their efforts to ornament their country and elevate the minds of the people. We talk of our skill and learning, indeed! How do we know how skilful, how learned they were? If, in all that they have left us, we see that they surpassed us, why are we to conclude that they did not surpass us in all other things worthy of admiration?

This famous abbey was founded, in about the year 600, by Maidulf, a Scotch monk, who, upon the suppression of a nunnery here at that time, selected the spot for this great establishment. For the great magnificence, however, to which it was soon after brought, it was indebted to Aldhelm, a monk educated within its first walls, by the founder himself; and to St. Aldhelm, who by his great virtues became very famous, the church was dedicated in the time of King Edgar. This monastery continued flourishing during those dark ages, until it was sacked by the great enlightener, at which time it was found to be endowed to the amount of ?16,077 11s. 8d. of the money of the present day! Amongst other, many other, great men produced by this Abbey of Malmsbury, was that famous scholar and historian, William de Malmsbury. There is a market-cross in this town, the sight of which is worth a journey of hundreds of miles. Time, with his scythe, and "enlightened Protestant piety," with its pickaxes and crow-bars; these united have done much to efface the beauties of this monument of ancient skill and taste, and proof of ancient wealth; but in spite of all their destructive efforts this cross still remains a most beautiful thing, though possibly, and even probably, nearly, or quite, a thousand years old. There is a market-cross lately erected at Devizes, and intended to imitate the ancient ones. Compare that with this, and then you have pretty fairly, a view of the difference between us and our forefathers of the "dark ages."

To-morrow I start for Bollitree, near Ross, Herefordshire, my road being across the country, and through the city of Gloucester.

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

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