Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Dec. 4th to 5th, 1821: Kentish Journal

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Tuesday, December 4, 1821.

THIS is the first time, since I went to France, in 1792, that I have been on this side of Shooter's Hill . The land, generally speaking, from Deptford to Dartford is poor, and the surface ugly by nature, to which ugliness there has been made, just before we came to the latter place, a considerable addition by the inclosure of a common, and by the sticking up of some shabby-genteel houses, surrounded with dead fences and things called gardens, in all manner of ridiculous forms, making, all together, the bricks, hurdle-rods and earth say, as plainly as they can speak, "Here dwell vanity and poverty ." This is a little excrescence that has grown out of the immense sums, which have been drawn from other parts of the kingdom to be expended on barracks, magazines, martello-towers, catamarans, and all the excuses for lavish expenditure, which the war for the Bourbons gave rise to. All things will return; these rubbishy flimsy things, on this common, will first be deserted, then crumble down, then be swept away, and the cattle, sheep, pigs and geese will once more graze upon the common, which will again furnish heath, furze, and turf for the labourers on the neighbouring lands. After you leave Dartford the land becomes excellent. You come to a bottom of chalk, many feet from the surface, and when that is the case the land is sure to be good; no wet at bottom, no deep ditches, no water furrows necessary; sufficiently moist in dry weather, and no water lying about upon it in wet weather for any length of time. The chalk acts as a filtering-stone, not as a sieve, like gravel, and not as a dish, like clay. The chalk acts as the soft stone in Herefordshire does; but it is not so congenial to trees that have tap-roots. Along through Gravesend towards Rochester the country presents a sort of gardening scene. Rochester (the bishop of which is, or lately was, tax collector for London and Middlesex) , is a small but crowded place, lying on the south bank of the beautiful Medway, with a rising ground on the other side of the city. Stroud , which you pass through before you come to the bridge, over which you go to enter Rochester; Rochester itself, and Chatham , form, in fact, one main street of about two miles and a half in length. Here I was got into the scenes of my cap-and-feather days! Here, at between sixteen and seventeen, I enlisted for a soldier. Upon looking up towards the fortifications and the barracks, how many recollections crowded into my mind! The girls in these towns do not seem to be so pretty as they were thirty-eight years ago; or am I not so quick in discovering beauties as I was then? Have thirty-eight years corrected my taste, or made me a hypercritic in these matters? Is it that I now look at them with the solemnness of a "professional man," and not with the enthusiasm and eagerness of an "amateur"? I leave these questions for philosophers to solve. One thing I will say for the young women of these towns, and that is, that I always found those of them that I had the great happiness to be acquainted with, evince a sincere desire to do their best to smooth the inequalitites of life, and to give us, "brave fellows," as often as they could, strong beer, when their churlish masters or fathers or husbands would have drenched us to death with small. This, at the out-set of life, gave me a high opinion of the judgment and justice of the female sex; an opinion which has been confirmed by the observations of my whole life.

Wednesday, Dec . 5.

The land on quitting Chatham is chalk at bottom; but, before you reach Sittingbourne, there is a vein of gravel and sand under, but a great depth of loam above. Above Sittingbourne the chalk bottom comes again, and continues on to this place, where the land appears to me to be as good as it can possibly be. Mr. William Waller, at whose house I am, has grown, this year, mangel-wurzel, the roots of which weigh, I think, on an average, twelve pounds, and in rows, too, at only about thirty inches distant from each other. In short, as far as soil goes, it is impossible to see a finer country than this. You frequently see a field of fifty acres, level as a die, clean as a garden, and as rich. Mr. Birkbeck need not have crossed the Atlantic, and Alleghany into the bargain, to look for land too rich to bear wheat ; for here is a plenty of it. In short, this is a country of hop-gardens, cherry, apple, pear, and filbert orchards, and quickset hedges. But, alas! what, in point of beauty , is a country without woods and lofty trees! And here there are very few indeed. I am now sitting in a room, from the window of which I look, first , over a large and level field of rich land, in which the drilled wheat is finely come up, and which is surrounded by clipped quickset hedges with a row of apple-trees running by the sides of them; next , over a long succession of rich meadows, which are here called marshes, the shortest grass upon which will fatten sheep or oxen; next , over a little branch of the salt water which runs up to Faversham; beyond that , on the Isle of Shepry (or Shepway), which rises a little into a sort of ridge that runs along it; rich fields, pastures , and orchards lie all around me; and yet, I declare, that I a million times to one prefer, as a spot to live on , the heaths, the miry coppices, the wild woods, and the forests of Sussex and Hampshire.

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

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