Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

Jan. 21st to 22nd, 1822: Huntingdon Journal

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Monday morning, Jan . 21st, 1822.

CAME from London, yesterday noon, to this town on my way to Huntingdon. My road was through Ware. Royston is just within the line (on the Cambridgeshire side), which divides Hertfordshire from Cambridgeshire. On this road, as on almost all the others going from it, the enormous wen has swelled out to the distance of about six or seven miles. The land till you come nearly to Ware which is in Hertfordshire, and which is twenty-three miles from the wen , is chiefly a strong and deep loam, with the gravel a good distance from the surface. The land is good wheat-land; but I observed only three fields of swedish turnips in the twenty-three miles, and no wheat drilled. The wheat is sown on ridges of great width here and there; sometimes on ridges of ten, at others on ridges of seven, on those of five, four, three, and even two, feet wide. Yet the bottom is manifestly not very wet generally; and that there is not a bottom of clay is clear from the poor growth of the oak trees. All the trees are shabby in this country; and the eye is incessantly offended by the sight of pollards , which are seldom suffered to disgrace even the meanest lands in Hampshire or Sussex. As you approach Ware the bottom becomes chalk of a dirtyish colour, and, in some parts, far below the surface. After you quit Ware, which is a mere market town, the land grows by degrees poorer; the chalk lies nearer and nearer to the surface, till you come to the open common-fields within a few miles of Royston. Along here the land is poor enough. It is not the stiff red loam mixed with large blue-grey flints, lying upon the chalk, such as you see in the north of Hampshire; but a whitish sort of clay, with little yellow flattish stones amongst it; sure signs of a hungry soil. Yet this land bears wheat sometimes. Royston is at the foot of this high poor land; or rather in a dell, the open side of which looks towards the North. It is a common market town. Not mean, but having nothing of beauty about it ; and having on it, on three of the sides out of the four, those very ugly things, common-fields, which have all the nakedness, without any of the smoothness, of Downs.

Tuesday morning, Jan . 22, 1822.

Immediately upon quitting Royston, you come along, for a considerable distance, with enclosed fields on the left and open common-fields on the right. Here the land is excellent. A dark, rich loam, free from stones, on chalk beneath at a great distance. The land appears, for a mile or two, to resemble that at and near Faversham in Kent, which I have before noticed. The fields on the left seem to have been enclosed by act of parliament; and they certainly are the most beautiful tract of fields that I ever saw. Their extent may be from ten to thirty acres each. Divided by quick-set hedges, exceedingly well planted and raised. The whole tract is nearly a perfect level. The cultivation neat, and the stubble heaps, such as remain out, giving proof of great crops of straw, while, on land with a chalk bottom, there is seldom any want of a proportionate quantity of grain. Even here, however, I saw but few swedish turnips, and those not good. Nor did I see any wheat drilled; and observed, that, in many parts, the broad-cast sowing had been performed in a most careless manner, especially at about three miles from Royston, where some parts of the broad lands seemed to have had the seed flung along them with a shovel, while other parts contained only here and there a blade; or, at least, were so thinly supplied as to make it almost doubtful whether they had not been wholly missed. In some parts, the middles only of the ridges were sown thickly. This is shocking husbandry. A Norfolk or a Kentish farmer would have sowed a bushel and a half of seed to the acre here, and would have had a far better plant of wheat. About four miles, I think it is, from Royston you come to the estate of Lord Hardwicke. You see the house at the end of an avenue about two miles long, which, however, wants the main thing, namely, fine and lofty trees. The soil here begins to be a very stiff loam at top; clay beneath for a considerable distance; and, in some places, beds of yellow gravel with very large stones mixed in it. The land is generally cold; a great deal of draining is wanted ; and yet, the bottom is such as not to be favourable to the growth of the oak , of which sort I have not seen one handsome tree since I left London. A grove, such as I saw at Weston in Herefordshire, would, here, be a thing to attract the attention of all ranks and all ages. What, then, would they say, on beholding a wood of oaks, hickories, chestnuts, walnuts, locusts, gum-trees, and maples in America! Lord Hardwicke's avenue appears to be lined with elms chiefly. They are shabby. He might have had ash ; for the ash will grow anywhere ; on sand, on gravel, on clay, on chalk, or in swamps. It is surprising that those who planted these rows of trees did not observe how well the ash grows here ! In the hedgerows, in the plantations, everywhere the ash is fine. The ash is the hardiest of all our large trees. Look at trees on any part of the sea coast. You will see them all, even the firs, lean from the sea breeze, except the ash. You will see the oak shaved up on the side of the breeze. But the ash stands upright, as if in a warm woody dell. We have no tree that attains a greater height than the ash ; and certainly none that equals it in beauty of leaf. It bears pruning better than any other tree. Its timber is one of the most useful; and as underwood and fire-wood it far exceeds all others of English growth. At an inn near Lord Hardwicke's I saw the finest parcel of dove-house pigeons I ever saw in my life. Between this place and Huntingdon is the village of Caxton, which very much resembles almost a village of the same size in Picardy , where I saw the women dragging harrows to harrow in the corn. Certainly this village resembles nothing English, except some of the rascally rotten boroughs in Cornwall and Devonshire, on which a just Providence seems to have entailed its curse. The land just about here does seem to be really bad. The face of the country is naked. The few scrubbed trees that now and then meet the eye, and even the quick-sets, are covered with a yellow moss. All is bleak and comfortless; and, just on the most dreary part of this most dreary scene, stands almost opportunely, "Caxton Gibbet ," tendering its friendly one arm to the passers-by. It has recently been fresh-painted, and written on in conspicious characters, for the benefit, I suppose, of those who cannot exist under the thought of wheat at four shillings a bushel. Not far from this is a new house, which, the coachman says, belongs to a Mr. Cheer, who, if report speaks truly, is not, however, notwithstanding his name, guilty of the sin of making people either drunkards or gluttons. Certainly the spot, on which he has built his house, is one of the most ugly that I ever saw. Few spots have everything that you could wish to find; but this, according to my judgment, has everything that every man of ordinary taste would wish to avoid. The country changes but little till you get quite to Huntingdon. The land is generally quite open, or in large fields. Strong wheat-land, that wants a good deal of draining. Very few turnips of any sort are raised; and, of course, few sheep and cattle kept. Few trees, and those scrubbed. Few woods, and those small. Few hills, and those hardly worthy of the name. All which, when we see them, make us cease to wonder, that this country is so famous for fox-hunting . Such it has doubtless been, in all times, and to this circumstance Huntingdon, that is to say, Huntingdun, or Huntingdown, unquestionably owes its name; because down does not mean unploughed land, but open and unsheltered land, and the Saxon word is dun . When you come down near to the town itself, the scene suddenly, totally, and most agreeably, changes. The River Ouse separates Godmanchester from Huntingdon, and there is, I think, no very great difference in the population of the two. Both together do not make up a population of more than about five thousand souls. Huntingdon is a slightly built town, compared with Lewes, for instance. The houses are not in general so high, nor made of such solid and costly materials. The shops are not so large and their contents not so costly. There is not a show of so much business and so much opulence. But Huntingdon is a very clean and nice place, contains many elegant houses, and the environs are beautiful. Above and below the bridge, under which the Ouse passes, are the most beautiful, by far the most beautiful, meadows that I ever saw in my life. The meadows at Lewes, at Guildford, at Farnham, at Winchester, at Salisbury, at Exeter, at Gloucester, at Hereford, and even at Canterbury, are nothing, compared with those of Huntingdon in point of beauty. Here are no reeds, here is no sedge, no unevennesses of any sort. Here are bowling-greens of hundreds of acres in extent, with a river winding through them, full to the brink. One of these meadows is the race-course ; and so pretty a spot, so level, so smooth, so green, and of such an extent I never saw, and never expected to see. From the bridge you look across the valleys, first to the west and then to the east; the valleys terminate at the foot of rising ground, well set with trees, from amongst which church spires raise their heads here and there. I think it would be very difficult to find a more delightful spot than this in the world. To my fancy (and every one to his taste) the prospect from this bridge far surpasses that from Richmond Hill. All that I have yet seen of Huntingdon I like exceedingly. It is one of those pretty, clean, unstenched, unconfined places that tend to lengthen life and make it happy.

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

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