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Rural Rides  —  £ 2.99

Go to the eBook Shop Originally published in Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, Rural Rides was first issued in book form in 1830. A leader of Radical thought, his influence continues to this day.

Ignore the repetition, xenophobia, self-promotion and anti-Semitism and concentrate on his unique description of English rural life and the problems that change, or sometimes lack of it, was bringing. Many of these problems have not yet been solved.

This eBook edition contains all the 34 Rides in one volume, as published by Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd. in about 1920. Please see the extract below, containing the excellent introduction and part of one Ride. Following on are just a few of my favourite snippets.

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The cover of my original is blank, so I made the one above. The portrait of William Cobbett is by George Cooke and can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery.

The only part of this edition not included is a six page list of Nelson Classics' other available titles.


The text and any images below are identical to the eBook; however, depending on the typeface, etc., that you select, they may not display here exactly as they do on your eReader. Also, pages turn as normal, rather than the scrolling effect seen here.



      "THUS Sir, have I led you about the country. All sorts of things I have talked of, to be sure; but there are very few of these things which have not their interests of one sort or another. At the end of a hundred miles or two of travelling, stopping here and there; talking freely with everybody; hearing what gentlemen, farmers, tradesmen, journeymen, labourers, women, girls, boys and all have to say; reasoning with some, laughing with others, and observing all that passes; and especially if your manner be such as to remove every kind of reserve from every class; at the end of a tramp like this you get impressed upon your mind a true picture, not only of the state of the country, but of the state of people's minds throughout the country." This, in his own words, is what William Cobbett did between 1821 and 1832. He rode about England, especially the southern counties, with his eyes open and with an unquenchable desire to shake the complacency of the Government by exposing poverty and distress. The Rural Rides, the record of his journeyings, shows that he was as vigorous a writer as a traveller, and it also shows him in his element.
     He was born in the country, at Farnham in Surrey, in 1762, and was at first a farm labourer. Though later he became a clerk, a soldier, a bookseller, and an author, his love for the country—based on his intimate knowledge of it—remained unaltered. "Here was everything to delight the eye, and especially of one like me, who seem to have been born to love a rural life, and trees and plants of all sorts." As far as he could he kept away from the main turnpike roads, to explore the lanes and by-ways. He preferred riding on horseback because it was impossible in any other way to see "the real country places." He wrote of the country as a farmer (not as a romantic), noting the various kinds of soils, crops, methods of cultivation, and not forgetting to mention a new way of catching slugs.
      But he was even more interested in the living conditions of the people—in his own time and also earlier—than in the price of corn. Unlike travellers who gaze rapturously at cathedrals and monuments, but do not consider the homes of the people, Cobbett made his standard the girls at work in the field. He thought Gloucester a fine and beautiful place, but he was much more impressed by the fact that the labourers seemed to be well-dressed and healthy. His object was "to see the farmers at home, and to see the labourers in the fields," and he knew that what people wanted first was enough to eat and to wear. To the road-menders at Wrecklesham he gave not tracts, but money to buy bread, cheese, and beer. It was no use talking to him of religion or education unless the labourer "have his belly-full, and be free from fear; and this belly-full must come to him from out of his wages, and not from benevolence of any description." He was roused to indignation by the fact that farm-workers were worse fed than felons in the gaols. He was delighted to find in Sussex a pig at almost every homestead, and nothing pleased him more than to see the helpful results of applying the advice of his "Cottage Economy." He noted instances of special hardship for publication in the "Poor Man's Register," and his conviction was that by the end of his life he would have "mended the meals of millions."
      Essentially an individualist himself, he saw political and social problems in terms of individuals. He was a Radical (in so far as he was one) more from feeling than from reason, and he went round the country arguing violently for reform because he sympathized so strongly with the poor and oppressed. His membership of Parliament from 1832 till his death in 1835 was a fitting indication of his importance in the life of his time. His weekly articles in the Political Register made him famous—and notorious—in forming public opinion, especially among the working class. He became a marked man, and, as is clear from the Rural Rides, meetings where he spoke were liable to be rowdy.
      There is no need to press the parallel between England after the Napoleonic War and the Great War to find much in Cobbett's writings which is pertinent and stimulating to-day. Many of the problems of his age remain, in their modern form, essentially unsolved, and need for their solution an attitude no less sympathetic than his. Also, as a vivid description of English life over a century ago, Rural Rides is an invaluable mine of information for the social and economic historian. But it has far more than a historical interest. It tells us a great deal about England, but it tells us a great deal more about William Cobbett.
      The Rural Rides—and this is its chief charm—is a thoroughly personal book. With that unconscious self-revelation which is the essence of genuine letter-writing, the author disguised nothing about himself. He mentioned casual details of what he ate and when he slept, of how he had whooping-cough, and how he became bad-tempered when he was hungry. He was supremely interested in himself, and full of a self-confidence which might have been irritating were it not so naive, and boyish (he remarked in passing that his History of the Protestant Reformation was unquestionably the book of greatest circulation in the whole world, the Bible only excepted"). He almost felt it his duty to give advice, not only to young men, but to the world in general.
      He was nothing if not independent. When told not to go to Lewes, he promptly went. When once, after obstinately choosing a route, he was misled by his guide, it was not the rain or the fatigue which most annoyed him in the end, but the fact that he had not been able to have his own way. He replied to the offer of a government post by repeating the fable of the mastiff and the wolf. He believed passionately in freedom for himself and others, and rushed to attack anything which he regarded as injustice. He went to prison from 1810 to 1812 for his comments on the flogging of Englishmen by German mercenaries. He went to voluntary exile in America in 1817 rather than sell his mind to the Government. In winning freedom for himself he helped to win it for others, since the eventual success of the Political Register marked the end of the crippling control of journalism by the law.
      He made no secret of his opinions, but spoke at times with an excessive violence. He was a good hater—of, for example, Corn Laws, paper money, Malthus, Pitt, Peel, Wilberforce, the THING,* the WEN,** Scotsmen, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians (to whom he set a poser about sheep-fluke), tax-eaters, corruption, tea, and the landlord at the George Inn, Andover—and it would be difficult to arrange all these in order of their offensiveness to him, so vehement is his language about each. He did not mince his words about the "jolterheads" at Westminster, or the profligate London press. Cheltenham is described as "this resort of the lame and the lazy, the gormandizing and the guzzling, the bilious and the nervous," and—even on the subject of M.P.s—rarely has so much force been compressed into so few words as in Cobbett's withering picture of Sir Francis Burdett: "he is a sore to Westminster; a set-fast on its back; a cholic in its belly; a cramp in its limbs; a gag in its mouth: he is a nuisance, a monstrous nuisance in Westminster, and he must be abated."
      It is not surprising that many people in England and America besides the hotel staff at Tunbridge Wells thought Cobbett "a d——d noisy, troublesome fellow." Otherwise he might have been a more balanced critic and a more persuasive advocate, but a less entertaining writer. His zeal, as he once admitted in the days when he supported the Government, often outran his knowledge. He judged by first impressions, and did not bother to be consistent. He was only logical within the limits of his prejudices. He had the largest share in making public the evidence which eventually made the case for reform overwhelming, but in many ways he was fighting quixotically against the tide of events. The great Wen has not yet been dispersed, and to-day encroaches even yet more irresistibly on the countryside. Straw-plat*** was not a remedy for agrarian distress, and the factories have, despite Cobbett, displaced Merrie England. (It was ironical that in Parliament he should represent Oldham.) But though he was often wrong and pig-headed, he was always direct and honest. Throughout his life he hated affectation and corruption in any form, from ministerial sinecures to Gothic arches made of Scotch fir. He thought hypocrisy was the great sin of his age: he himself worked hard and lived simply. In all his interests, ranging from grammar to morals, he showed keen observation and blunt common sense. His outbursts should not make us blind to his essential cheerfulness and good nature. The man who wrote the Advice to Young Men, and especially the account of how his sons received the news of his imprisonment, was a warm-hearted husband and father. Whatever he did, he did whole-heartedly. We may not share his interest in turnips, and he may rant and rail overmuch against the King's Ministers, but his writing is of permanent appeal because it is sincere. It is the clear expression of the strong and genuine feeling of a man alertly in touch with the life around him. His prose is vivid and vigorous, with always the fresh air atmosphere of one who loved to ride off early in the morning through the country lanes.
            F. W. ALLEN.

* A term used somewhat vaguely by Cobbett in reference primarily to Pitt's creation of a sinking fund for the payment of the National Debt, and then to Pitt's policy in general, to paper money, and, almost, to anything in the financial system of his time which Cobbett disliked.
** London.
*** Cobbett encouraged the revival of cottage industries, and in particular of plaiting articles (e.g. hats) out of dried grass, not merely as a hobby, but as a means of saving money.


First part of Ride 24


Stroud (Gloucestershire),
Tuesday Forenoon, 12th Sept. 1826.

      I SET off from Malmsbury this morning at 6 o'clock, in as sweet and bright a morning as ever came out of the heavens, and leaving behind me as pleasant a house and as kind hosts as I ever met with in the whole course of my life, either in England or America; and that is saying a great deal indeed. This circumstance was the more pleasant, as I had never before either seen or heard of these kind, unaffected, sensible, sans-façons, and most agreeable friends. From Malmsbury I first came, at the end of five miles, to Tutbury, which is in Gloucestershire, there being here a sort of dell, or ravine, which, in this place, is the boundary line of the two counties, and over which you go on a bridge, one-half of which belongs to each county. And now, before I take my leave of Wiltshire, I must observe that, in the whole course of my life (days of courtship excepted, of course), I never passed seventeen pleasanter days than those which I have just spent in Wiltshire. It is, especially in the southern half, just the sort of country that I like; the weather has been pleasant; I have been in good houses and amongst good and beautiful gardens; and, in every case, I have not only been most kindly entertained, but my entertainers have been of just the stamp that I like.
      I saw again, this morning, large flocks of goldfinches feeding on the thistle-seed on the roadside. The French call this bird by a name derived from the thistle, so notorious has it always been that they live upon this seed. Thistle is, in French, chardon; and the French call this beautiful little bird chardonaret. I never could have supposed that such flocks of these birds would ever be seen in England. But it is a great year for all the feathered race, whether wild or tame: naturally so, indeed; for every one knows that it is the wet, and not the cold, that is injurious to the breeding of birds of all sorts, whether land-birds or water-birds. They say that there are, this year, double the usual quantity of ducks and geese: and, really, they do seem to swarm in the farm-yards, wherever I go. It is a great mistake to suppose that ducks and geese need water, except to drink. There is, perhaps, no spot in the world, in proportion to its size and population, where so many of these birds are reared and fatted as in Long Island; and it is not in one case out of ten that they have any ponds to go to, or that they ever see any water other than water that is drawn up out of a well.
      A little way before I got to Tutbury I saw a woman digging some potatoes in a strip of ground making part of a field nearly an oblong square, and which field appeared to be laid out in strips. She told me that the field was part of a farm (to the homestead of which she pointed); that it was, by the farmer, let out in strips to labouring people; that each strip contained a rood (or quarter of a statute acre); that each married labourer rented one strip; and that the annual rent was a pound for the strip. Now the taxes being all paid by the farmer; the fences being kept in repair by him; and, as appeared to me, the land being exceedingly good: all these things considered, the rent does not appear to be too high. This fashion is certainly a growing one; it is a little step towards a coming back to the ancient small life and leaseholds and common-fields! This field of strips was, in fact, a sort of common-field; and the "agriculturists," as the conceited asses of landlords call themselves, at their clubs and meetings, might, and they would if their skulls could admit any thoughts except such as relate to high prices and low wages; they might, and they would, begin to suspect that the "dark age" people were not so very foolish when they had so many common-fields, and when almost every man that had a family had also a bit of land, either large or small. It is a very curious thing that the enclosing of commons, that the shutting out of the labourers from all share in the land; that the prohibiting of them to look at a wild animal, almost at a lark or a frog; it is curious that this hard-hearted system should have gone on until at last it has produced effects so injurious and so dangerous to the grinders themselves that they have, of their own accord and for their own safety, begun to make a step towards the ancient system, and have, in the manner I have observed, made the labourers sharers, in some degree, in the uses, at any rate, of the soil. The far greater part of these strips of land have potatoes growing in them; but in some cases they have borne wheat, and in others barley, this year; and these have now turnips; very young most of them, but in some places very fine, and in every instance nicely hoed out. The land that will bear 400 bushels of potatoes to the acre will bear 40 bushels of wheat; and the ten bushels of wheat to the quarter of an acre would be a crop far more valuable than a hundred bushels of potatoes, as I have proved many times in the Register.


"My horse is ready; and the rooks are just gone off to the stubble-fields. These rooks rob the pigs; but they have a right to do it. I wonder (upon my soul I do) that there is no lawyer, Scotchman, or parson-justice, to propose a law to punish the rooks for trespass."

"......this summer has taught us that our climate is the best for produce, after all; and that we cannot have Italian sun and English meat and cheese. We complain of the drip; but it is the drip that makes the beef and the mutton."

"The first part of my ride this morning was by the side of Sir John Astley's park. This man is one of the members of the county (gallon-loaf Bennet being the other). They say that he is good to the labouring people; and he ought to be good for something, being a member of parliament."

"It is odd enough how differently one is affected by the same sight, under different circumstances. At the "Holly Bush" at Headley there was a room full of fellows in white smock frocks, drinking and smoking and talking, and I, who was then dry and warm, moralised within myself on their folly in spending their time in such a way. But when I got down from Hindhead to the public-house at Road Lane, with my skin soaking and my teeth chattering, I thought just such another group, whom I saw through the window sitting round a good fire with pipes in their mouths, the wisest assembly I had ever set my eyes on. A real Collective Wisdom."

"Like a very great fool, I, out of senseless complaisance, waited this morning to breakfast with the friends at whose house we slept last night at Andover. We thus lost two hours of dry weather, and have been justly punished by about an hour's ride in the rain."

"Ever since the middle of March, I have been trying remedies for the hooping-cough, and have, I believe, tried everything, except riding, wet to the skin, two or three hours amongst the clouds on the South Downs. This remedy is now under trial."

and I never knew this;

".....when I was a recruit at Chatham barracks, in the year 1783, we had brown bread served out to us twice in the week. And, for what reason God knows, we used to call it tommy. And the sergeants, when they called us out to get our bread, used to tell us to come and get our tommy. Even the officers used to call it tommy. Any one that could get white bread called it bread; but the brown stuff that we got in lieu of part of our pay was called tommy: and so we used to call it when we got abroad. When the soldiers came to have bread served out to them in the several towns in England, the name of 'tommy' went down by tradition."


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