Cobbett's "Rural Rides" through Headley

COBBETT, William (1763-1835) English writer and champion of the poor, born in Farnham, Surrey, the son of a small farmer. In 1802 he started his weekly Cobbett's Political Register which, with a three-month break, in 1817, continued until his death. His celebrated Rural Rides (1830) were reprinted from the Register.

Below, we reproduce those parts of the two 'rides' in which he came through Headley:—

Sunday, 24 November 1822

We got to Headley, the sign of the Holly-Bush, just at dusk, and just as it began to rain. I had neither eaten nor drunk since eight o'clock in the morning; and as it was a nice little public-house, I at first intended to stay all night, an intention that I afterwards very indiscreetly gave up. I had laid my plan, which included the getting to Thursley that night. When, therefore, I had got some cold bacon and bread, and some milk, I began to feel ashamed of stopping short of my plan, especially after having so heroically persevered in the 'stern path,' and so disdainfully scorned to go over Hindhead. I knew that my road lay through a hamlet called Churt, where they grow such fine bennet-grass seed. There was a moon; but there was also a hazy rain. I had heaths to go over, and I might go into quags. Wishing to execute my plan, however, I, at last, brought myself to quit a very comfortable turf-fire, and to set off in the rain, having bargained to give a man three shillings to guide me out to the Northern foot of Hindhead. I took care to ascertain, that my guide knew the road perfectly well; that is to say, I took care to ascertain it as far as I could, which was, indeed, no farther than his word would go. Off we set, the guide mounted on his own or master's horse, and with a white smock frock, which enabled us to see him clearly. We trotted on pretty fast for about half an hour; and I perceived, not without some surprise, that the rain, which I knew to be coming from the South, met me full in the face, when it ought, according to my reckoning, to have beat upon my right cheek. I called to the guide repeatedly to ask him if he was sure that he was right, to which he always answered 'Oh! yes, Sir, I know the road.' I did not like this, 'I know the road.' At last, after going about six miles in nearly a Southern direction, the guide turned short to the left. That brought the rain upon my right cheek, and, though I could not very well account for the long stretch to the South, I thought, that, at any rate, we were now in the right track; and, after going about a mile in this new direction, I began to ask the guide how much further we had to go; for, I had got a pretty good soaking, and was rather impatient to see the foot of Hindhead. Just at this time, in raising my head and looking forward as I spoke to the guide, what should I see, but a long, high, and steep hanger arising before us, the trees along the top of which I could easily distinguish! The fact was, we were just getting to the outside of the heath, and were on the brow of a steep hill, which faced this hanging wood. The guide had began to descend; and I had called to him to stop; for the hill was so steep, that, rain as it did and wet as my saddle must be, I got off my horse in order to walk down. But, now behold, the fellow discovered, that he had lost his way! - Where we were I could not even guess. There was but one remedy, and that was to get back if we could. I became guide now; and did as Mr Western is advising the Ministers to do, retraced my steps. We went back about half the way that we had come, when we saw two men, who showed us the way that we ought to go. At the end of about a mile, we fortunately found the turnpike-road; not, indeed, at the foot, but on the tip-top of that very Hindhead, on which I had so repeatedly vowed I would not go! We came out on the turnpike some hundred yards on the Liphook side of the buildings called the Hut; so that we had the whole of three miles of hill to come down at not much better than a foot pace, with a good pelting rain at our backs.

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, moralized 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. And, I most solemnly declare, that I felt a greater veneration for them than I have ever felt even for the Privy Council, notwithstanding the Right Honorable Charles Wynn and the Right Honorable Sir John Sinclair belong to the latter.

It was now but a step to my friend's house, where a good fire and a change of clothes soon put all to rights, save and except the having come over Hindhead after all my resolutions. This mortifying circumstance; this having been beaten, lost the guide the three shillings that I had agreed to give him. 'Either,' said I, 'you did not know the way well, or you did: if the former, it was dishonest in you to undertake to guide me: if the latter, you have wilfully led me miles out of my way.' He grumbled; but off he went. He certainly deserved nothing; for he did not know the way, and he prevented some other man from earning and receiving the money. But, had he not caused me to get upon Hindhead, he would have had the three shillings. I had, at one time, got my hand in my pocket; but the thought of having been beaten pulled it out again.

[I would be very happy to engage in conversation with anyone who feels they know the route by which Cobbett was led from Headley to arrive finally at Hindhead - I have my own ideas - please contact me.]

Thursday, 7th August 1823

I got a boy at Selborne to show me along the lanes out into Woolmer forest on my way to Headley. The lanes were very deep; the wet malme just about the colour of rye-meal mixed up with water, and just about as clammy, came, in many places, very nearly up to my horse's belly. There was this comfort, however, that I was sure that there was a bottom, which is by no means the case when you are among the clays or quick-sands. After going through these lanes, and along between some fir-plantations, I came out upon Woolmer Forest, and, to my great satisfaction, soon found myself on the side of those identical plantations, which have been made under the orders of the smooth Mr Huskisson, and which I noticed last year in my ride from Hambledon to this place. These plantations are of fir, or at least, I could see nothing else, and they never can be of any more use to the nation than the sprigs of heath which cover the rest of the forest. Is there nobody to inquire what becomes of the income of the crown-lands? No, and there never will be, until the whole system be changed. I have seldom ridden on pleasanter ground than that which I found between Woolmer Forest and this beautiful village of Thursley. The day has been fine, too; notwithstanding I saw the Judges' terrific wigs as I came up upon the turnpike-road from the village of Itchen. I had but one little scud during the day: just enough for St Swithin to swear by; but, when I was upon the hills, I saw some showers going about the country. From Selborne, I had first to come to Headley, about five miles. I came to the identical public-house, where I took my blind guide last year, who took me such a dance to the southward, and led me up to the top of Hindhead at last. I had no business there. My route was through a sort of hamlet called Churt, which lies along on the side and towards the foot of the north of Hindhead, on which side, also, lies the village of Thursley. A line is hardly more straight than is the road from Headley to Thursley; and a prettier ride I never had in the course of my life. It was not the less interesting from the circumstance of its giving me all the way a full view of Crooksbury Hill, the grand scene of my exploits when I was a taker of the nests of crows and magpies. At Churt I had, upon my left, three hills out upon the common, called the Devil's Jumps. The Unitarians will not believe in the Trinity, because they cannot account for it. Will they come here to Churt, go and look at these 'Devil's Jumps,' and account to me for the placing of these three hills, in the shape of three rather squat sugar-loaves, along in a line upon this heath, or the placing of a rock-stone upon the top of one of them as big as a Church tower? For my part, I cannot account for this placing of these hills. That they should have been formed by mere chance is hardly to be believed. How could waters rolling about have formed such hills? How could such hills have bubbled up from beneath? But, in short, it is all wonderful alike: the stripes of loam running down through the chalk-hills; the circular parcels of loam in the midst of chalk-hills; the lines of flint running parallel with each other horizontally along the chalk-hills; the flints placed in circles as true as a hair in the chalk-hills; the layers of stone at the bottom of hills of loam; the chalk first soft, then some miles farther on, becoming chalk-stone; then, after another distance, becoming burr-stone, as they call it; and at last, becoming hard, white stone, fit for any buildings; the sand-stone at Hindhead becoming harder and harder till it becomes very nearly iron in Herefordshire, and quite iron in Wales; but, indeed, they once dug iron out of this very Hindhead. The clouds, coming and settling upon the hills, sinking down and creeping along, at last coming out again in springs, and those becoming rivers. Why, it is all equally wonderful, and as to not believing in this or that, because the thing cannot be proved by logical deduction, why is any man to believe in the existence of a God any more than he is to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity?, For my part, I think the 'Devil's Jumps,' as the people here call them, full as wonderful and no more wonderful than hundreds and hundreds of other wonderful things. It is a strange taste which our ancestors had, to ascribe no inconsiderable part of these wonders of nature to the Devil. Not far from the Devil's Jumps, is that singular place, which resembles a sugar-loaf inverted, hollowed out and an outside rim only left. This is called the 'Devil's Punch Bow' and it is very well known in Wiltshire, that the forming, or, perhaps, it is the breaking up of Stonehenge is ascribed to the Devil, and that the mark of one of his feet is now said to be seen in one of the stones.

I got to Thursley about sunset, and without experiencing any inconvenience from the wet. I have mentioned the state of the corn as far as Selborne. On this side of that village I find it much forwarder than I found it between Selborne and Ropley Dean. I am here got into some of the very best barley land in the kingdom; a fine, buttery, stoneless loam, upon a bottom of sand or sand-stone. Finer barley and turnip-land it is impossible to see. All the corn is good here. The wheat not a heavy crop; but not a light one; and the barley all the way along from Headley to this place as fine, if not finer, than I ever saw it in my life. Indeed I have not seen a bad field of barley since I left the Wen. The corn is not so forward here as under Portsdown Hill; but some farmers intend to begin reaping wheat in a few days. It is monstrous to suppose that the price of corn will not come down. It must come down, good weather or bad weather. If the weather be bad, it will be so much the worse for the farmer, as well as for the nation at large, and can be of no benefit to any human being but the Quakers, who must now be pretty busy, measuring the crops all over the kingdom. It will be recollected that, in the Report of the Agricultural Committee of 1821, it appeared, from the evidence of one HODGSON, a partner of CROPPER, BENSON, and Co., Quakers, of Liverpool, that these Quakers sent a set of corn-gaugers into the several counties, just before every harvest; that these fellows stopped here and there, went into the fields, measured off square yards of wheat, clipped off the ears, and carried them off. These they afterwards packed up and sent off to Cropper and Co. at Liverpool. When the whole of the packets were got together, they were rubbed out, measured, weighed, and an estimate made of the amount of the coming crop. This, according to the confession of Hodgson himself, enabled these Quakers to speculate in corn, with the greater chance of gain. This has been done by these men for many years. Their disregard of worldly things; their desire to lay up treasures in heaven; their implicit yielding to the Spirit; these have induced them to send their corn-gaugers over the country regularly year after year; and I will engage that they are at it at this moment. The farmers will bear in mind, that the New Trespass-law, though clearly not intended for any such purpose, enables them to go and seize by the throat any of these gaugers that they may catch in their fields. They could not do this formerly; to cut off standing corn was merely a trespass, for which satisfaction was to be attained by action at law. But now you can seize the caitiff who is come as a spy amongst your corn. Before, he could be off and leave you to find out his name as you could; but now, you can lay hold. of him, as Mr Deller did of the Duke's man, and bring him before a Magistrate at once. I do hope that the farmers will look sharp out for these fellows, who are neither more nor less than so many spies. They hold a great deal of corn; they want blight, mildew, rain, hurricanes; but happy I am to see that they will get no blight, at any rate. The grain is formed; everywhere every body tells me that there is no blight in any sort of corn, except in the beans.

I have not gone through much of a bean country. The beans that I have seen are some of them pretty good, more of them but middling, and still more of them, very indifferent.

Contact me if you need further information or explanation.

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