Grand Tours: A wet rural ride on St Swithin's Day

Adventures in literature from the world's great writers. This week, William Cobbett
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The Independent Travel

The radical journalist and politician William Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1762. He spent four years riding around the south of England in the 1820s, investigating the state of the countryside during the agrarian revolution. His accounts of these journeys were published under the title "Rural Rides" in 1830. They include not only agricultural observations but impassioned tirades against the "Lords of the Loom" (the cotton manufacturers), London (which he called the "Wen", a growth which fed on the honest toil of the workers), and The Thing (his name for the Establishment). Cobbett's dislikes were many: he also hated turnpikes, Scots and Quakers. He became an MP, for Oldham, in the first Reform Parliament of 1832 and died three years later. He is buried in Farnham churchyard.

Wednesday 30 July, 1822, Worth, Sussex

Worth is 10 miles from Reigate on the Brighton road, which goes through Horley. Reigate has the Surrey chalk hills close to it on the north, and sand hills on its south. As soon as you are over the sand hills, you come into a country of deep clay; and this is called the Weald of Surrey. This Weald winds away round, towards the west, into Sussex, and towards the east, into Kent. In this part of Surrey, it is about eight miles wide, from north to south, and ends just as you enter the parish of Worth, which is the first parish (in this part) in the county of Sussex.

All across the Weald the corn looks very well. I found it looking well from the Wen [London] to Reigate, on the villainous spewy soil between the Wen and Croydon; on the chalk from Croydon to near Reigate; on the loam, sand and chalk (for there are all three) in the valley of Reigate; but not quite so well on the sand. On the clay all the corn looks well. The wheat, where it has begun to die, is dying of a good colour, not black, nor in any way that indicates blight. It is however, all backward. Some few fields of white wheat are changing colour; but for the greater part it is quite green; and, though a sudden change of weather might make a great alteration in a short time, it does appear, that the harvest must be later than usual.

If we were now to have good, bright, hot weather for as long a time as we have had wet, the whole of the corn, in these Southern counties, would be housed, and great part of it threshed out, by the 10th of September. So that all depends on the weather, which appears to be clearing up in spite of Saint Swithin. This saint's birthday is the 15th of July; and it is said, that, if rain fall on his birthday, it will fall on forty days successively. But, I believe, that you reckon restrospectively as well as prospectively; and, if this be the case, we may, this time, escape the extreme unction; for, it began to rain on the 26th of June; so that it rained 19 days before the 15th of July; and, as it has rained 16 days since, it has rained, in the whole, 35 days and of course five days more will satisfy this wet soul of a saint.

Let him take his five days; and there will be plenty of time for us to have wheat at four shillings a bushel. But, if the Saint will give us no credit for the 19 days, and will insist upon his 40 daily drenchings after the 15th of July; if he will have such a soaking at the celebration of his birth, let us hope that he is prepared with a miracle for feeding us, and with a still more potent miracle for keeping the farmers from riding over us, filled as Lord Liverpool thinks their pockets will be by the annihilation of their crops!

Saturday 2 August, 1822. Singleton, Sussex

Ever since the middle of March I have been trying remedies for the hooping-cough [sic], and have, I believe, tried every thing, except riding, wet to the skin, two or three hours among the clouds on the South Downs. This remedy is now under trial. The farmers are also plagued by this St Swithin, who keeps up a continual drip, which prevents the thriving of the turnips and the killing of the weeds.

Every inch of land, that I came through this morning, belongs either to the Duke of Richmond, or to Lord Egremont. No harm in that, mind, if those who till the land have fair play; and I should act unjustly towards these noblemen, if I insinuated that the husbandmen have no fair play, as far as the landlords are concerned, for every body speaks well of them. We, "enlightened" and "free" creatures as we are, look back with scorn, or at least, with surprise and pity to the "vassalage" of our forefathers. But, if the matter were well inquired into; not slurred over, but well and truly examined, we should find, that the people of these villages were as free in the days of William Rufus as are the people of the present day and that vassalage, only under other names, exists now as completely as it existed then.

Where to stay

Start your journey in Brighton and stay at The Old Ship Hotel (01273 329001; www. paramount-hotels.co.uk). Dating from 1559, it has been host to many illustrious guests, including Cobbett's contemporary William Thackeray who wrote "Vanity Fair" there. Rooms from £145 per night.

At Horley, check into Langshott Manor (01293 786680; www.langshott manor.com), a 16th-century house with all mod cons. Rooms from £175 per night.

Shanks's pony

The South Downs include two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and are scheduled to become a National Park sometime in the next three to four years. All public rights of way in the area are now open. Visit the website for more information (www.vic.org.uk).

There are still places available on the 22nd South Downs Way Annual Walk, a 105-mile marathon worthy of Cobbett himself, from Eastbourne to Winchester. The nine-day walk begins on 7 September. For more information contact Footprints of Sussex (01903 813381|).

The curse of St Swithin

St Swithin was a Bishop of Winchester who died in AD862. According to legend, it was decided after his death that he should be reburied in the cathedral. However, when the monks tried to move the body, it started to rain and continued for 40 days and nights.

Rural revolutionaries

The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading (0118-931 8660; www.ruralhistory.org) records country life through the ages, including in Cobbett's era.

Getting there

If you don't want to drive, contact National Rail Enquiries (0845 7484950) for train routes, or for coach travel contact National Express (0990 808080).

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