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William Cobbett - Rural Rides (1823)

William Cobbett (1763-1835) was born in Farnham, Surrey, the  son of a farmer. He taught himself to read and write, and while  serving as a sergeant-major in the army studied rhetoric,  geometry, logic and French. He was a great political writer and  champion of the poor, and was MP for Oldham from 1832 -  1835. His most famous work is probably ‘Rural Rides’ published  in 1830, in which he paints a picture of a vanishing world as the  agricultural based economy of England gave way to the  Industrial Revolution. He visited Dover and below are some  extracts from his entry written on Wednesday, 3 September  1823.  “The town of Dover is like other sea-port towns; but really  much more clean, and with less blackguard people in it than I  ever observed in any sea-port before. It is a most picturesque  place, to be sure. On one side of it rises, upon the top of a very  steep hill, the Old Castle, with all its fortifications. On the other  side of it there is another chalk hill, the side of which rises up  from sixty to a hundred feet higher than the tops of the houses, which stand pretty close to the foot of the hill.” “I got into Dover rather late. It was dusk when I was going  down the street towards the quay. I happened to look up, and  was quite astonished to perceive cows grazing upon a spot  apparently fifty feet above the tops of the houses, and  measuring horizontally not, perhaps, more than ten or twenty  feet from a line which would have formed a continuation into  the air. I went up to the same spot, the next day, myself; and  you actually look down upon the houses, as you look out of a  window upon people in the street.”  “On the south side of the town the hill is , I believe, rather  more lofty than that on the north side; and here is the cliff  which is described by Shakespeare in the play of ‘King Lear’. It  is fearfully steep, certainly. Very nearly perpendicular for a  considerable distance. The grass grows well, up to the very tip  of the cliff; and you see cows and sheep grazing there with as  much unconcern as if grazing in the bottom of a valley.” Much as he apparently liked the town Cobbett was unimpressed  by the recently built fortifications on the Western Heights: “…I went to see, with my own eyes, something of the sorts of  means that had been made use of to squander away countless  millions of money. Here is a hill containing, probably, a couple  of square miles or more, hollowed like a honeycomb. Here are  line upon line, trench upon trench, cavern upon cavern, bomb  proof upon bomb proof; in short the very sight of the thing  convinces you that either madness the most humiliating, or  profligacy the most scandalous must have been at work here for years. The question that every man of sense asks is : What  reason had you to suppose that the French would ever come to  this hill to attack it, while the rest of the country was so much  more easy to assail?” “This is, perhaps, the only set of fortifications in the world ever  famed for mere hiding. There is no appearance of any intention  to annoy an enemy. It is a parcel of holes made in a hill, to hide  Englishmen from Frenchmen.” 
William Cobbett. An engraving from 1801. Dover from Priory Fields c.1820.  The town much as Cobbett would have seen it. Back to Words Index