Locating the local in William Cobbett’s Rural Rides

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on the revised proposal for a co-edited collection on gender and rurality in the long Victorian period – the book, now titled Gendered Ruralities: Gender and Space in Britain, 1840-1920, emerged out of the Rural Geographies symposium held last year at Warwick. The essays cover a wide range of rural locations throughout Britain, exploring the particular ways in which gender is played out in rural environments – both shaping and shaped by the specific contexts of rural locations. Throughout the wide range of rural locations covered, in Britain and abroad, the collection builds up a multifaceted concept of rural gender identities, moving away from a static concept of “the rural”. A diverse set of perspectives on the relationship between rural and national identities also unfold, revealing rural places as points of negotiation between local, regional, national and international identities.

View of Dover in 1804; from http://www.dover-kent.co.uk/words/cobbett.htm
View of Dover in 1804; from http://www.dover-kent.co.uk/words/cobbett.htm

It seemed like a good time, then, to finally read the copy of William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1830) that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few months. If you’re not familiar with the text, it’s a series of accounts of Cobbett’s rides through rural Southern England in the 1820s, charting the rapidly changing rural landscape as the effects of the agricultural revolution, urbanization and industrialization take hold. The writing moves between the detailed agricultural understanding of a rural labourer, the newness of a traveller’s perspectives, and the political outporings of one incensed at the government’s injustice towards rural communities.

Written just before the Victorian years, on which my research and the book collection focus, it’s been interesting to see how certain elements are anticipated and to get a detailed sense of the changes taking place in agricultural communities in these years. One thing that’s particularly interesting me thus far in my reading is the way in which Cobbett moves frequently between different points of perspective. His rides often move quickly through a succession of named places before arriving at a stop or point of interest that will prompt a longer observation, drawing the particularities of individual rural communities into a wider picture of the rural South, Cobbett using his perspective as an outside observer to make sense of the landscape as a whole.

In a similar vein, Cobbett frequently reaches viewpoints that afford a wider perspective on the surrounding landscape – I’ve come across 5 such instances just in the first 100 or so pages:

“we, having seen enough of the streets and turnpikes, took across over Merrow Down, and then mounted the ‘Surrey Hills’ so famous for the prospects they afford. Here we looked back over Middlesex, and into Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, away towards the North West, into Essex and Kent towards the East, over part of Sussex to the South, and over part of Hampshire to the West and South West” (p. 35)

“that chain of hills, which, in this part, divide Hampshire from Berkshire […] from which you can see all across the country, even to the Isle of Wight, are of chalk” (p. 65)

“[Beacon Hill] is one of the loftiest hills in the country. Here you can see the Isle of Wight in detail, a fine sweep of the sea; also away into Sussex, and over the New Forest into Dorsetshire” (p.77)

“the ground is pretty much elevated, and enables you to look about you. You see the Surrey Hills away to the North; Hindhead and Blackdown to the North West and West; and the South Downs from the West to the East” (p. 113)

“there is a hill which I came over, about two miles from Petworth, whence I had a clear view of the Surrey chalk-hills, Leith-hill, Hindhead, Blackdown, and of hte South Downs” (p. 116)

Each time the observation is focused not so much on the view, but on naming the counties or places that can be seen; only in a few instances does Cobbett give an impression of the landscape’s appearance or any indicators of aesthetic appreciation, instead focusing on giving a description which gives distinct, identifiable markers of place – names and directions. It serves to map out the surrounding area, almost plotting the coordinates so that we specifically locate each place and get a sense of its relational context to the surrounding area. These instances ensure that the wider perspective of the region, and nation, is always maintained, but they also focus on giving a very specific, relational sense of how each place is situated so that the view is at once broad and distinct.

The frequency with which these instances occur means that the reader is constantly called on to keep the wider map in view, repeatedly reiterating that the concerns of the rural locale are at once local, regional, national and even international – something very much at the heart of Cobbett’s writing, and indeed indicative of the way in which many rural contexts can most productively be understood.

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