It is the anniversary on March 9 of the birth of a man esteemed historian AJP Taylor described as the second greatest Englishman ever to have lived.
Taylor said that while Samuel Johnson was "the greatest Englishman" ever there was no question about the runner-up: William Cobbett.
Cobbett was born in 1763 in Farnham, possibly making him the most radical man ever to come out of Surrey. He is now best remembered for Rural Rides (1832), a book hastily put together as an account of a series of journeys in southern England as the countryside was changing permanently. It has a polemical edge but the book tends to be viewed as a loving, exact account of the English countryside.
A year later, Cobbett became an MP. He may be mostly forgotten now — is Rural Rides still taught in schools? — but he was revered by scores of writers including GK Chesterton. Dennis Potter loved his work and often quoted Cobbett's advice on writing, "Use the first words that occur to you, put down your thoughts in words just as they come".
Cobbett, a farmer's son, was tall and ruddy faced and described by William Hazlitt as "a pleasant, mild man". His behaviour was anything but mild, and earned him two years in Newgate prison for criminal libel. He took against many targets: the Prince Regent, Castlereagh, the Bishop of Clogher, rotten boroughs and corrupt politicians among them. He was a tireless campaigner against poverty and its causes.
His 1818 book Grammar Of The English Language sold out all 5000 copies within a fortnight and his latter books sold more than two million copies.
Shortly before he died, in 1835 aged 72, Cobbett was planning to write a play. Baron Macaulay said by then that Cobbett's paranoia had developed to the point of insanity. The play was going to be called Bastards in High Places.
It's unlikely that the William Cobbett pub in Farnham will be thronged with his fans today and few of us may rush to read or re-read Rural Rides. But the next time you hear the phrase "red herring" you can think of him. Modern linguists say it was most likely a literary device invented by Cobbett in 1807.