3.4 British ruralism
In 1700 over three-quarters of the British population still lived in the countryside; only 13 per cent, it has been estimated, dwelt in towns with over 5,000 inhabitants. But by 1800 the urban proportion had risen to 2.5 per cent and by 1851 the inhabitants of the towns were in a majority. Moreover, these nineteenth-century towns were more sharply differentiated from the country than their early modern predecessors had been. Before the end of the eighteenth century England had become, with the exception of the Netherlands, easily the most urbanized country in Europe. This great environmental change affected vast numbers of people and with it began a great lament about the growth of cities and an intensification  'the harsh distinction between rural and urban life'.
In Renaissance times the city had been synonymous with civility, the country with rusticity and boorishness. To bring men out of the forests and to contain them in a city was to civilize them. As an Elizabethan dialogue put it, a gentleman brought up in the town would be more 'civil' than one reared in the country.  The town was the home of learning, manners, taste and sophistication. It was the arena of human fulfilment. Adam had been placed in a garden, and Paradise was associated with flowers and fountains. But when men thought of heaven they usually envisaged it as a city, a new Jerusalem.   For centuries town walls had symbolized security and human achievement; and to the traveller their sight was always reassuring. In his tour in the 1530s John Leland often commented on the visual pleasures of the townscape: the 'pretty market' at Leeds; the 'fair streets' of Exeter; the radiance of Bewdley glittering 'as it were of gold' at sunrise; the 'beauty' of Birmingham. Rice Merrick, the Tudor historian of Glamorgan, thought Cardiff 'beautified with many fair houses and large streets', while in the 1690s Celia Fiennes could readily take pleasure in the sight of a 'neat town'. In the eighteenth century there was much satisfaction expressed at the beauty of the London squares and the new buildings in Bath or Edinburgh New Town; and we know that in 1802. Wordsworth thought that earth had nothing fairer to show than the sleeping city of London seen from Westminster Bridge.
Yet, long before 1802, it had become a commonplace to maintain that the countryside was more beautiful than the town. 'No one,' wrote William Shenstone in 1748, 'will prefer the beauty of a street to the beauty of a lawn or grove; and indeed the poets would have found no very tempting an Elysium, had they made a town of it.' It was partly the physical deterioration in the urban environment which encouraged this view. There had been complaints about London air since the thirteenth century. By Elizabethan times the increasing use of coal for industrial as well as domestic purposes had created a major pollution problem. Queen Elizabeth stayed away from the capital city in 1578 because of the 'noisome smells'; and for centuries the first sight of the capital caught by approaching travellers was the overhanging pall of smog. Margaret Cavendish records the emotion felt by her husband, the royalist Marquis of Newcastle, when, returning from enforced exile in 1660, he caught sight once more of 'the smoke of London, which he had not seen in a long time'. An early-eighteenth-century poet wrote:
While thus retir'd, I on the city look,
A group of buildings in a cloud of smoke.
The coal which was burned in the early modern period contained twice as much sulphur as that commonly used today; and its effects were correspondingly lethal. The smoke darkened the air, dirtied clothes, ruined curtains, killed flowers and trees and corroded buildings. By the mid eighteenth century the statues in London of some of the Stuart kings were so black that they looked like chimney sweeps or Africans in royal costume.