Walking out of York, the travellers seem to have found themselves on the wrong end of a change in the weather. Perhaps they could feel it coming on, or knew that fine conditions were unlikely to last: they decided not to take a detour to spend the night at Sir Henry Frankland’s house at Aldwark, three miles west of Tollerton, but press on a further nine miles to Topcliffe, ‘
desiring to take advantage of the fairness of the weather‘, as the account puts it.
In so doing, they abandoned a plan to meet up with Sir Edward Stanhope, who was – interestingly enough – the cousin both of Sir John Stanhope, who’d assaulted Sir Charles Cavendish of Welbeck in 1599, and of Charles, later Baron Stanhope, who left some enigmatic annotations in his copy of an edition of Jonson’s Works, including the claim to have met Jonson at Lyon when the poet was travelling with Sir Walter Raleigh’s son, the imaginatively named Wat, in 1612-13. I hope the two knights weren’t too put out – you can imagine them sat silent in the acutely empty hall at Aldwark, more than a bit deflated by the news of their intended guest’s sudden change of plan.
Needs must, however, and for a long distance walker the weather isn’t a factor easily ignored. Jonson and his companion seem to have had a reasonably easy time of it up till now, at least if the account is faithfully taking note of conditions. Only two spells of rain are mentioned: at Hoddesdon it had thundered and rained, and delayed their progress for most of the day, while north of Huntingdon they’d been ‘
frecked by rain‘ – ‘freck’ here being either a shortened form of ‘freckle’ or a variant of ‘freak’, meaning dappled or flecked. It’s a great but rare word – used, so the OED tells me, by George Sandys in his translation of Ovid and then, much later, by John Clare. It catches the experience of being touched by raindrops falling thinly enough to be felt individually, rather than merging – as they often go on to do – into a more general, more thoroughly wettening, rain. These are the gradations that you become aware of, and that matter, when you spend a lot of time outdoors.
Here, though, north of York, the conditions appear to have become notably worse. Having made it through dry to Topcliffe, they spent the next day ‘
shut up with rain‘. When they set out again on the following morning they were forced to divert to Sandhutton (not to be confused, confusingly enough, with Sand Hutton), ‘
where we shifted by reason of a huge shower [which] overtook us‘. They were to arrive wet at Darlington the next day, but the worst was still to come. As the companion somewhat miserably records, north of Ferryhill they were assailed by a storm: ‘
by the way I lost my gossip, and came muck wet‘ to Durham. Another fine phrase, that – very wet, soaked through – noted now by the OED as an English dialect term, but its origins not all that well described. ‘Muck’ here is an intensifier, but does it come from the same root as ‘mickle’, sometimes given as ‘muckle’, meaning ‘much’ or ‘a lot’? Or does it instead stem from the word ‘muck’ meaning ‘dirt’? In fact, it could be both: there is a now relatively unusual phrase, ‘wet as muck’, which works on the same principle as ‘common as muck’, but uses ‘muck’ to mean ‘very’ or ‘completely’, seemingly losing any association with dirt – hence the otherwise not very intelligible phrases ‘drunk as muck’ and ‘sick as muck’.
Though I imagine that nothing could have been further from our bedraggled author’s thoughts as he trudged into Durham that day. After all, being soaked by rain and blown about by wind tends to concentrate the mind on matters more immediate and less abstruse then etymology. And there was also, now, the small matter of finding his walking companion: unsurprisingly, as the account notes, he went looking in the nearest inn.