So this is how it begins:
‘Wee set out of London on Wensday the eight of Iuly and reach’d that night to Totnam high crosse, where wee lodgd at the [be] Beare &c. By the way thether wee met with the Shake-ragg errant, and his two doxes etc…’ It took a little while to work some of that out, despite the general clarity and ease of the writing. For a split second, as I began to transcribe ‘Shake-ragg’, there was the terrifying thought that the word was ‘Shakespeare’ – I’m not sure I’d have been up for the sort of hoopla that could have come with that. Very happy to see it instead shape up into this colourful and obsolete term for, as the OED puts it, a ‘ragged, disreputable person’. And anyway, Shakespeare would have ruled out Jonson – the walk was definitely 1618, some two years after his old friend’s death.
One important question was immediately askable: could this departure from London be dated to 1618? Was July 8 in fact a Wednesday that year? A check established that it was – by the then-current Julian calendar – so that was a step in a good direction. But no guarantee, of course – this could still be some other Johnson entirely, and a different year. Reading on would presumably decide things:
‘From thence to Waltam, where my Lady Wroth came to my Gossip etc…’
So from a shake-ragg and his doxies to more elevated company: Lady Mary Wroth, of all people. At that point, conviction grew: given their connection, this really did look like him. This was probably Jonson – this was his walk, datestamped and waymarked. Details lost for centuries began to clarify: if they walked from London to Tottenham, they must have left the city by Bishopsgate and headed up the Old North Road, now the A10; past the still-operating Curtain, and the site of the Theatre – whose timbers became the first Globe – on up to Tottenham.
And then, the next day, straight up the Hertford road to Waltham Cross, past – I was delighted to note, being a Spurs fan of long standing – what was many years later to become White Hart Lane. This was getting better and better!
And then other questions crowded in to trouble the clarity. How interesting, that Lady Wroth should come out from her own house a few miles away to meet him on the road! Was that what had happened? The account didn’t seem to offer any further information. And it didn’t say anything about what passed between them – how she greeted him, how he responded, the tone of their conversation. A mention, and then further names, none of which were anything like as familiar or easily identifiable.
Then a bigger question: who was writing this? Like many others, I’d always imagined a solitary Ben Jonson trudging up the country – there was no evidence to suggest otherwise, though when the royal waterman and poet John Taylor went on his ‘penniless pilgrimage’ to Scotland that same summer he had a horse and servant with him. In his 1973 play Bingo, Edward Bond had Jonson say to Shakespeare, in 1616: ‘I’m off to Scotland soon. Walking. Alone. Well, no one would come with me’. Only someone did. But who?