Lockdown Lane

Over the coming weeks it is my intention to make a number of virtual pilgrimages with friends along routes they know well and, with the help of technology, to share in their experience of the route and the destination. Past experience of virtual pilgrimage is that it can be as joyous as the real thing if entered into with a truly open mind. But even as the lockdown gets ever tighter, the taste of spring still lingers from what proved to be my last ‘actual’ pilgrimage during the current crisis. Just over a week ago, after first calling in on the author Philip Gooden and his wife for a delicious brunch, Chelsey and I set out to traverse the meandering Thames Path from Radley to Christchurch Oxford. The covid-19 crisis had already begun to accelerate in the UK but there was as yet no advisory against such activities, so we were a little surprised when after three hours of walking along the Thames Path in glorious spring sunshine we arrived in Oxford only to find Christchurch closed. A combination of the pandemic and an audacious heist of Old Masters from the college’s art gallery were to blame. One of the stolen works ‘Soldier on Horseback’ was by Anthony Van Dyck, a Dutch painter who became attached to the court of Charles I. Dating from 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, the work hails from an era when outbreaks of the plague were a feature of life in Europe; not least in that ‘great wen’ London. 

One of the most notable outbreaks was in 1563, the year before the Bard’s birth, when 24% of London’s population perished. The most hard hit of all were the poor people living in cramped quarters with little access to fresh water for washing and laundry. (It’s notable that launderettes are amongst the list of businesses allowed to stay open during the current crisis). Then as now, in an attempt to stem the epidemic, London’s playhouses closed and the theatre companies often went on tour to the provinces. It is just these circumstances which provide the context for Philip Gooden’s Shakespearean thriller ‘The Pale Companion’. Set in the summer of 1601 and featuring the company of players The Chamberlain’s Men the book is a perfect read for those on lockdown who want to let their imaginations wander where their feet cannot. Time to cast the walking boots aside and pick up the tale…

Peeping through the entrance gate to Christchurch, Oxford – image V.Preston
Weeping willow, Thames Path, Oxfordshire – image V.Preston

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