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Lechlade

Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.


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LECHLADE

In early September, 1815, the foundations of perhaps three literary works were laid on a river journey terminating at Lechlade.

Rowing up from Windsor were the poet Shelley, his mistress Mary Godwin, her stepbrother Charles Clairmont and the novelist Thomas Love Peacock. The purpose of the ten-day expedition was to discover the source of the Thames, but somewhere around this point the ever mercurial Shelley conceived the notion of diverting to the Severn Canal and thence on a 2,000-mile return voyage which would encompass Wales, Durham and the Lakes, the Tweed and the Forth. But the epic journey was not to be, the four between them being unable to muster the Severn Canal sailing fee of twenty pounds.

Neither was Plan A realizable. The journey to the source had to be curtailed shortly after Inglesham, when the river became so clogged with weeds that the local cattle grazed across the river bed.

So Plan C was adopted, and they returned downstream to Lechlade.

The Swan, the oldest pub in the town, still has friendly staff and fine home-made food at sensible pub prices, despite today's sign proclaiming it to be the Oldest Public House in Lechlade, which proclamation is usually enough to make any sensible person scarper. Our travellers spent a leisurely few days here and the path between the river and the church (pure fifteenth-century perpendicular) is called `Shelley's Walk.' It was long enough for Shelley to write the surprisingly non-polemical `A Summer Evening Churchyard':

The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset's ray;
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids about the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

And the following summer, during a sojourn with Byron in Switzerland, Mary was to write: `I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together...'. Was the student Frankenstein based on the student Shelley? On the way upstream, the party had stopped off at Oxford to be shown around his old college by the poet. Shelley, obsessed always by the weird and the macabre, regaled them with tales of his nefarious scientific experiments there. His friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (expelled along with Shelley) was to describe Shelley as `the chemist in his laboratory, the alchemist in his study, the wizard in his cave' and his interests as `horror books, alchemy, ghost-raising, chemical and electrical experiments...'.

But to my mind the best outcome of the journey was Peacock's hilarious novel Crotchet Castle. Crotchet Junior determines to fit out a

flotilla of pleasure boats, with spacious cabins and a good cellar to carry a choice philosophical party up the Thames and Severn, into the Ellesmere Canal, where we shall be among the mountains of North Wales; which we may climb or not, as we think proper; but we will, at any rate, keep our floating hotel well provisioned and we will try to settle all the questions over which a shadow of doubt yet hangs in the world of philosophy.

And so they do, in a fashion:

In this manner they glided over the face of the waters, discussing every thing and settling nothing. Mr Mac Quedy and the Reverend Doctor Folliott had many digladiations on political economy: wherein each in his own view, Doctor Folliott demolished Mr Mad Quedy's science, and Mr Mac Quedy demolished Doctor Folliott's objections...

Afloat with his best friends in the world, discoursing dreamily on the waterways of the world and far from critic and creditor, this was probably the happiest journey of Shelley's life.


Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.


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