SHAKESPEARE’S NOT ITS ONLY CHARM
There are many good reasons to visit Stratford upon Avon, and only one of them is Shakespeare. True, this village on a pleasant English river is certainly Shakespeare’s town. In less than 20 minutes you can walk from the cottage in which he was born in 1564, the son of a glove maker, to the church in which he was buried in 1616 as Wm Shakespeare, Gent. On the way you pass his school and the site of the prestigious home of his later years. People have been coming here since the mid-1700s to do just that: walk in the footsteps of the great master of English literature.
But you could come simply to visit a picturesque English village in green and rolling countryside conveniently near London. Or to explore the interiors of a number of well-preserved and authentically furnished 16th century buildings. Or just to wander along canal and riverbanks in a small town that has wisely preserved them as linear parks.
Stratford has been in the business of pleasing tourists since the early 1700s when improved transportation – as well as Shakespeare’s increasing fame as both actor and playwright – began to attract visitors. (The first “Shakespeare Festival’, was organized here by the renowned actor David Garrick in 1767.) Some of the inns, restaurants and pubs that catered to the needs of those visitors are still in business. A walk down the handsome, lively streets in the evening, comparing menus and deciding where to have dinner or a pre-theatre supper, is one of the pleasures of Stratford.
The beating heart of Stratford is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and only a very short distance away fromwhere his work is celebrated, Shakespeare lies buried. The spire of Holy Trinity Church rises behind the trees in the theatre’s riverside garden. Shakespeare, who had been a lay rector, is buried along with his wife and daughter Susanna behind the chancel rail. The bust of Shakespeare in a niche on the sidewall was erected within seven years of his death, so is believed to be a good likeness.
Just a few steps away from the theatre down Chapel Lane is the 13th century religious Guild Hall where Shakespeare and his fellow students attended services. The boys of the King Edward VI school attend services there yet, and use the half-timbered 15thcentury schoolroom in which young Will sat at one of the wooden desks.Just across Chapel Lane from the Guild is the ‘New Place’, the site of the fine home Shakespeare enjoyed for the 19 years before his death. A subsequent tenant demolished the house to avoid paying taxes but the well and foundations of the house remain, as does the garden. The black mulberry tree flourishing there is thought to have grown from a shoot of the tree Shakespeare planted 300 years ago. The ‘mother’ tree was cut down not long after his death and crafted into souvenirs. Some of them are exhibited in his daughter’s house, Nash’s Hall, next door to the New Place.
Stratford’s Friday morning farmer’s market across the way from Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street is a reminder that Stratford was always a market town, or at least a town of merchants. The Bishop of Worcester built the settlement at a ford on the river Avon in the early 14th century, as a property development. Despite the high rents, a community of trades people and craftsmen flourished. Shakespeare’s father was one of them, a glove maker and later a wool merchant. His workshop is in one section of the rambling dwelling made up of four adjoining street-side houses.A curiosity of the building is the window, originally in the room in which Shakespeare was born, etched with a cobweb of signatures including those of Thomas Carlyle and William Scott. They were scratched on the pane with a diamond ring. Others tourists, like Dickens, Mark Twain and Keats, simply signed the visitor’s book as today’s tourists still do.
Getting there: Stratford is about 90 minutes by car from London, or a 30 minute drive from Birmingham airport.
Getting around: Save time by having a car meet you at the airport for the drive to your hotel. And then see Shakespeare’s country – and beyond – in the company of an accomplished guide.
Contact Tim Perry : shakespeare-tours.co.uk .
Staying there: The Shakespeare Hotel, which dates back to 1637, offers double rooms some with four-poster beds. www.mercure.com
While you’re there: Five houses and gardens in the area are associated with Shakespeare or his family. They include the tremendously picturesque thatched cottage of Anne Hathaway, who was to become Shakespeare’s wife. Don’t miss Hall’s Croft the prestigious home of Dr. Hall, Stratford’s most prominent physician and Shakespeare’s son in law. The home is exquisitely decorated with period furniture and paintings. There is also an attractive café.
All the houses are open year round except for 23-26 December but opening hours vary. Get details on arrival from the Stratford upon Avon Tourist Information Centre, Bridgefoot, or contact www.shakespeare-country.co.uk in advance.