Julia McLean recalls her visits to Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. Using the wit and lyricism of Shakespeare’s own language, she paints the picture of a historic town overrun by tourists but still very charming as just “as you like it.”
A Tourist Then…
In my salad days, when I was green in judgment, it was a foregone conclusion that the family would go to Stratford-upon-Avon around Easter time and short shrift was given to any other proposal.
As good luck would have it, my sister’s husband, a veritable tower of strength, was one of the rare car owners in the early 1950s. He had a Ford Prefect, as in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The name was hanged on the front grill of the car but, as with all second-hand cars, it had sustained some damage so the metallic sign actually read Ford Perfect, which it was for us.
In days of yore, before tarmacadam and expressways, we took, as they say, the road less travelled, the road through Newport, Newbury on Severn, Gloucester, Cheltenham, over Birdlip Hill, through Laurie Lee country and thence to Stratford. Not exactly a primrose path but, surrounded by fair daffodils and lush green pastures, we townies were quite happy.
The journey usually took over two hours as we would have had to follow trucks and slow mom and pop country drivers. There were no pit stops nor roadside caffs. (The Brits refer to cafés as caffs because when they first met the word they didn’t know they had to pronounce the acute accented ‘e’ at the end of the word) so it was high time to eat when we arrived. There were plenty of taverns, as there must have been in Shakespeare’s day, so the readily available cakes and ale readily appealed to our post-war “sweet tooths”. We didn’t want our pound of flesh a la MacDonald , which didn’t exist back then, but a pub snack followed by an afternoon tea fit for the gods.
The town was certainly not full of empty lodgings and unfurnish’d walls, unpeopled offices, and untrodden stones. There were magnificent, centuries-old houses built of wood and wattle and daub, and sometimes in-filled with bright red bricks. Most had red tiled roofs but a few retained the thatched roof style of Shakespeare’s day. The windows were all minuscule (mostly because few would have had proper window glass in Shakespeare’s time) so the interiors were rather dark. The main room would have an Inglenook fireplace and the ceilings all had exposed beams – which we pay a fortune and men’s eyes for nowadays.
The people in the tourist office, not a blinking idiot among them, were full of the milk of human kindness, and they furnished us with maps and pointed us to the sights.
A Tourist Now…
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has seen to it that all the Shakespeare family houses are well preserved, visitable and, in some cases, period furniture is displayed. Don’t look for a bathroom or even a privy as, needless to say, there was no running water nor toilets in the 16th century!
There is almost 365-day access to most of the houses in order to cope with the visitor traffic. There are various activities organised in each house for various festive dates – carol singing, outdoor plays, archery and falconry displays. The constant visitors make Stratford a bit of a sorry sight because it has lost forever the quiet country charm of a small market town. The town is full of noises, with tourists as fat as butter, mostly tedious fools, bacon fed knaves and bottle ale rascals, plus a lot of Japanese. Not much of a brave new world here then!
When young Shakespeare’s vaulting ambition took him off to London he left Anne Hathaway, his long-suffering wife (to whom he willed his second best bed) and the three children in a thatched cottage outside Stratford in the countryside at Shottery.
The cottage has a really pretty English country garden where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine. Despite a fire a few years back, the cottage has been restored to the highest standard with as many period pieces of furniture as the Shakespeare Trust was able to muster. The local Shottery pub has plentiful food.
Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, lived just up the road in Wilmcote. The Arden farm at Wilmcote now houses an exhibition of old farm tools and ploughs and was a working farm until the 1960s. There are the usual “farm workers” on the spot, and ladies in 16th-century gear, baking and indulging in farm activities like jam making or pickling, and the local yeomanry giving occasional falconry displays.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the centre of town is a fine house with leaded light windows for Shakespeare’s father was a wealthy glover. The supposed Shakespeare birthing room is above the main family room and incongruously, to our eyes, there is a huge bed on display downstairs which attests to the wealth of John Shakespeare.
The house was added to in the 1630s which amazes me as my home in France was probably finished in 1636. So I did achieve part of my girlhood ambition which was to live in a 17th-century beamed house somewhere in Middle England. As a result of the Easter visits, which became a family ritual, we were all imbued with a deep love of idyllic Olde Worlde England and all the family ended up living in Stratford.
Hall’s Croft, which was Shakespeare’sdaughter’s (Susanna) home with her husband, Dr. John Hall, has a lovely herb garden for Dr Hall was a renowned medical practitioner in his day and would have relied on his knowledge of herbs and simples to decoct his potions. Or maybe he preferred “eye of newt or toe of frog” to compose his remedies!
When Shakespeare finally returned to retire in Stratford, he lived at New Place which was later destroyed but stands next to the Nash House which belonged to Shakespeare’s granddaughter and her wealthy husband Thomas Nash.
Because the play’s the thing, the ideal would be to plan a visit to Stratford and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the same time. I have never managed to do this yet. When I was a student, I took a summer job in Stratford and together with several keen drama students found my way into the theatre from the bar and saw many productions for free. We had to stand at the back and could only get in after the first interval but it was such stuff as dreams are made on and well worth the effort. We also frequented the local pub doubly named the White Swan and the Dirty Duck, to catch glimpses of actors who were not on stage that night. We saw Peter O’Toole, I remember, and in my mind’s eye, he was the most beautiful blond Greek–style hero I had ever seen with everything handsome about him.
In recent years Stratford has made great strides in the tourist stakes and there are plentiful hotels and places at which to eat – all of which are very acceptable. Receptionists and waiters speak a feast of languages and all the foods of the world are available here — all of which means, that it is a hit, a very palpable hit with bus loads of tourists all the time. The whole world suffers from a surfeit of tourists but I have to admit I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it. I suggest you do the same.
* Grateful thanks to William Shakespeare who has enriched my article (and the English Language). His phrases are marked in bold.
If You Go…
I have collected a few names of Hotels and restaurants over the years. The only restaurant I haven’t tried is the newly opened Bernadette’s Oyster Bar. Check the hotels for special deals.
Mercure Shakespeare 4 star / 75 Euros
Holiday Inn 4 star / 58 Euros
The Arden Hotel (opposite the theatre) /70 Euros
The Legacy Falcon 4 star / 69 euros
Alveston Manor / 70 euros
Carluccio’s (highly recommended)
Thai Kingdom (the King of Thailand ate here so it must be good!)
Bernadette’s Oyster Bar
1. Shakespeare’s Birthplace © Julia McLean
2. The Falcon Hotel © Julia McLean
3. Hall’s Croft © Tourist Board
4. Anne Hathaway’s cottage © Tourist Board