Call me uncultured but I’ve never been into William Shakespeare. I was made to read As You Like It at school but that’s about it. However, the man’s life and the mysteries that surround it are intriguing.
So off we trotted to Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire for a family event, staying at the Q hotel, with time to spare to explore the Bard’s home town. I just ensured I didn’t have to sit through a play…
The town shamelessly plays up its Shakespeare connections and no doubt the general air of prosperity that hangs over the place can largely be explained by the millions of tourist pounds that pour into the coffers of local businesses and the charity that runs the historic sites, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Few miss the opportunity to link themselves to the great man and his works, so we get the Othello taxi company, the Mistress Quickly cafe and so on.
But the exploitation wasn’t as bad as I’d expected and the town proved to be a handsome affair, one that’s somehow managed to hold on to a degree of individuality. It stands in stark contrast to so many other British towns, which have fallen victim to the curse of the chain stores and bland 1980s shopping centres.
There are still remnants of the old Tudor town as well as streets lined with attractive cottages, homes and office buildings from later Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian times. Stratford-upon-Avon appreciates its past and works with it, rather than tearing it down or masking it with the bland. We wandered around, drinking in the attractive streetscapes.
The waterways are a bonus. The River Avon winds its way through town and its grassy banks are dominated by the red-brick Royal Shakespeare Theatre, complete with viewing tower that we never managed to climb. Nearby, it meets the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal.
The High Street has some gems, including Harvard House – an Elizabethan town house once owned by the father of the John Harvard who gave his name to the American university. And so began our acquaintance with the Birthplace Trust, which runs it. It has a complicated ticket policy that’s confusing and designed to extract as much cash as possible from the innocent tourist. Graham was furious and made his views clear. And I don’t blame him. Yes, it’s expensive to run these places but it makes you wonder how the poor could ever visit them.
I guess it wouldn’t matter so much if Harvard House had much to offer but basically it’s a house with a couple of floors, and the minimum of things in it to actually tell the story. It was great to get up close to see Tudor architecture at work but the beautifully crafted exterior proved to be the highlight – and you don’t have to pay to stand on the street and admire it.
Elsewhere the crowds and tour groups were out in force at handsome Holy Trinity Church, hovering over Shakespeare’s grave. We declined to spend money to join the throng but wandered through the churchyard just in case Graham could spot any ancestors buried there.
The Guild Chapel was quieter. Dating back to the 13th century, the guild was responsible for the Guild Hall, schoolhouse and almshouses that dominate much of Church Street. Inside the dinky chapel, we could just about see some of the 14th century wall paintings that have survived the centuries.
Even the pub we stopped at for food, the White Swan, boasted historic murals on its walls, dating back to the 16th century.
I was, funnily enough, less impressed by Shakespeare’s Birthplace itself. It sits in beautiful gardens but is dominated by a less than sympathetic block that houses an exhibition on the author’s life and times. Included is a rare and valuable First Folio. The house itself has little to offer other than the structure, considering the cost of admission. In fact, I thought the way it had been dressed made it look tatty and cheap. There was the inevitable shop selling all manner of Shakespeare themed stuff and an actor or two declaiming in the grounds.
Much more successful is the thatched Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, which sits in beautiful gardens and grounds in the village of Shottery a mile or so from Stratford. It’s so pretty it’s in danger of becoming a caricature. Much extended since the time Shakespeare’s bride was in residence, it was the home of her descendants until the early 20th century and some of the furniture they used and slept in remains. They were once quite wealthy and farmed sheep locally but lost much of their money when the wool industry collapsed.
The cottage has real character and oozes history, and we were very lucky in hearing an excellent and witty talk on the house and Anne’s family given by one of the staff members.
I could’ve sat in the grounds, admiring the beauty of it all, for hours. But Graham’s dad was waiting for us up the road in the local pub… Time for a cider.