As I wanted to create a guidebook to all the places of literary interest I have visited, it only seems fitting to start with our one undoubted genius. This choice may be seen as controversial but, whoever you believe actually did the writing, the plays attributed to William Shakespeare are the greatest works of literature ever produced.
Stratford-upon-avon is a charming town. Centred around a large park on the banks of the Avon which, in the summer months, teems with day trippers from the nearby West Midlands conurbation and tourists from around the world. Few of these people visit the three theatres (four if you include the free one in the park) run by the Royal Shakespeare Company or visit the museums owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust but this is unimportant. Families hire boats and glide along the river amongst the swans. Older folk hire deck-chairs and laze in the sun while puppeteers and magicians entertain the children, all of them enjoying a delightful, peaceful rural English town.
The town has been a shrine to Britain’s favourite writer since David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769. If you do decide to visit, you will not be alone. In the summer in particular (and you should visit in the summer), the birthplace will be full of tourists happily chatting and snapping away. Personally, I like to take my time and soak up the atmosphere, so my advice is to arrive early. The other properties in the town aren’t nearly as well visited, and (in my opinion) are better. You could, if you were very energetic, explore the town in a single day but you will need longer if you are going to see all of the properties and visit the theatre. There are plenty of hotels in the town. You could even stay in an Elizabethan Inn, such as the Falcon or, if money is limited, there are the usual clean and pleasant budget hotels on the outskirts. The Premier Inn has a particularly pleasant location by the canal. Being a small town, nothing is more than a short walk away. Our usual procedure for exploration of a literary location is for Mrs. P. to explore the shops, while I take my time wandering around the house/museum/bookshop and getting lost.
The birthplace itself is a pleasant Elizabethan house, much altered and extended over the years. It has a real feel of atmosphere and antiquity, and bears the marks of visitors through the centuries. I particularly enjoyed the old birthroom window. It seems it was once traditional for visitors to scratch their names into the glass and many people of note have done so. See who you can spot. There is a very good exhibition included in the birthplace visit and it has an excellent bookshop. Actors will entertain the crowds in the garden during the summer, by playing scenes from the greatest hits in the garden. The staff are all friendly and helpful and smile a lot, which is always nice. A short walk down the high street brings you to the recently re-opened New Place. The ‘footprint’ of Shakespeare’s home is indicated in this very pleasant attraction that features commissioned artwork, an Elizabethan knot garden and a beautiful and tranquil garden. There are three mulberry trees in the garden, one of which was, allegedly, planted by the great man himself. No one was looking so I pinched a mulberry or two. Delicious. Why they don’t sell a mulberry liqueur in the gift shop is beyond me. On the way out, you are channelled through an exhibition, featuring archeological finds from the site and the usual activities for kids. Next door, you will find the Guild Chapel, featuring some fine medieval wall paintings.
It’s about time for tea now, and there’s an excellent tea shop in Hall’s Croft. This was the home of Susanna, Shakespeare’s eldest, and she did alright for herself. Married the local doctor, John Hall, and got a substantial property into the bargain. I happen to enjoy just spending time in old houses and this one’s a peach: some of the glass is original (very little of the glass in my house, which is considerably newer, is original) there’s another fine garden. This one features the Birthplace Trust’s temporary exhibitions, which are always interesting and insightful and help you connect the town to its history. It’s easy to forget that away from the tourists and the theatres and the hype, there’s a living, breathing town with a heritage of its own. If you buy a ticket to the birthplace, you get New Place and Hall’s Croft bundled in.
Shakespeare and his family are buried in Holy Trinity church (well … most of them are, watch the recent C4 documentary for further details). The church stands in a lovely, leafy churchyard by the Avon and is worth a wander around. They charge you to see the tombs and the memorial. It’s very cheap (about £2, if memory serves) but I didn’t have any cash on me so gave it a miss. There is still much of interest in the rest of the church, when I visited, there was a display of artwork created by local people. It was late afternoon by now and I was developing a heck of a thirst. The route back in to town is via a riverside walk through some very pleasant gardens, much less frequented than the Bancroft Gardens at the front of the theatre. On the day I visited there were one-or-two picnicking families and some beautiful young people lazing in the late afternoon sun. There really are very few places I would rather be.
I still had about half and hour before I was due to meet Mrs. P., so I spent it in the Black Swan, or ‘dirty duck’ as it prefers to be known. A lovely little pub, proud of its dramatic heritage. It is a popular watering hole for actors playing in the nearby RSC theatres, so you may be lucky enough to spot someone you’ve seen on Casualty (we once met Robin Nedwell there. I kid you not). We had tickets for The Two Noble Kinsmen, so I downed my pint and met Mrs. P. for a quick bite in the Theatre restaurant. Really good value and excellent, simple food. They have three places to eat, so you should be able to find something good no matter what your budget. We went to the Circle Bar and had a ‘sharing platter’ full of lovely, tapas-y things, and a cocktail each. It was all superb.
The theatres themselves have recently been done up and have improved immensely. The production was well-cast and imaginative and rounded off the day beautifully. I know I’m biased (English teacher, you see) but however much you delight in the Shakespeare ‘brand’, however many ‘Anne Hathaway’s cream teas you consume, or pints of Old Prospero’s you drink or even, dare I say it, museums you visit, you can only really connect with Shakespeare through the words that he wrote. As well as enjoying the olde England that he came from, it is always a more worthwhile experience to spend some time experiencing the plays he created. Whatever you think of our deification of the bard, it’s always worth reminding ourselves … the dude could write. Whoever he was.