Mrs. P and I are regular visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon. We love the theatre and we can always find something new here to explore. Last August, in the blistering sun of an unusually warm summer, and with freshly printed tickets in hand, we trolled off for a couple of days’ break.
The first thing to was to formulate a plan for the day’s events, so, having deposited Mrs. P. near some shops, I made my way to a local pub to gather my energy for the coming afternoon. On visiting Stratford in the past, I have always made straight for The Dirty Duck: one of my favourite pubs. This year, I thought, I shall diversify. There are many pubs in Stratford and, as a dedicated author of literary guides, it is my duty to try a variety of them, that my loyal readers can make an informed choice when planning their own excursion. I resolved to try a couple of others, have a pint in one, maybe something to eat in another and give a fair and objective review of each of them. First stop was the Rose and Crown. As I entered, a couple approached the door, the lady struggling on a pair of crutches. I stepped aside politely and held the door for them, smiling as they approached. They didn’t thank me, in fact, they scowled at me. How dare I open the door for them and smile! The nerve! I entered a vast open space with piped music and the flashing lights of fruit machines. I stopped and took stock for a moment or two. This was not going to be the place for a quiet lunch and a bit of a read. I abandoned my plan and headed for the Duck.
The Dirty Duck, being very close to the RSC, is popular with the acting community. You always run the risk of standing at the bar with someone who has recently performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Or been on Midsomer Murders. There was someone in the bar as I entered that I definitely, definitely recognised but could not place. This was confirmed by the fact that he smiled at me in that knowing way adopted by people who don’t want to be recognised but are secretly annoyed when they aren’t. I nodded in my “I know who you are and I appreciate your work but I’m just having a quiet pint” way. He nodded back; he understood the code. I still have no idea who he was but, he was someone, I am sure of it.
One of the things I love about the Duck is the signed photos of personalities who have graced the establishment over the years. I took a seat by Jonathan Pryce and looked over at Colin Firth, sharing a wall with Charles Dance. Near them, John Lithgow looked back from next to Richard Burton, who had, quite rightly, been given a prominent position next to the bar. Frances de la Tour sat alongside them. I noticed the dogs for the first time. They have a corner of their own: Yogi, Molly, Larry and the others. Only one has been given a credit (Toto, in 2014). The others, I supposed, were various ‘Crabs’ from over the years. Crab, the dog belonging to Launce, the Servant, always steals the show in the Two Gentleman of Verona. It’s nice to know that canine performers are taken for a drink after the show, and are recognised by this Stratford institution. I bought a second pint just as the waiter brought my fish finger sandwich and very nice it was too. I’m rather partial to a fish finger sandwich, the mainstay of student cuisine, which I used to make with white bread and tomato ketchup. this one was freshly fried battered goujons served on a crusty sourdough with a homemade tartare sauce. I was served piping hot and was delicious. After lunch I left the Duck and walked alongside the river towards the church, past The Dell: the little open air theatre where the RSC hosts amateur and student groups, who perform some of the Bard’s ‘greatest hits’ – completely free – on summer afternoons.
The church was pleasantly cool as I entered from the hot summer afternoon. There is some magnificent stained glass and, in the chancel, some beautiful carved misericords (tiny little seats on which one is permitted to lean during long services). There is a small charge to view the Shakespeare family graves and the memorial and I willingly paid it. £2 I think it was; not much to ask for such an important historic site. The likeness of the Shakespeare memorial is unlike the portraits we have of a dashing young writer and presents him rather as a prosperous middle-aged businessman. Perhaps that’s how the people of Stratford saw him after his retirement here. His grave is beneath the memorial; he lies alongside his wife, his daughter, Susanna and her husband, Dr John Hall. There is also Thomas Nash, the husband of Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s granddaughter and last surviving member of the Shakespeare family. The church records of Will’s baptism and burial can be seen here and there is also a magnificent chained bible, along with the font, which is (probably) the one in which Shakespeare was christened.
From the Church, I headed North towards Church Street. At the end of Church Street is the Shakespeare Institute: part of the University of Birmingham dedicated to Shakespeare studies. A plaque on the wall declares that this was once the home of Marie Corelli. Although this novelist has largely been forgotten, she was hugely popular in her time, outselling HG Wells and Conan Doyle, she was reputedly a favourite of Queen Victoria but, generally, the literary world very much looked down their noses at her. She was considered vulgar and melodramatic. The Spectator called her “a woman of deplorable talent who considers herself a genius”. Her books, mostly romantic fiction, are full of mystical motifs and ancient magic, along with detailed descriptions of beautiful young women. She lived with Bertha Vyver, who had been her father’s housekeeper and they are buried together in Stratford, where they lived from 1901 until Marie’s death in 1924. It was while living in the town that she began to take a close interest in ancient and historic buildings, campaigning for their preservation. She is responsible for restoring many of the half-timbered buildings you can see nearby. Her writing is not that bad but it is inconsistent: sometimes showing moments of romantic exuberance; sometimes just clichéd and overblown. You can find some examples, along with an article about her, here.
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom museum preserves the room in which Shakespeare is supposed to have been educated. It is still part of the Edward VI grammar school and is still used for teaching in term-time but is open to the public during the holidays. On entering the museum, a video tells the story of the building and of artefacts that have been discovered here, including some beautiful wall paintings, whitewashed over during the Reformation. On the first floor are two schoolrooms, one of which dates from Shakespeare’s time. Here, the story of the Elizabethan schoolroom is told, speculating on the influence that school life could have had for an impressionable young writer. The second room dates from the Victorian era and has a much more familiar layout. Here were various activities for visitor to try. I had a go at writing with a quill pen. I was brilliant at it! Sometimes Elizabethan lessons are re-enacted for the benefit of schoolchildren, and there are costumed staff, all of them friendly and ready to share their enthusiasm with visitors. There is an ancient school desk here, labelled “possibly Shakespeare’s” and I asked someone if there was any evidence that it was his. “Well” he replied, thoughtfully “there’s no evidence that it wasn’t!” It was a lovely little museum; atmospheric as well as informative, with lovely, chatty staff and a nice little gift shop. On leaving here, I walked past New Place and back down to the Bancroft Gardens, where I greeted Mrs. P. with an ice cream cone. She was very pleased.
We had booked in at the Opposition, an intimate little bistro on Sheep Street, for a pre-theatre meal. It was excellent: the menu was great; the food good and plentiful and the service friendly and efficient. I was vey happy to have found such a lovely little restaurant and will be going there again. We weren’t able to linger here as we had tickets for The Merry Wives of Windsor. This isn’t my favourite play but I did enjoy seeing the imaginative way in which it was interpreted to be entertaining, fun and relatable to a modern audience. It is always a pleasure to see the RSC in their headquarters, which is a very fine theatre, and they are extremely good at what they do. Mrs. P loved it. She loves a raucous comedy, does Mrs. P.
The following morning, after getting outside some B&E, as Bertie Wooster might say, I took a walk over the the nearby village of Shottery. There is a very well-signposted pathway through the outskirts of the town that takes you on the route that young Will Shakespeare might have taken when courting Anne Hathaway. What was once a path through fields and meadows now takes you through modern housing estates and across a playing field but is a pleasant walk nonetheless and, on this beautiful summer morning, with the sunshine and the birdsong, it was actually rather wonderful. It’s the best way to approach the cottage, which appears, side-on through a little copse as you cross a bridge over a stream. The cottage is set among some beautiful gardens: there is an enormous orchard (with plums and apples largely going uneaten, apart from the ones I pinched); a lovely area of woodland, featuring a winding trail; a cottage garden with marigolds and thistles; poppies and hollyhocks; fragrant herbs and old-fashioned roses. The cottage itself is an achingly beautiful English thatched cottage, famed from jigsaw puzzles, chocolate boxes and biscuit tins through the ages. There were surprisingly few people wandering about the garden as I approached: nowhere near the huge crowds I had been expecting.
I’m not a big fan of guided tours. I like to wander around a house or a museum, moving at my own pace and doing my own thing. Here, they have the balance about right: a short introductory talk about the house and the family that occupied it (it remained in the Hathaway family for hundreds of years) before we were left to wander about on our own. The upstairs rooms of the house have each been restored to a different period, showing how the house has altered through the years. Much of the furniture belonged to the family and had been here for years. Unfortunately, there is rather a lot of the “probably sat in by Shakespeare” thing going on here but it is a lovely cottage, beautifully restored, well cared for and offering a fascinating insight into the lives of our ancestors, one of whom may have been a literary genius.
Of course the story of Will and Anne’s Courtship has been hugely over-romanticised and, of course, the cottage looks very different now from the way it did four hundred years ago but, It is truly a lovely place to spend a summer afternoon.