Birthday Weekend: Stratford Upon Avon

Sunday, June 26, 2011

So, I've landed safely and soundly in not-so-sunny Cape Town, South Africa, and all is well! Some things I had forgotten about:

  • Cape Town winter is very wet (I need wellies!)
  • It takes approximately 35 minutes to add a 2MB email attachment, even with broadband internet
  • There is no tube system in Cape Town. That's an odd one to add, seeing as there never was one, but it's oh-so convenient to have an efficient travel system that is clean and easy to use that it's hard to remember what life was like before London's TFL
  • There's nothing as quite as wonderful as mom's home-cooked food.
Being here puts a lot into perspective, and I'm learning things about myself and about all the people who are still here - it's remarkable how much you see when you're not really involved in everything. Ah, well, be that as it may, this is entirely the wrong content for this blog post. So let's get back to that, shall we? (I'll tell you all about Cape Town in a little while, I promise).

As I mentioned previously, one of the most appealing things about moving to the UK for me was the literary attraction. Imagine spending a weekend in Lewis Carroll's Oxford -- or visiting Jane Austen's home in Hampshire! One of my biggest 'imagines' was driving to Shakespeare's Stratford Upon Avon for my birthday. It's a silly thing, really, but that's what I wanted. And, because I have a wonderful fiance, that's what I got. The photo above is the view from the footbridge that goes over the River Avon, and that's the Collegiate Church of Holy Trinity in the background (where Shakespeare is buried).

A little later in the day and the River is peppered with swans, geese, ducks and rowboats which you can hire at £7.00 per half-hour. It was very appealing but we ran out of time (aw) so we'll definitely go back.

Old Town in Stratford Upon Avon is a living  monument to Shakespeare. We joined up with a lovely tour group (Stratford Town Walks) where, for £5, we were taken on a two-hour walking tour of Old Town by our extremely knowledgeable tour guide John. He told us about the stories, the architecture and the landscape. Perhaps the most surprising bit of information we took away was this: Shakespeare was not famous as a poet in his lifetime. Sure, lots of people knew him and he was recognised for having talent, but not in the way that he is celebrated today - or, indeed, just after he died. Soon after the rise of his popularity, the residents of Stratford began to re-brand their town as a monument to the poet and it became known as Shakespeare's Stratford.

Shakespeare, it seems, became a rather fashionable chap. He's just about everywhere.

The Old Town streets are lined with beautiful buildings from various eras - from Tudor to Jacobean, and some contemporary buildings that have been deliberately aged to fit in. One on street corner you'll see an authentic sweet shoppe selling Stratford Rock and rhubarb candies, and on another, a Starbucks is crammed into the bottom level of a Tudor home.

As silly as it may sound, everything seems so very authentic! The Garrick Inn, above, has been serving ale in exactly the same place since 1594.

This is us enjoying the Stratford sun (we got sunburnt!) in front of Shakespeare's birthplace. It has been given a lot of love and attention over the years, but there it is - for real. They have no record of his birth but this is where his family lived and he was baptised in the nearby church (the one you saw above) at age three-days-and-a-bit so popular belief is that this is exactly where he was born. The house, above, was originally divided into three comprising three apartments/rooms each. John Shakespeare, William's father, married Mary Arden and was able to go from renting the room on the bottom right to purchasing all three houses and merging them to form an impressive family home, workshop and small retail outlet for his leather gloves.

You're not allowed to take photographs inside but I'll just give you a very quick mental picture: the spaces are small, the walls are thick and limewashed, lined with beautiful painted linens in the most important rooms, and matched by straw-covered stone floors and low ceilings. The communal dining area has a low, small dark-wood table surrounded by benches and a big chair, and is covered  with bowls and spoons. There is a bed in the  main dining area which, according to the guides, was never used but was put in front of the best window in the house to show off the family's wealth and prosperity (as beds were rather expensive and uncommon commodities in Tudor times). The rest of the rooms are used as display rooms with photographs, articles, information and general displays.

The gardens outside his birthplace, and the other four 'Shakespeare Houses' in Stratford, are all very beautiful. They're attractions in themselves, I'd say. I took this picture outside the museum attached to the birthplace: inside, it's a dark and beautiful interactive display that has a series of doors that open and close on a timed mechanism. You move through various rooms and watch films about Shakespeare's works and life, and somebody put a lot of thought and hard work into those displays to get them so perfectly coordinated with lights that show off artifacts and interesting items in the displays or models. It's definitely 'catered to the masses' in a popular sort of way, but it was still very enjoyable.

This photograph was taken from the graveyard outside the Church (attached to the spire you saw in an earlier photograph) where Shakespeare was buried. It's the first "graveyard" I've seen where you're expected to walk amongst the graves in a nonchalant sort of way, walking along the footpaths and being careful not to trip. I found it rather creepy and ethereal despite the sunlight and laughing footballers nearby.

This is Shakespeare's grave. He isn't buried here because he is a poet, he's buried here because he was an influential land-owner in his later life and he was responsible for tending to a specific piece of church-land in exchange for this prime burial position. John, the lovely tour guide, told us that he had a local woman put a curse on his grave (in the black and white image above) to prevent anyone from digging up his bones to make way for new ones. Shakespeare had a long-term plan, it seems, and he stuck to it.

This is the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre). The bits on the left are supposed to be parts of the original theatre, and the rest has been built up around it in various stages of expansion and refurbishment. It's incredibly popular and was very busy, even at 3pm on a Monday afternoon.

I particularly love that the tourism aspect here is so very prominent: absolutely everything is themed 'Shakespeare'! I doubt I'd go for a row on the River Avon in a boat named Ophelia though.

If you do the tour, which you really should because it's hilarious and wonderful and informative all at once, then you are also issued with a set of vouchers and a long list of nearby stores that accept the vouchers in return for a discount. We got entry tickets into the five houses for the price of entry into three, and we've saved the rest for when we visit again. There's a beautiful tea shop above Crabtree & Evelyn (which was formerly Judith Shakespeare's home) which I'd love to visit, and all entrance tickets to the Shakespeare houses are conveniently valid for 12 months from date of purchase.

I could probably sit here for hours typing away and telling you little stories about Stratford, but perhaps you ought to just go there and see for yourself. If I tell you one thing in this blog post, let it be this: it's a beautiful town, and you should visit it. Going for one day is not enough! 

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  1. LOVE those Shakespearean row boats...tres chic :-)

    Have a fabulous time back in SA!

    P.S. Pick 'n Pay has been selling reasonably priced wellies this season. From florals to Tweetie Bird even!

  2. How I would LOVE to visit Shakespeares town! Thank you so much for sharing all the are so lucky to have been able to spend some time there.

  3. @Juanita: Thank you! I will - although I'm already alarmed at the wetness of the winter! How do we forget things like this? And thanks for the P'nP tip, I'm so there. Weeeeellies!

    @Suzitee: I know! I count my lucky stars when I think about it :) You really, really must go if you ever have the opportunity; it's beautiful and friendly and full of little Shakespeare puzzles. I spent a lot of time walking around trying to place all the names in various plays (sometimes rather unsuccessfully which makes me think I need to do some re-reading!)


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