Happy Birthday to the Bard!
26th April is designated William Shakespeare’s Birthday as that was his baptism date in church records. Most likely, by convention, his actual birth date would have been a few days before viz. 23rd April.
Thirty years after we engaged in a little “bardolatry”, we had the urge to revisit. VISIT Stratford-upon-Avon! …screamed the official tourist website and the power of the Internet, dear Reader, is indubitable!
We were curious to see what had changed in three decades.
Stratford-upon-Avon, commonly shortened to just Stratford is a market town, 91 miles north west of London, on the River Avon – naturally – with a population of about 30,000 at the last count. Yet, it receives up to 3 Million visitors annually because of it’s most famous son: William Shakespeare. Although, his contemporaries were not as generous: “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers” was a critique of Shakespeare by his rival Robert Greene in his own book, ‘Groats-Worth of Wit'(1592).
It’s an ancient town built upon even older foundations. First settled in the 7th century by Anglo-Saxons (Germanic tribes), the name is a combination of the Old English ‘strǣt’ (from Latin stratum), meaning ‘street’ and ‘ford’ meaning a shallow river crossing. Perversely, ‘avon’ is the Celtic word for ‘river’. Hence, Stratford-upon-Avon means ‘Street Crossing upon the river River’.
The aforementioned ‘street’ was a Roman road between Alcester and the great Fosse Way, the latter was a Roman main road connecting Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) in South West England to Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) in the North West, avoiding London (Londinium). To whit, the Fosse Way was the first London by-pass road!
In case you didn’t notice, “the 7th century” means years denoted by only three digits e.g. 610 A.D. In 1196, the lord of the manor, John Coutances, set out to develop his village into a town, helped by the granting of a charter by King Richard I (Lionheart) allowing a weekly market. Getting ‘market town’ status was key as wool packs and sheep flocked, literally, to town.
Four Ways to Explore Stratford-upon-Avon
There are four ways to explore the town:
- CitySightseeing Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour (Full loop 1 hour From £15)
- Stratford Town Walk (2 hours tour From £6)
- Bancroft River Cruise (45 minutes tour From £7)
- Wandering around aimlessly on your own (ad infinitum From £0 or until your beer money runs out)
Quite frankly, I recommend the first three methods before resorting to the last.
First, decide if you’re interested in Shakespeare’s Family Homes outside the town limits because two of them are up to 7 miles away. There are five Family Homes managed by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
If you must see them all, then the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tour is the best introduction to Stratford and the Homes with regular buses that you, literally, hop on and off at any of the 11 points-of-interest, continuing your tour on the next bus along. Audio narratives in multiple languages (including Kid-speak) are available; simply plug in your free headset. You don’t even have to hop off to use the tour to orientate you to places that you may want to revisit later.
If you’re only interested in attractions within the town limits, then, the Stratford Town Walk is the method of choice as an introduction with a live, human, tour guide who can answer questions.
We’ll return with a Lazing article about the boat cruise at a later date….
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
We have to mention the ever-present and pervasive owners of anything remotely Shakespeare and bardolatry in Stratford-upon-Avon:
They’ve cornered the tourist market for 171 years. In 1846, at risk of being bought by American showman P.T. Barnum and shipped to the USA, ‘brick by brick’, the Shakespeare Birthday Committee was formed by Charles Dickens and his mates to retain it for the nation. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was first incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1891, and now carry out their work under the terms of the revised Shakespeare Birthplace Act, 1961.
The Trust offers two types of tickets to visit the properties:
- 12-month unlimited access to individual Homes i.e. Shakespeare’s Birthplace (£17.50), Mary Arden’s Farm (£15.00), Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (£12.50), New Place (£12.50) and Hall’s Croft (£8.50).
- The Full Story ticket for 12-month unlimited access to all five Family Homes (£22.50).
It’s a no-brainer: If you’re visiting two or more houses within 12 months, get The Full Story ticket.
Stratford Town Walk part 1
There is no need for advanced booking if you wish to do the Stratford Town Walk. Simply turn up by ‘The Swans’ metal sculpture fountain at the entrance of Bancroft Gardens near the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Your tour guide will be wearing or carrying something yellow.
Remember the yellow stockings of vain, pompous steward, Malvolio, in the comedy Twelfth Night, or What You Will?
Bancroft Gardens: “Meet at the Swans”
The Country Artists Fountain (Swans) was made for the 800th anniversary celebration of the granting of the Charter for Market Rights by King Richard I (the Lionheart) in 1196; unveiled by H.M. The Queen in 1996.
For the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, a life-size statue entitled ‘Young Will’ was gifted by sculptor Lawrence Holofcener, who travelled from the USA to present the town with the sculpture on his 90th birthday. It portrays a young William Shakespeare with one leg raised on a bench, holding a scroll of parchment. The scroll is not a whole play but the lines for one actor, a technique used for Elizabethan actors.
Our walking guide was Owen from Birmingham, who was a hoot, with many an anecdote and salacious gossip of Bardolatry and all things Stratford. Owen was obsessed by his favourite author and Stratford-resident: Marie Corelli, pseudonym of Mary Mackay, (Born 1855, London. Died 21st April 1924, Stratford-upon-Avon); best-selling English author of more than 20 romantic melodramatic novels.
We heard a lot about fabulously wealthy Marie Corelli, who was also a favourite of Queen Victoria. Ms Corelli was the JK Rowling of her era and had amusing quirks including the secret tunnel that allowed transportation of her authentic Made-in-Venice gondola, complete with authentic Venetian gondolier, from her inland house to the River Avon. She was conveyed upon the river, thusly.
At the river end of Bancroft Gardens is statue of Shakespeare presented by Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower to the town in 1888. The smaller figures of Shakespearean characters are of Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Falstaff and Prince Hal; symbolising philosophy, tragedy, comedy and history.
We continued south on the west bank of the River Avon towards Old Town and the Holy Trinity Church, passing the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) and the embedded Swan Theatre.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre opened as a rebuilt Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1932 on the site adjacent to the original 1879 building that had been destroyed by fire in 1926. Elisabeth Scott, only 29-years old, became the first woman architect to design and erect a major public building in Britain. It was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1961 as the Royal Shakespeare Company was established the year before.
The Grade II Listed building has several notable Art Deco features, including the staircase and corridors at either side of the auditorium. From the river, the building’s windows look like those of a cruise ship.
The Swan Theatre is built onto the side of the larger Royal Shakespeare Theatre, occupying the Victorian Gothic structure that formerly housed the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. The Transformation Project refurbished both Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres linking them with a new Colonnade in 2010.
They added a Rooftop Restaurant with views over the River Avon, a Riverside Cafe and Terrace, the PACCAR Room exhibition space, a 36m high ventilation tower with a 32m high viewing platform, a new public outdoor space, Weston Square, to connect the theatre with the old medieval town to the west, and a riverside walk which stretches from the Bancroft Gardens, past the theatre, towards Holy Trinity Church.
Avonbank ‘Loo of the Year’
On the way through the grounds of a former mansion donated by the Flowers brewing family, we passed the redbrick Avonbank public toilet that once won a 5-star award in the 2009 ‘Loo of the Year’ Awards.
Holy Trinity Church, Mill Lane, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Collegiate Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity is a Grade I listed parish church of the Church of England. The common name is Holy Trinity Church or ‘Shakespeare’s Church’. It receives more than 200,000 tourist per annum because it is the site of baptism and burial of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s family members were also buried there. A small contribution is requested to access the chancel and sanctuary, where Shakespeare is buried.
William Shakespeare, poet and playwright, was baptised in Holy Trinity on 26th April 1564 and buried on 25th April 1616. The church still has the original Elizabethan register, which is held by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for safekeeping.
Owen told us that Shakespeare cunningly became eligible for burial in the chancel, usually reserved for churchmen, by becoming ‘lay rector’, having leased the tithes (taxes) from the church. He paid a (then) fortune of £440. His funerary monument is fixed on an adjacent wall.
The funerary monument was renovated in 1746 using proceeds from a production of Othello, the first recorded performance of any Shakespeare play in Stratford-upon-Avon.
His wife Anne Hathaway and eldest daughter Susanna are buried next to Shakespeare. Above the grave, a very eroded stone slab shows his epitaph:
GOOD FRIEND FOR JESUS SAKE FOREBEAR,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOSED HERE.
BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THESE STONES,
AND CURSED BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
It has been speculated that the curse has prevented both the relocation of Shakespeare’s body to Westminster Abbey to be with the Nation’s greats and the exhumation of his body for scientific examination.
The inscription on the grave of Shakespeare’s wife Anne states: “Here lyeth the body of Anne wife of William Shakespeare who departed this life the 6th day of August 1623 being of the age of 67 years.”
Other interesting features in Holy Trinity Church include:
A 14th-century sanctuary knocker in the church’s porch (built c. 1500).
There is a small door set into the left hand door, just big enough to let one person through at a time. On this is a sanctuary knocker. Fugitives from justice (often lynch-mobs) could grab the ring and claim 37 days safety before facing trial.
Several large stained glass windows featuring major English and Biblical saints at the church’s east and west ends.
In the chancel is preserved a chained Bible. It is bound in leather with brass claps and is marked:
Imprinted in London by Robert
Barker Printer to the King’s
most excellent Majestie
Anno Dom. 1611.
As Shakespeare died in 1616, it is likely that this was in the church when Shakespeare was in Stratford
Twenty-six 15th-century misericord seats in the chancel, with secular and mythical carvings. A misericord (mercy seat) is a small wooden structure on the underside of a folding seat in a church which, is designed to act as a shelf when the seat is upright, to support a person in a partially standing position during long periods of prayer.
There are no religious scenes on the misericords in Holy Trinity Church, although those scenes are found in other churches. The carvings here depict mythical animals and humans that feature in mediaeval illuminated manuscripts, mosaics and tapestries of the period. The allegorical formula depicts three elements on each seat. Additionally at Holy Trinity, each armrest between seats also shows a beautifully carved angel.
The carvings are bawdy and satirical but with an underlying sacred meaning. They remind us that the devil is everywhere in everyday life and poised to drag souls to hell. A scold’s bridle appears to be portrayed here; remember Kate, the ‘irksome brawling scold’ in The Taming of the Shrew?
Stratford Town Walk Intermission
We left the crowds behind in the church and stroll slowly into the sunshine towards Hall’s Croft on Old Town lane. Don’t miss part 2 of this walking tour….
Other Articles about Stratford-upon-Avon and Nearby
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web magazine. He was former CEO of PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).