Imagine a quiet market town of less than 30,000 residents being invaded by over three million people every year! But the townsfolk at Stratford-Upon-Avon aren’t complaining much. Tourism, after all, has been the backbone of their economy since a bearded bard who lived in a quaint cottage here, close to the river Avon, started writing plays sometime late in the 16th century.
A little under two hours away from London (and less than hour from the Birmingham airport) in the heart of the Midlands, lies Stratford-Upon Avon, home to a beautiful river and many other sights, but most famous the world over as the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
We have never been to this part of England so when we land up at a relative’s place in Rugby -- a ‘large’ town in Warwickshire with a population of over 1,00,000 people (about the same number of people live in Bandra alone) -- we are packed off on a day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to get some ‘culture’.
Literature students will probably remember Rugby as the setting for Thomas Hughes’ iconic novel Tom Brown’s School Days. It is also the birthplace of the game of rugby and it is here that the world’s first jet engine was manufactured. But more about Rugby another day.
We take a luxury tourist bus to Stratford from the nearby Coventry town and in no time at all, find ourselves parked comfortably on a wooden bench on the banks of the river Avon, feeding ducks and watching small boats go by. Nearby a ground of children sit on the seemingly never-ending patch of grass, having a picnic. It just couldn’t get more British than this. We even have a thermos full of tea and sandwiches with us. I almost half expect the Famous Five to emerge from a cave or Hercules Poirot to come poking me. Instead, we take a slow boat ride on the river, passing by some of the town’s most famous landmarks – the Holy Trinity church, Shakespeare’s home, and of course the imposing Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Walk around town
After lunch at a local pub, complete with a very British lager beer from the tap, we head to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The first real theatre in Stratford was a temporary wooden affair built in 1769 by the actor David Garrick to mark Shakespeare’s birthday. The theatre, built not far from the site of the present one, is washed away in two days of torrential rain that resulted in terrible flooding a few years later.
A local research scholar who we meet near the theatre, tells us that several attempts were made to build a theatre here thereafter. A small theatre was built in the gardens of Shakespeare’s home in the early 19th century but became derelict. Another was built to mark the 300th birth anniversary of the bard in 1864 but that too was dismantled after three months -- and the timber taken to build residences! The present theatre was built in the 1980s out of the shell of the remains of the original Memorial Theatre, quickly becoming one of the finest acting spaces in the UK. Tourists can also watch a RSC production if there is one being staged at the moment, but we are not as lucky. We do get to see a rehearsal though for 15 minutes and were graciously allowed by the team to click a picture of them in action.
A short walk through a vast open tract of greenery (where our umbrellas goes flying in the breeze and needed some chasing to catch) and we are in front of a thatched roofed cottage. “Anne Hathway’s Cottage” said the sign. Shakespeare’s wife of many years, Anne was nine years older to the bard and spent her growing up years here, just a few blocks away from a boy who would grow up to be her husband.
In fact, we are informed by a guide inside her cottage, there are five houses relating to Shakespeare’s life here, which are owned and cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. These include Hall’s Croft (the one-time home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, and her husband Dr. John Hall) and Nash’s House, which stands alongside the site of another property, New Place, owned by Shakespeare himself, wherein he died and Mary Arden’s House, the family home of his mother. At the top end of the Waterside is Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was baptised and is buried.
More than the bard
But don’t assume there is nothing here to see apart from all the history surrounding Britain’s most famous writer. The boat ride on the Avon is as lazy and beautiful as it would get anywhere in England. It’s fun, even it is raining, as it did for a while when we are here (where does it not rain in England). Feed the ducks on the banks of the river or just take a snooze under one of the many trees along the banks, hoping perhaps for an apple to fall on your head. And if that’s not what tickles your sense, hop on the hop-on-hop-off bus service and head to the Stratford Butterfly Farm, which is on the eastern side of the river or the Bancroft Gardens located on Gospel Oak Lane. We mostly walk, apart from taking a local bus the Bancroft Gardens which was five kilometres away, but the hop-on bus service takes you to all the destinations and is very good, with running commentary in three languages. We do not have much time left with the clock going past 7.30pm, so we head back to Rugby before it gets dark, but next time, I plan to take a longer and more unhurried walk down Henley Street -- one of the town’s oldest streets, where lies John Shakespeare’s large half-timbered home, purchased by him in 1556 and where his son William was born in 1564. Just in case you also want a bit of rigorous exercise, Stratford Upon Avon has numerous cycle paths. Apparently the Stratford Greenway is a 8 km traffic-free cycle path. We meet a group of avid cyclists on our way who told us the cycling path starts from the town centre, heads along the river towards the next town of Welford-on-Avon.
Just a short bus ride away from Startford, if one follows the river Avon, is the Warwick Castle. Built in 1068 by William the Conqueror, this historic castle has seen wars, bloodshed, and even kings and earls as inmates when they were imprisoned here during the Middle Ages. Today, a heritage protected building, the castle is a huge draw for tourists. Walk around the vast expanse of the castle grounds, take a tour of the hundreds of rooms and get entertained by 21st century kings, princesses, armymen and warriors.