Friday, 19-06-2015. Day 303.
Shakespeare, Shakespeare, and Some Shakespeare.
Stratford-upon-Avon (henceforth to be referred to here as simply Stratford for the sake of simplicity) is, of course, the legendary birthplace of William Shakespeare. And, naturally, we were visiting the historic site to take in some Shakespearean culture. And we certainly found a lot of it.
The day started early, with our free (and not very good—sorry guys) breakfast at the hostel, after which we hooked up with our friends and headed off to catch the bus into town. The bus did not arrive on time. So we waited. And waited some more. Maybe we'd read the timetable wrong. No, we were where we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be. But still, the bus didn't show. But then, just as we were about to give up all hope of ever riding a bus into Stratford, it suddenly came trundling down the street.
After paying the exceptionally sullen driver (you'd be sullen, too, if you had to drive a giant double-decker bus in England), we enjoyed the short ride into the heart of Shakespeare's hometown.
The first thing we learned about Stratford is that it's quite busy. A lot of people travel to this small town about two hours northwest of London to celebrate the legacy of Shakespeare, and the traffic on this particular Friday spring morning was pretty intense. We were really glad the bus eventually arrived because, frankly, driving in Stratford didn't look much fun at all (see note above about sullen bus drivers).
The second thing we learned about Stratford is that Shakespeare is everywhere, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word everywhere. The man's image can be found on nearly every available surface throughout the center of the town. So if you've traveled all this way to see images of William Shakespeare on financial institutions and ice cream parlors, you've hit the jackpot.
Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust operates most (or maybe all) of the Shakespeare-related destinations in the town. We picked up a family pass from the hostel that gave us access to three historic sites of our choice, including Shakespeare's Birthplace, Mary Arden's Farm (she was Shakespeare's mother; site is three miles from Stratford), Anne Hathaway's Cottage & Garden (childhood home of Shakespeare's wife; one mile out of town), Hall's Croft (owned by Shakespeare's daughter and her husband), and Harvard House (the home of the grandfather of John Harvard, for whom Harvard University is named).
Naturally, we wanted to see the home where Shakespeare was (probably) born. So after we got off the bus, we walked over to the the museum. Even before you get to the home proper, you walk through many Shakespeare-related exhibits and displays, including the old Market Cross stone that indicated where Stratford's market was held. The plaque actually tells us that Shakespeare very likely touched this stone, which gives you an idea of just how Shakespeare-centric the whole town is.
After walking through the different exhibits, the path led to a garden where a troupe of actors and minstrels in period dress performed various scenes from Shakespearean plays that the gathered crowd shouted out. They were pretty good, and quite entertaining. We watched them for a little while (until a massive group of young students invaded the area), and then it was into the house.
After listening to the greeter docent (also in period dress) recite his favorite verse of Shakespeare as written by a cat (no, I'm not joking), we were allowed to proceed on our tour of the rest of the house. Shakespeare's father was a glove maker, so half of the house (most of the ground floor) was related to John Shakespeare's work, while the rest of the house showed us how a family of Shakespeare's day probably lived. As typical of these sort of these period re-created museums, most of the areas were roped off, but there was plenty to see here.
There were also a number of Shakespearean mice (stuffed animals, not real mice) sequestered about the house that were designed to give the kids something to look for and provided fun facts about life during Shakespeare's time.
My favorite was the display with the chamber pot that William Shakespeare may have used.
After we left Shakespeare's Birthplace, we headed over to Harvard House, which, despite being managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has really nothing to do with William Shakespeare at all.
As mentioned above, this is the home that was built by the grandfather of John Harvard, the man for whom Harvard University is named. So what's the connection to Shakespeare? Well, they tell us that they think Harvard's father and Shakespeare's father may have been in politics at the same time, and therefore it's possible they may have known each other. So while it was a cool house from the 1600s, it really had the most tenable of tenable attachments to Shakespeare.
We had only used two of our three allowed access, but we didn't want to travel all the way to Mary Arden's Farm or Anne Hathaway's Cottage, so instead we strolled over to Holy Trinity Church, which is right on the River Avon, where Shakespeare was baptized, worshiped and is buried.
Entering the church is free, but it costs £2 to visit Shakespeare's Tomb. We were totally up for that, but, alas, it was not to be. There was a funeral being held that day and the church and tomb were closed to visitors until the services were over.
So we walked around the church grounds, then back to town along the River Avon (the "-upon-Avon" part of Stratford) and past the Royal Shakespeare Theater, a thoroughly modern building owned and operated by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
As luck would have it, we arrived at the Avon Ring, a series of canal ways that connect Stratford to other towns in the area (historically for the purposes of trading), just as the last boat that toured the Avon was disembarking. So we hopped aboard and took a brief tour of the River Avon, back past the Royal Shakespeare Theater and the Holy Trinity Church. It was a really short ride and we didn't get to see much of the River Avon at all. I thought it would have been longer, but we did get to pass through the locks, which was sort of cool.
Then, like any true fan of Shakespeare, we enjoyed some post-boat ice cream cones from Mr. Whippy, a floating peddler of frozen treats, before walking back to catch the bus that would return us to the hostel. All in all, the day was quite the Shakesperience.
In short, if you like Shakespeare, then you owe yourself a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where it's all Shakespeare all the time. But if you don't like Shakespeare, then, well, this might not be the place for you.