A statue to The Fool, a figure in numerous Shakespeare plays.
It is Autumn 1999. My second year of university is just underway. I have been in Birmingham
for just over 1 year now, my sister is coming to visit for the first time since I commenced my studies and I am yet to visit the famous Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, despite it's proximity to me here. I'm goin' all out for our first trip there and as a surprise have forked out a student-loan busting £120 for the 3 best seats in the house at The Swan Theatre to go see a production of Macbeth. Awesome!
I cannot wait, and my sister and my best friend Despina are equally excited when my plan is revealed. Now, geography has never been one of my strengths. I make sure we leave for Stratford in plenty of time to make sure no amount of traffic calamities, or directional cockups can prevent us from arriving at the performance in time.
Sadly the best laid plans of mice and men cannot account for the frankly apocolyptic act of cartographic ineptitude that I will commit on this night to completely ruin the evening! Somehow or other, I have fixed on a place called Statford, just north of London
and NOT Stratford-Upon-Avon in Warwickshire
. Yes, yes, yes I knoooow
one's just down the road from me (i.e. the right one!) and the other's frickin' miles away south on the M40, but I'm nervous, sweating, eager to please and most fatally... male! This latter fact genetically prohibiting me from realising when my plan is going from 'possibly wrong
' to 'probably got it wrong
' to 'no you reallly SHOULD accept you're wrong and turn back NOW
' to 'you are wrong, you are wrong, you ARE wrong-wrong-wrong!!!
' to 'you f**kin' moron won't you just listen to the doubts being expressed by your female companions and sort your sh*t out
The front door of the Shakespeare residence.
Eventually we pull over in a motorway layby on the border of Stratford (north London) and a swift reappraisal of the road atlas reveals in all its true horror, the magnitude of my gaff. This event has forever been referred to as the trip to Stratford-Upon-Layby for those who care to rub salt in my wounded ego on this point. We of course turned tail as fast as M40 Friday evening traffic would permit (i.e. not very fast at all!), burnt it back aaaaaall
the many miles to Stratford-Upon-Avon and arrived at the theatre juuust
in time... for the last moments, of the final act of the play. Ordinarily you would not be allowed late into a performance at all, but taking pity on our plight we are allowed to silently sneak into 'the gods' and stand right up in the very highest part of the theatre next to the percussionists as they bash our cerebellum to pieces.
Looking down, a sore reminder of my folly, for there are 3 prime central seats in the very front row of the stalls, practically a part of the stage they're that well placed and close to the action, and these seats are strangely vacant. Man those were darned good seats. I bet they cost some poor sucker £120 at least! :)
So there you have it. My first, sort-of experience of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Shakespeare's birthplace. Arguably the cultural jewel of the West Midlands and main home of the famous RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). Over the years, having discovered its whereabouts I have returned to Stratford a number of times, often to catch sometimes beguiling and occasionally sleep inducing performances of Shakespeare's classics and sometimes just to spend a wonderful summers day in the sun mucking about on the river, eating and sharing good times with family and friends.
What currently remains of the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST).
It is the final place that my family were ever all together, the four of us away from home in complete relaxation on 'holiday' following my graduation in the summer of 2001. Overrated in many ways though arguably it is, I like it very much and it has many fond memories. Today will be my final trip to Stratford Upon Avon
for some several, if not many years to come. I have bought a ticket to see A Midsummer Nights Dream
and so it is time for me to say farewell to Shakespeare.
Two things of which there are no shortage of supply in Stratford. Effigies of the great bard himself... and Americans. It's phenomenal quite how ubiquitous the American accent is when strolling around this scenic town.
The Garrick Inn : the oldest in in Stratford (dating back to the 14th Century)
Almost anytime of year seemingly family after family and coachload after coachload of keen Anglophile Americans flock to this small corner of Warwickshire. This speaks great volumes I imagine of the love of Shakespeare over The Pond (a shared cultural and literary heritage) and a nostalgic yearning to return to a little picturesque, immaculate part of the sister nation that was divorced in 1776. The chance to "see Shakespeare performed, as it truly should be performed" or some such desire. I dunno. Everybody and their money are welcome here.
Sadly this year Stratford will fall somewhat short of the picture-postcard dreams of tourists from America and anywhere else in the world, as the main riverside and park area at the heart of the town, where the theatres reside on the banks of the River Avon is a huuuge
The Swan Theatre next door to the RST.
The RST (Royal Shakespeare Theatre) and the entire area that surrounds it is in the early stages of a major £112million redevelopment and this has inevitably created a bit of an eye sore. Short term pain for long term gain I guess. Whilst the main RST is completely out of action The Swan and The Courtyard Theatre (formerly called The Other Place) have a full run of performances for the year, and it is the latter I will attend for the first time tonight.
Stratford Upon Avon, inevitably is a very tourist-geared corner of the Warwickshire countryside with visitors making the cultural pilgrimage to the birthplace of the bard in probably their tens of millions every year. At weekends for the majority of the year it can feel suffocatingly overrun, certainly on the roads and you need to have set off veeeeery
early in the day if you want to get stress-free (expensive!) parking in town and to avoid traffic tailbacks on the quaint country roads into the town for an hour or so.
The Queen's Head : one of the most common pub names in the UK...a pub sign quite this graphic, not so common :)
Being a Wednesday though, I'm just fine but park my car out of town and walk in for good measure anyway. My original plan was actually to walk from Birmingham to Stratford to start preparing myself for the long-distance treks I figure will be part and parcel of my upcoming worldwide escapade. 26 miles as the crow flies, but much further a stroll in reality. I fairly soon abandonned this plan when people pointed out that a) it was insane and unecessary and b) most people fall asleep in performances of Shakespeare at the best of times let alone after having walked for 10 hours to get there! Fair enough I concede... Stratford-Upon-Layby's even further I guess!
I keep today nice and simple. A stroll along familiar old streets. Past the house where Shakey was born. For a fee this can be enterred and toured but I must confess never to having felt the need.
The Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried.
A fine lunch at The Garrick Inn, Stratford's oldest Inn and a place I feel compelled to visit most times I'm in town just for the sense of sitting where once maybe The Man had a beer or two himself. Next a swift beer at The Queen's Head, a pub loved by Despina and I, if for no other reason than its remarkably honest pub sign depicting a regicide in the very act of blood-drenched head-chopping glory. A local old boy Joe comes and joins me at my table in the sun. He, and his compadres who saunter in and out of the pub I gather throughout the day, have been struggling to get the final 3 words in the crossword of the day. I am amazed to say that at a glance I can inform him that something that is 'continual' is forever
, that 'an excessively vain person' is conceited
and that the wading bird they're after naming is a Curlew
Joe is chuffed to bits and I am named an honorary "fellow traveller" to Stratford for my efforts. I say I am glad to have given something back to the town finally, after all these years. Even if it's only crossword answers. Probably the first 3 crosswords clues I've ever deciphered in my life. I am ATROCIOUS at crosswords, and scarper from the pub before my luck, and fraudulent aura of seeming intelligence is revealed for the sham fluke that it is.
I then progress past the construction-site of the RST (sad not to have a final, untouched view of the green swathe of lawn down to the swan be-spangled riverbanks) and amble along the Avon to Holy Trinity Church, inside which can be found Shakespeare's grave, next to that of his wife Anne Hathaway and several other notables of the town. I pay my respects, after a further swarm of American tourists have tornadoed in, digital cameras-a-blazing and I then depart to walk further down the Avon, across the bridge and back up the opposite bank returning in the direction of the town.
A barge rests its weary keel upon the bank of the River Avon after a hard days...err?... barging?
A barge lies at an angle, half its length wrenched, stranded out of the water and resting on the wall of the river bank, its lower extremity submerged within the rivers depths. Not a piece of public sculpture I feel. Possibly a remnant; a victim of the carnage caused in many parts of the country from excessive rainfall and flooding in Britain about this time last year? Further down the bank vast gaggles of birds akin to Canada Geese flutter and waddle around the grassy banks of the Avon. A small girl, let off her leash well and truly by mom is taking her life in her own hands by running right at these crowds of sizeable birds, and laughing manically as they scatter and "quack" their disapproval at this whirlwind of a human disturbance. Frankly I've seen these birds angry before, and it can get scary. I am surprised they've become tolerant enough of tourists to let her get away with her head still attached to her shoulders! If she tries this sh*t on the swans there will be some very interesting front page photos in the Stratford Gazette tomorrow, believe me!
A coffee and muffin at The Cox's Yard by the riverside and then a little more mooching around the central, retail area of the town.
The hunt is on! "Run!"... "Waddle!"...whatever :)
Stratford is fairly commercial it has to be said, and this coupled with the stifling convergence of tourists in summer months does mean that in some ways the town can suffer a little from over commercialisation. There are not that many twee, untouched little shops that you might have expected or hoped for and all of the big players (including McDonalds) are in town even if they do have mock wooden-beam facades to their establishments 'in keeping' with the traditional 16th/ 17th Century feel that the town wishes to evoke. There's the Teddy Bear Museum, The Stratford Butterfly Farm, The Market Place (when it's on) and The Falstaff Experience (a little cobbled-path olde-englishe house of Stratford incoporating recreated scenes of Stratford's "dark past", the plague etc, etc... there are nightly ghost walks and that sort of malarkey), Nash's House and New Place (Shakespeare's post-London retirement retreat) and a little further out of town Anne Hathaway's cottage (home of Shakey's Missus).
The River Avon from the pedestrian bridge.
Lots to do and see and to absorb those happy tourist dollars. I would always say that with the right weather one of the most pleasant things you can do is hire a rowing boat for an hour or so and arse about on the river for a while, trying not to crash, sink or annoy too many disgruntled swans and geese with your chaotic paddling! :)
Before the performance starts I have a pint and a fantastically presented platter of cheeses, apple'n'ale chutney, salad, chopped apple and bisciuts at The Dirty Duck (the nearest pub to the Theatre strip) and then at 18.50 it's time to head on in to The Courtyard Theatre (temporarily expanded and erected whilst the works on the main theatres are ongoing) to see a play I have wanted to see performed in Shakepeare's heartland for many a long year, the magical A Midsummer Nights Dream
Hamlet contemplates his preferred bowling grip...amongst other quandries.
The performance is truly wonderful! I've seen Dream
performed a number of times and always been disappointed at the lack of engagement with the fantastical elements and opportunities it presents to casts and directors alike. This performane though embraces the potential to unleash the imagination, visions and humour of the play in every sense. A giant moon gently, imperceptibly glides across the theatre firmament as the Acts progress and night passes for the lovers lost and confused in the Athenian wood. Incandescent stars, or glowworms, or faery lights are suspended above the whole stage and rise and fall orchestrally throughout the performance. Subtle use of wirework is occasionally deployed to whisk Oberon, Titania and even the poor ass-headed Bottom into the theatre eaves, swirling and flying around most gracefully.
A clocktower monument in Stratford marketplace.
The chap playing Bottom The Weaver is so side-splittingly funny words cannot describe. I've seen a few before, but now know that I never truly saw a performance of Shakesperian comedy before this night! Fabulous, hilarious from beginning to end. And I was not late. I got my seat, and all was well and good. The happy crowds spill out of the theatre, and amble back in the direction of town. My walk will take me a little further than most, and I am sad to bid farewell to Stratford as I stroll up through the quiet town centre, one more time past the Birthplace and onwards to where I left my car with my back to the River Avon. I will be here again. Parting is such sweet sorrow.'If we shadows have offended,Think but this and all is mended-That you have slumber'd here, While these visions did appear.
The Courtyard Theatre.
[...]We will make amends ere long;Else the Puck a liar call:So, good night unto you all.Give me your hands, if we be friends,And Robin shall restore amends.'
- Act V, i