Stratford-upon-Avon, October 2016
After stepping off the train in Stratford-upon-Avon and walking into the centre of town, the historic nature of the place very quickly became apparent. The instantly recognisable black and white, timbered buildings of the Tudor period give the town that unmistakeable Shakespearean feel. As a lover of history and an avid fan of Shakespeare’s works this outward aspect alone was enough to endow Stratford with a tangible atmosphere of excitement.
I had arrived too early to check into my hotel so instead I made a beeline straight for Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Before entering the house, there is a small exhibition which brings to life the incredible legacy of the man, William Shakespeare, who was born right here. Beside a delightfully witty address which demonstrates all the ways in which Shakespeare has shaped the language we use today, a video plays showing performances of Shakespeare’s work all over the world. Watching this display of the enduring passion for Shakespeare’s words sent shivers up my spine and made me even more excited to see the place where it all started.
The room that most piqued my interest in Shakespeare’s childhood home was not the one in which he was born but the bedroom next door which he shared with his brothers. It is in this room that the young Shakespeare would have first begun to think and wonder, that his imagination would first have begun to blossom. Perhaps he would have awoken in this room from a dream, inspired perchance by the fantastical figures on the bedroom walls, which would stay with him and come back to life in the plays he wrote as an adult.
“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4 Scene 1
In the adjoining room, where Shakespeare’s sisters would have slept above their father’s glove-making workshop, is an old window displayed in a small exhibit. This window once stood in its frame in the birthroom of Shakespeare’s Birthplace and is covered in names etched by visitors from as early as 1806.
This has been a place of pilgrimage for lovers of Shakespeare for hundreds of years and it’s an incredible moment when you realise you are standing in a house where thousands of people have come to stand, including literary greats such as Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson and Charles Dickens, all because it is the house in which William Shakespeare took his first breath.
Leaving the Birthplace in a slight haze of literary euphoria, I walked the short distance to The Mercure Shakespeare Hotel where I would be staying for the night. Another spectacular Tudor-style building the interior had a cosy, traditional style with exposed wooden beams and big fireplaces to match the historic air of the exterior. I was delighted upon getting to my room to find that it was named, as were all the rooms, after one of Shakespeare’s characters: Peaseblossom, a fairy and one of Queen Titania’s attendants in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of my very favourite plays.
My favourite thing about this hotel room was the view from the window over the rooftops of Stratford, it was a quaint scene and made it easy to imagine being here in another time.
After leaving my bags at the hotel, I went back the way I had come to meet my guide for the rest of the day. I was incredibly lucky to be given a mini-tour of Stratford-upon-Avon by Catherine Fannin Peel who works for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and lives and breathes Shakespeare every day. As such a huge fan I have to admit I was a little (read a lot) jealous of her day job. The next few hours, as Catherine took me around some of the town’s important Shakespearean sites, mostly consisted of me trying to hold in my overwhelming excitement and emotion for fear of embarrassing myself – I’m not sure I succeeded.
We decided to start at the edge of town and work our way back in so we started to stroll towards Holy Trinity Church. On the way, we walked past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST), an imposing and beautiful building on the banks of the River Avon which has played host to some of the most revered Shakespearean actors since it opened in 1932.
Directly opposite the RST is the Arden Hotel, not only is it in an incredible location but it is beautiful on the inside too with individually designed bedrooms and sumptuous furnishings. The Arden has a longstanding connection with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and my favourite part of the hotel was a small lounge with a bust of Shakespeare on the bar and stylish, black and white portraits of famous Shakespearean actors on the walls – many of whom have stayed in the hotel themselves when performing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
You find pictures like this in many establishments in Stratford and for any fans of classic film and theatre it’s a real pleasure to see these stunning images of iconic actors like Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.
We continued along the path past an idyllic scene where rowboats, which like the rooms in my hotel were also named after Sheakespeare’s characters, are lined up awaiting passengers and great flocks of swans idle on the water. Walking through the attractive Swan Park we arrived at Holy Trinity, passing through the picturesque riverside graveyard to arrive at the door of this pretty medieval church, where Shakespeare was baptised and would have attended services as a boy and again in his later years.
It is here in the chancery of Holy Trinity that Shakespeare is buried alongside his wife and several other members of his family.
Shakespeare famously had a curse engraved upon his tombstone to deter anyone from disturbing his remains. Most people believe this is because he did not like the idea of his bones being dug up and placed in the charnel house but Catherine has another theory. In 1596 Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at only 11 years of age, it is likely that he would have been buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity and his bones later removed and placed in the charnel house to make way for new graves. Every few years the charnel house would need to be emptied so the bones would be burned and the ashes dug into the soil around the church. Perhaps, then, it is for this reason that Shakespeare placed the curse on his gravestone: feeling that his son’s remains had become part of the earth in which he himself would be laid to rest, he wished to always remain close to him in death having lost him in life.
After these poignant ponderings, we walked back into town and stopped off first at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom. We didn’t actually go into the schoolroom itself but we did have a lovely chat with a charming young man who is currently a student at the school which still operates on this site. He very kindly told us all about the schoolroom and how he feels to be studying in the same place as William Shakespeare. It is in this schoolroom that the young Shakespeare would have first been introduced to the works of Plutarch and Ovid, which would become such a huge influence on his own writing as an adult. The little boy looked slightly sheepish when asked how his Latin was coming along but we encouraged him to stick with it – you never know who might turn out to be Stratford’s next great genius!
“Love goes toward love as shoolboys from their books, But love from love, toward school with heavy looks” Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2
The final Shakespearean site that Catherine took me to was New Place.
New Place is the site of the home which Shakespeare bought in 1597 and lived in with his family until his death in 1616. Many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were written during this time including Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello and The Tempest. New Place contains a recreation in bronze of a chair and desk such as Shakespeare himself may have sat at while writing these iconic dramas.
What makes this scene of imagining even more special is that, as the buildings facing the site all predate the construction of New Place, the sculpture looks towards the same scene which Shakespeare would have viewed.
There is also a lovely garden in New Place which looks down towards the river and from where you can see the RST. In this garden are a series of remarkable statues by renowned sculptor Greg Wyatt which are inspired by the works of William Shakespeare and are powerfully evocative of his stories and characters.
As a huge fan of Shakespeare (have I mentioned that yet?) I had a truly excellent day in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a particular pleasure to be shown the sights by such a well-informed and enthusiastic guide. I wish I could have stayed longer to see a show at the RST and visit Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to come back again!
Having had a full day of Shakespeare it was time to branch out and see what else this area had to offer. It was a beautiful autumnal morning as we drove out of town and into the Warwickshire countryside to our first appointment at Compton Verney.
The approach to Compton Verney is nothing short of majestic; driving over the lake across the old stone bridge and stopping under the eaves of the stunning Georgian mansion, it’s easy to imagine you might be in a carriage not a car, re-enacting a scene from one of Austen’s great romances.
Compton Verney is now a private art gallery with collections ranging from European Christian art from the 1400s and 1500s and 17th and 18th century Italian paintings to British portraits, Chinese bronzes and contemporary folk art. We were lucky enough to have a private tour of Compton Verney’s galleries before public opening which was a very special experience.
Entering the galleries on the first floor was breath-taking; beautiful rooms of powder blue, deep red and dark emerald green create the perfect background to their respective artworks and produce an overall aesthetic quality that is exquisitely pleasing.
From the art inside to that outside – the rolling fields and serene lake, designed by famous landscape gardener ‘Capability’ Brown are perfectly framed by the wide, elegant windows of Compton Verney.
As is usually the case, I could have stayed and wandered around this beautiful space for hours, taking time to appreciate each piece of art and exploring the different exhibitions before a peaceful stroll through the quiet grounds. But unfortunately we had somewhere else to be.
I say ‘unfortunately’ but once we got to our next destination I did not feel unfortunate in the slightest, in fact I felt like a child on Christmas morning! Our second visit was to the British Motor Museum. I happen to be a bit of a car enthusiast so this was a real treat for me but I don’t think you have to be a petrol head to be able to enjoy the British Motor Museum. The elegance and beauty of these vehicles is undeniable and even without a passion for motoring they’re wonderful to behold and many have fascinating stories.
Any history lovers will enjoy the old vehicles which provide a real nostalgic sense of their role in each period of Britain’s past. Furthermore, any film lovers will be delighted to see cars such as the famous DeLorean on display (I genuinely jumped up and down when I caught sight of it, not very dignified, perhaps, but I couldn’t contain my excitement) as well as a stun vehicle from the James Bond franchise.
Many of the machines on display here are as iconically British as the red phone box or Buckingham Palace and it was a real thrill to see such a fantastic collection celebrating the UK’s contribution to the field.
Our final stop before leaving Stratford-upon-Avon was a visit to the MAD Museum which took us back into the town centre. This is the museum of mechanical art and design and while it might not seem to be a likely first choice for visitors coming to Stratford for more traditional reasons, it certainly is a very enjoyable addition.
MAD is full of ingenious inventions and moving pieces of art, from intricate marble mazes to complex mechanical creatures. The MAD Museum is a real eye-opener and full of fun: a walk around the museum floor is guaranteed to leave you grinning and, as the name would suggest, it’s a brilliant testament to the famous eccentricity of the English.