Hundreds of thousands of people pilgrimage to the small vibrant market town of Stratford every year from all parts of the world explore the vestige of the life of William Shakespeare and the legacy he left. A bountiful place to visit with its literary associations, broad streets lined with half timbered houses and Tudor architecture …
… Shakespeare’s birthplace is a restored 16th-century half-timbered house with garden in Henley Street, where visitors pay homage in the very room where Shakespeare, the third of eight children, was born on or around 23rd April 1564. Multitudes of visitors journey here each year to see the oak bed and carved chest with a 17th century cradle. The house itself is atmospherically lit and furnished in the Elizabethan Style, looking very much like it did to Shakespeare. Here the Bard lived and spent his childhood years. Connected to and doubling as the main entrance the Birthplace, is the Shakespeare Centre, a museum which opened in 1964, a contrasting modern glass and concrete visitors centre. Shakespeare’s personal crest from 1596 is above and on display inside is his Folio, the first 36 plays compiled by his friends.
When Shakespeare was 18 in 1582, he married 26 year old Anne Hathaway. Susanna, the first of the three children was born in 1583 and later in 1585 twins Hamnet and Judith followed. William and his family lived with his parents in the house and later found his fortune in London before returning a success in 1597; he then purchased the largest house in Stratford and called it ‘New Place‘. We’ll discover New Place shortly. Henley Street is easily recognised as it is headed by the Jester ‘Touchstone’ from Shakespeare’s play; ‘As you like it.’ Further down from Shakespeare’s birthplace is the Museum of Mechanical Art and Design, alive with interactive sound and visual delight created by many marble descending machine displays.
Nearby on the junction of Bridge and High Street (by the copper domed Barclays bank), is Judith Quiney’s house. Known as “The Cage”, this is the longtime home of Shakespeare’s younger daughter after her marriage to Thomas Quiney. In its time this building has been a prison, the “Shakespeare View Store”, the town’s Tourist Information Centre and now a shop selling toiletries. Bridge Street is lined with pleasant houses many having bay windows and elegant porticoes. The White Swan is a timber framed 15th century hotel and has a Muriel with three painted scenes believed to be 16th century, illustrating the story of Tobias and the angel from the apocryphal Book of Tobit. Tudor World on adjacent Sheep St recreates the sights and sounds of Shakespearean England, including Elizabethan dining and The Golden Hind of Sir Francis Drake frame. It would be essential to add a visit to the Fourteas 1940’s tearoom whilst on Sheep St. The wartime theme threads throughout the premises from costume, food, sounds to the furniture, under the experienced management of former RSC show managers. Proceed along Bridge Street to see the late 19th century Gower memorial in Bancroft Gardens, designed by Lord Ronald Gower, with Shakespeare seated on top in bronze, and emblematic characters in theatrical support around; Hamlet, Lady Macbeth and Prince Hal symbolise philosophy, tragedy, comedy and history. Opposite the memorial is Clopton Bridge, with stone toll building added later in 1814. Its 14 arches were built by local merchants of Hugh Clopton in the 1480s, and it is now a main thoroughfare out of Stratford.
Harvard House on High Street is a restored half-timbered townhouse from Shakespeare’s time with a richly carved frontage. This was the birthplace of John Harvard who founded the oldest university in America. Nearby too handsome timbered properties still retain their original splendour: the Hathaway tea rooms and Garrick Inn. Further now the road in Chapel St is Nash’s house, open to visitors and the home of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth Hall after she married Thomas Nash. The rooms are furnished with fine Tudor and Jacobean furniture to recreate the backdrop of domestic life in Shakespeare’s time and also a local history museum with many Roman and Saxon finds. The Shakespeare Hotel on Chapel Street is a magnificent ancient Inn three stories high, with black and white Timber. It has been the meeting place for centuries of distinguished actors and visitors. The Falcon Hotel opposite New Place, dates from around 1500 and contains panelling from its former neighbour New Place. Only the foundations remain of New Place, Shakespeare’s last home built by Sir Hugh Clopton in 1483. The great poet lived here from 1611 until his death 5 years later. The house was pulled down in 1759 by the Reverend Francis Gastrell, much to the rage of the town. Access is achieved through Nash’s house and the former site of new place is now partially occupied by Knot garden and Great garden. Knot garden is a reconstruction of the garden New Place would have possessed in Shakespeare’s time with beds of herbs and flowers interlaced in intricate patterns. Work to build the Guild Chapel next door began in 1269 although the nave, tower and porch we’re built in 1495 by Sir Hugh Clopton. The chapel has long associations with the playwright and his family. Vivid medieval wall paintings of the last judgement are on the arch above the 13th century chancel. The Chapel is still used today by the grammar school for morning service. The Guildhall attached to the Chapel is the King Edward VI school, the very same school Shakespeare attended on its upper floor. The ground floor was used by travelling actors and was where he probably saw his first play. Almshouses adjoining the Guildhall were built by the Guild of the Holy Cross in the 15th century.
The iconic 2010 red brick theatre, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, has seating for 1040 plus audience and a thrust stage. The new build encompasses the old, originally a winning design by Elizabeth Scott in an architectural competition from 1928. That building opened in 1932 six years after the original 1879 Memorial theatre burnt down. There are pleasant Gardens and riverside terrace outside. Adjacent Swan theatre is pewter Victorian Gothic and includes a museum of stage costumes and scenery. In front of the theatre is Bancroft Gardens with sweeping lawns alongside the Avon and Canal Basin of 1816 with brightly painted narrow boats and a riverside footpath. Boat hire is available for the budding navigator. Tramway Bridge also in front was built in 1823 as part of a horse drawn tram way project to connect Shipston-on-Stour and Moreton-in-Marsh. One of the wagons used is preserved nearby. Behind the theatre is Holy Trinity Church dating back to the early 13th century and this is the church in which Shakespeare was baptised in 1564, buried in 1616 and the font used for his baptism survives. In front of the altar is Shakespeare’s simple gravestone with the inscription beginning ‘Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.’ A bust of Shakespeare was erected by his family in 1623. His wife Anne and eldest daughter Susannah lie beside him. Imaginative carvings include a dromedary and mermaids. The Lime trees in the churchyard represent the apostles and the tribes of Israel. Stratford ‘New Lock’ lies just north of the Old Stratford to London railway bridge overlooking Holy Trinity church church. The lock has been strengthened by steel girder frames to withstand high ground pressures. Handsome narrowboats queue up by the lock in summer watched by holiday crowds and picnickers. The Other Place on Southern Lane, is a small theatre which encourages new and experimental drama as well as Shakespearean plays. Jacobean Hall’s Croft on Old Town was the practice of Dr John Hall, complete with medicinal walled herb garden. The doctor was married to Suzanna, William’s daughter. His herbal methods of cure were cutting edge and in contrast to the practice of physicians in his era. The timbered house and garden are striking, the house furnished in 16th and 17th century style.
About a mile West of Stratford is 15th century Anne Hathaway’s thatched cottage, with later additions to the house added in the 17th century. The windows are square cut with lead cased diamond surround. Anne was born here in 1555 – her 12 roomed childhood home, a farmhouse with over 90 acres of land. Guided tours are available although visitors have the freedom to roam the furnished house with information and interactive displays, extensive garden and orchard with statues and sculptures.
In the village of Wilmcote, Northeast of Stafford is the home of Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden. Actors in period costume, farm animals and birds of prey bring Mary Arden’s 16th century farm routine to life. Children can enjoy the adventure play area and everyone can interact with the daily period activities, enriched by Tudor actors.
Stratford is indeed a historical wonder brought to life in varied guise.
In the next blog, we visit one of the seven wonders of the North: Morecambe
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These places and many others are listed as markers on the map on our home page. Places to visit in the UK and Ireland. www.touring-britain.heralded.co.uk