Towns / Cities Visited: 111
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 19,506
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,018,555
Today would see us take our three millionth step, and much to my joy that step would be taken in one of the towns I had been most eagerly awaiting; Stratford upon Avon. Now as I’m sure you have all gathered so far, I have a deep love of literature and theatre, and to those like me, this quaint little town is very special, for it was home to one of the world’s most noteworthy authors and playwrights; William Shakespeare. As could only be expected, our day was to be dedicated to this legend of prose from start to finish.
So where do you start? Well the answer should be obvious; Shakespeare’s birthplace, of course. Thus having made the short drive in, and parked the car, we made our way to our first stop. On our travels we paused briefly to admire a statue of the man himself, sitting pride of place beside the river, surrounded by four accompanying statues depicting some of his most famous characters; Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, Falstaff, and Prince Hal.
Before too long we were wandering into the heart of the town and pulling up in front of the ramshackle Tudor house which once heard the first cries of Shakespeare almost 500 years ago. Despite its age, it has withstood the test of time quite well, obviously with a little help from conservation. Its original wooden beams still hold fast, and below its recently painted exterior sits the original wattle and daub that has insulated the walls all of these centuries. The fact that it has remained through times when heritage preservation was not a habit is impressive to say the least, but it is mainly due to the fact that the property remained in the hands of John Shakespeare, William’s father, and his descendants until 1847, when it was purchased by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who have cared for it ever since. It is in this house that John lived and worked as a glove maker and whittawer for fifty years, that William and his siblings spent their childhood, and that William and his wife, Anne Hathaway, spent their first five years of marriage. John became the mayor of Stratford, and because of this high status job, William was given the opportunity to attend the local grammar school; an eventuality I’m sure many of us are thankful for. After his father’s death, William inherited the property and rented part of it out for use as an inn called ‘The Swan and Maidenhead’.
Before you enter the property, you first pass through an adjoining small museum, which helps give a little background on Shakespeare, and includes a copy of the First Folio; a priceless collection of the writer’s plays, composed by his friends after his death. It is this collection, a rare creation in a time when plays were rarely, if ever, printed, which is the reason we still have his plays in their original text in this day and age. Considering the fact that there is very few artefacts owned by Shakespeare remaining, and no other writings, the folio is of great importance to his memory. On one of the walls there is a display of bronze circles representing all of his plays, and on another there is also a wonderfully written piece which collates many common phrases which only exist because William wrote it so; many of which we use on a daily basis without any knowledge of where they originated. From ‘good riddance’ to ‘foul play’, and ‘eyesore’ to ‘laughing stock’, these tiny quips have travelled a long way through time to be assimilated so seamlessly into our vernacular.
Finally it was time to enter the building itself, and it is through the adorable and fastidiously maintained back garden, filled with its heirloom plant varieties which mirror those which would have graced the town all those years ago, that you reach the back entrance. As you enter, you can feel the history oozing all around. Although the furniture is not original to the house, most of it is from the 16th century, and is likely to be strikingly similar to that which once graced the space. As you make your way across the questionable footing of half millennia old floorboards, you are led through the cozy, but well laid out home, with its rooms set out as though the occupants have stepped away for but a moment. A table of fake food greets you in the kitchen, a workbench with all the equipment for medieval glove making sits lazily in John Shakespeare’s workroom, and in the bedroom a cradle sits empty and a dress is laid out neatly on the bed, waiting patiently to be donned. The guides who work at the house add greatly to all of this, explaining daily life in this time, and a small open section of the wall allows you so see a portion of the original wattle and daub cladding. There’s something eerie about thinking that the cow hair poking out from it are from cows as long dead as the Shakespeare’s themselves.
We were delivered back outside, and took a long moment to admire the plants once more before moving on. A short walk found us arriving at our next stop; Shakespeare’s New Place. Now, as the name so obviously points out, this was the new house Shakespeare had built for himself, back in 1597, and was his family’s home until his death within its walls in 1616. When he wasn’t in London at his Globe Theatre, he was most often found within its walls, and it is likely that many of his later plays were at least partially written here. Unfortunately, like many important sites from the 16th century, this building did not stand the test of time, and was, in fact, demolished by a later owner in 1759. The story behind its destruction is one of spite, and almost amusing in its ridiculousness, so I’ll give you a snippet. The house was purchased in 1753 by Reverend Francis Gastrell. By this point in history, Shakespeare’s plays were famous the world over, and thus the house he raised his family, and died, in, was somewhat of a tourist attraction. Many came knocking, hoping to be allowed through the house, or into the back garden to see the mulberry tree that the legend himself had planted almost two centuries prior. After some time the Reverend became frustrated with the constant intrusion of nosy sightseers and, understandably but unforgivably, cut down the tree, much to the shock and disgruntlement of everyone else. In 1759, whilst apparently also amidst disputes about taxes with local officials, Reverend Gastrell, in a truly spectacular fit of spite, had the house demolished. He subsequently became so unpopular in town that he was forced to leave, however, he did not sell the land, and thus the crumbled building remained as an eyesore in the town, unable to be legally removed, for quite some time. Now if thats not the most over the top show of petulance, I don’t know what is.
As I’m sure you’ve now figured out, there is no house on the site, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to see. The land is also owned by the trust, and they have taken it upon themselves to turn the space into somewhat of a contemporary garden. The space contains a mixture of things, from the outline of the foundations, to help give scale to how large the house was; to more stunningly landscaped gardens; to a selection of modern sculptures including a bronze writing desk where they believe the study may have been located, a windswept bronze mulberry tree, and a rather beautiful globe framed from behind by the Guild Chapel.
Further back on the property sits the large space which would have originally been the family’s garden, and home to the ill fated mulberry tree. It is now a tranquil green space surrounded by flowers and shrubs, and dotted with sprawling trees and a few more sculptures for good measure. If Shakespeare’s spirit lingers on this land, I hope it has found peace in the embrace of this garden.
Beside New Place sits another small museum about the life and times of the poet, and we took a short moment to wander through, and peruse the information boards, and speckle of artefacts, including the deed for the property.
As we made our way back onto the street, we found ourselves a little peckish. We were set to have an early dinner, so we decided to fill the void with a quick cream tea before scurrying off again. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have a soft spot for businesses with punny names, and as such we were soon sitting down in a cute little tea room called The Fourteas. True to its namesake, it is dressed in the style of the 1940’s, with war memorabilia dotted around, including reprints of original ration booklets; a plethora of patriotic decorations; and the easy listening sound of old school crooners drifting through the air. With deliciously warm scones, and a welcoming pot of tea, it was the perfect way to take a break before the adventure continued.
Our next port of call was the Church of the Holy Trinity. Fear not, we were not going off topic, you see, this is the site of the baptism and the final resting place of the famous writer. It is yet another stunning example of medieval gothic architecture from the 13th century, complete with intricate stone work, a rainbow of stained glass windows, a gorgeous wooden ceiling, and a rather amusing doorknocker from the 14th century. We were also surprised to find that the chancel of the building actually angles slightly off to the left, apparently as a representation of the way Jesus’ head tilted on the cross. The majority of the interior is free to explore except for the aforementioned chancel, where lays those we had come to see. Dropping a few coins in the donation box we walked into the sanctuary of this resting place. Along the floor, just before the far altar, lays the carved stones which have protected the remains of William, and his family, for almost five centuries. Alongside the man himself, lays his wife Anne, his eldest daughter Susannah and her husband John Hall, and the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth, Thomas Nash. As can be expected, Shakespeare’s capstone is carved with a short witty poem, cursing anyone who would dare to move his remains. There are also a number of other noteworthy additions to view, including the painted wooden bust of William, copies of his baptism and burial records, and the, somewhat damaged, font which washed away the sins of the Shakespeare children. As we left, it was hard not to think that it is a perfectly tranquil place for a man of such high repute; a man who made his way up in the world from such humble beginnings, and did so well that he was even able to purchase his father a coat of arms.
Moving onto the next generation of Shakespeare’s saw us arriving at Hall’s Croft, the beautiful Jacobean house from 1613 which was called home by Susannah and John Hall, until William died and they moved into New Place. John was a respected physician, but unlike many others at the time who relied on bloodletting and astrology, John preferred treatments which were plant and herb based. The interior has been fully restored by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and they have done an amazing job of fitting out the rooms such that you feel transported.
The upstairs area offers a fascinating exhibition on medieval medicine, including a number of display cases holding rather barbaric looking medical instruments, a copy of a medical textbook in which John Hall’s research is published, and a wealth of information about a time when most sickness was blamed on an imbalance of humours; in short they believed that too much or too little black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, was the basis for all illness. I have always found it incredible to look at how science and medicine have progressed and changed over time. Although their beliefs seem almost laughable now, when you consider that they had no concept of bacteria and viruses, their thought process wasn’t entirely without precedent.
As you step outside you realise that the dedication to preserving the past definitely does not stop at the door. The garden has been landscaped to include many of the plants which John Hall would likely have grown and used in his ointments and tinctures, and perfect rows of vegetables which would have been the norm in almost every backyard of the era. It is this attention to detail which creates an all encompassing experience and I can only commend the trust for their ongoing work on all of the properties they oversee.
With a little time to spare before the evening’s entertainment, we scurried a little way out of town to one last exquisitely restored property; Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife. Incredibly, the original house was built in 1463 by Anne’s grandfather, and two rooms of it were kept when her brother inherited the property and extended it. Hathaway descendants, 13 generations to be precise, occupied the property from its construction, all the way until 1911, when it had already come under the ownership of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. As you meander through its jumble of a garden, towards its entrance, it is undoubtably one of the most picture perfect historical homes you will ever see; a truly quintessential English cottage if ever there was one, complete with thatched roof and all.
Once more, the house is decorated in period style, and it even includes a few original pieces of furniture, including the bed. The kitchen, which along with the parlour, are from the original building, is probably the most impressive of the rooms, and there was a friendly staff member standing within it to regale us with some of the house’s history. The claustrophobic staircases and the tiny furniture reminds you of just how must bigger we are nowadays, and the relative cosiness of the rooms reminds you of the difficulties of keeping a home warm in the depths of winter before the invention of modern heating and insulation, or even affordable glass windows. The rope strung beds also harken back to a time when the phrase ‘sleep tight’ was more of an instruction than a well wishing.
The cottage sits surrounded by garden, but there is much more to see beyond the quaint flowers patches. The farm the house sits on was known as ‘Hewlands’ and was tended by the Hathaways for generations, who were successful sheep farmers. You are able to wander around the nine acre property once you’re done, including the orchards, fields, and woodlands, which host a number of sculptures inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.
The day was growing older, and we hustled back into town to grab a quick dinner and a pint at one of the local pubs, before walking back to the car and getting changed into something a little more formal. Why, you may ask? Well, what would a trip to Stratford upon Avon and an entire day of immersing ourselves in the life and times of William Shakespeare be, if we were not to pay homage to his contributions to the arts by seeing a show at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre by the Royal Shakespeare Company itself. This was something I had been talking about doing for so long that it seemed almost surreal sitting down in our seats and watching the lights go down. Now I have seen a number of Shakespeare’s plays over the years, but this was the first time I was to see one of his comedies; ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. For those of you who do not know the story, it is, in short, the tale of Sir Falstaff, an upper class man who is short on funds, and decides to seduce two wealthy married women, Mistresses Page and Ford, to try and regain financial advantage. He sends them both identical letters, but they both realise the scam, and decide to play tricks on him to teach him a lesson. Meanwhile Mistress Page’s daughter is being courted by three different men, one who her father likes, one who her mother likes, and one who she herself likes, and she is pulled every which way while she tries to figure out which path to follow. Although the original dialogue is used for the most part, the costumes and sets have been somewhat reimagined to appear like something more akin to ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’; all gaudy hair and makeup. A few of the jokes have been modernised as well, with Falstaff being hidden in a wheelie bin, instead of a washing hamper. One of Shakespeare’s best attributes as a comedic writer, is that he has his characters interact and bounce off of the crowd, and this unquestionably makes the entire show feel more natural, inclusive, and engaging. This play may be one of his lesser known works, but we walked away feeling no less entertained than we would have from a production of Hamlet or Macbeth.
Thus it was that our day had come to an end, and we made our way happily home for a well earned rest. As I lay in bed, I pondered on Shakespeare, and the truly unique talent he had as a playwright. Not only were his tales entertaining and emotive, but more importantly, they were timeless; he managed to capture the true nature and struggles of humanity seamlessly within his works. Times may have changed, but the bigger existential questions which we all face in life remain unchanged by the centuries; questions of love, of loss, of honour, of figuring out who we are. It is due to his choice of subject matter, that his stories are so easily adapted to modern depictions. From tonight’s adaptation of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, to Baz Luhrmann’s take on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and even ‘10 Thing’s I Hate About You’ going off script but at its heart retelling ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. In the sharing of these stories we realise that we are connected to our past more intrinsically than it may seem on the surface.
It is in reading Shakespeare’s works and viewing his plays as a teen that I truly realised the amazing power of the written and spoken word. Harnessing language and using it to illustrate our stories is the main purpose of writing, but I think we too often forget that whilst writing we have the power to alter language itself. We may feel that this is impossible to achieve, that creating new words will confuse our audience, but we must remember that new words are added to the dictionary every year, and their meanings change over time. Shakespeare created words and phrases when he found himself at a loss for them; he forced the evolution of the language to bend to his will. Thats not to say he simply made up nonce words, but rather altered existing words to give them new connotations, adding suffixes and prefixes, and using nouns as verbs. You may think that this would have made him the target of critics, and it very well may have, but then again, the word critic didn’t even exist before he used it. Nor did other words we use in everyday language for that matter, from dwindle to dauntless, skim-milk to swagger, lacklustre to lonely, all of these can be attributed to the mind of this man. We are not limited by language, language is limited only by us, and when you finally realise this, your stories are able to be told unchanged and unsullied. In doing so, you can finally be true to thine own self.