7 August 2006

Shakespeare's Stratford

'Shakespeare's Stratford' is an over-used phrase in the tourist trade of that town, although to my mind it is unlikely that Shakespeare would have recognised much of this place today. Our initial impressions were not positive, it seemed to have about the same level of architectural merit as Oswestry, but with hordes of Italian, Japanese and American tourists.

Warning! This is a long post with lots of photos. As usual you can click on the photos for a larger version.

Around the town...

Saturday was spent unsatisfactorily trying - as Kate put it - to photograph a Stratford 'that doesn't exist any more, if it ever did'. So lots of time was spent waiting for the right light and an absence of brightly-coloured people. In the end I gave up! In spite of my previous remark about Oswestry, there are bits of Stratford that are actually very nice. Thankfully (see below) the main tourist hordes are kept away from these.

Even where a building has nothing to do with Shakes- peare it is still named after him!

This is a delighful fifteenth century row which forms part of King Edward's School on Church Street. Next door are the almshouses, built in the sixteenth century and still in use.

Icons, No.1 - God. Medieval wall painting of heaven and hell at the Guild Chapel.

Icons, No.2 - Mammon. Nineteenth century mosaic of a playwright on the HSBC bank.

As an enthusiast of cast-iron street furniture I found much to delight in Stratford. One very curious thing was the fact that the city council seemed to be too poor to afford its own street lights, so it had cunningly pursuaded other towns to donate spare ones. Thus all the way along Waterside and along parts of Chapel Lane and Southern Lane, were a whole variety of cast-iron street lights donated by Aberdeen, Bristol, Cardiff and other municipalities. Indeed some came from further afield...

Not actually from St. Petersburg itself, but a similarly-named town in Florida!

Don't worry, I shan't bore you with photos of each and every one! Needless to say the tackiest street lamp ever designed was the one from Bournemouth.

I could moan for hours about the cost and inaccessibility of parking, the expensiveness of cream teas, the oppressive and directionless tourist-sheep and so-on. But I guess that comes with the territory. By about 3.30 we had had enough and went back to our delightful B&B to freshen up for going out in the evening. However, not for the only time this weekend, I found it curious that William Shakespeare (a playwright) was held in higher regard than Abraham Darby (pioneer of industry). I guess we were about to find out.

The Tempest

We arrived in town about 5.30 and quickly found somewhere nice to eat. The Georgetown on Sheep Street was excellent and to be recommended. Kate started with a cocktail... and then we went on to have a three course meal and a bottle of wine. Very nice 'Malaysian colonial' cuisine and excellent value with white-suited waiters and the piano playing in the background. A bit like being in a Somerset Maugham novel, and appropriate for the hot and humid evening.

Kate with Gin Sling

Anyway we then went to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see The Tempest. Which was in fact the main point of being in Stratford in the first place!

This was a fantastic performance. Strangely set in a snowy island rather than the traditional sunny desert island, there were very good perfomances from Patrick Stewart (Prospero), Julian Bleach (a strangely unsettling Ariel), John Light (an utterly convincing Caliban) and Nick Court (Ferdinand). The theatre was packed and the atmosphere was exciting. The production was extremely good, a simple set but with effective use of light and (lots of) smoke - also a very effective opening sequence as the shipwreck takes place.

The outside of the theatre from the park after the play.

Afterwards we felt like a pint to cool off, so we went to the nearest pub which we had passed earlier in the day. Whilst waiting for me to get the drinks in, Kate spotted some strangely familiar figures going past her into the pub, and eventually realised she was stood next to the entrance to the Actors' Bar. So we bumped into most of our cast in the pub afterwards - including Ariel, some godesses and various sailors!

Slightly blurred photo taken on the bridge over the Avon by a passing cyclist.

We then returned to the Bed and Breakfast, which was slightly out of town in Aston Cantlow. Actually the B&B, the Tudor Rose Cottage deserves special mention itself. It was a delightful place, very friendly and with a fantastic breakfast. Another recommendation!

...and here is a picture of the B&B, taken the following morning.

The next day was sunny and warm, and we set off to explore the various 'Shakespeare Houses' run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. This is a vast and no doubt extremely prosperous organisation. Their contribution to packing in tourists cannot be doubted, the integrity of their interpretation and conservation on the other hand, left me at least with some questions...

Mary Arden's House

Mary Arden's House actually proved to be delightful and was in my opinion the best of all of the so-called 'Shakespeare houses' we visited on this trip. What you think is Mary Arden's house is in fact called Palmer's Farm, and the real house of Shakespeare's mother is the rather unimpressive-looking cottage on the other side. This is only a relatively recent revelation to the Trust, and all credit to them for admitting the errors of earlier interpretation and revising their view as a result of detailed archaeological investigation and analysis.
Exterior of Palmer's Farm, until 2001 thought to be (and presented as) Mary Arden's house.

The interior of the house was very well presented, and it was nice to see some seventeenth century fireplaces that were extremely similar to the one in my very own listed building! Sadly photos were not allowed to be taken in any of these houses. The main attraction of this site was the fact that it included a substantial farmyard, with displays about rural life, quarrying, building, cider-making etc. and various animals.

It is not every day you get to have a 12 year old Bengal Owl on your arm in William Shakespeare's mum's garden!

Our original plan was to get the tourist bus but this was excessively expensive and time-consuming so we drove into Stratford for the next on the list of 'Shakespeare houses'...

Shakespeare's Birthplace

This was a fascinating experience of how to manipulate fact to perpetuate a myth, and how to literally consume heritage. Shakespeare's birthplace was bought by the forerunner to the Birthplace Trust in 1847, and anything deemed by the Victorians to be post-sixteenth-century was promptly demolished. The exterior is largely a 19th century reconstruction of what they though it might have looked like at the time, the interior layout is fairly conjectural - and a lot of original features shown in 19th century photographs have disappeared. Sadly there is no attempt to manage visitor flow to create any sense of historical ambience. It was impossible to pause and reflect in either the exhibition or the house. Perhaps not surprising, but you wonder what most visitors actually experience?

John Shakes- peare's house on Henley Street, birthplace of his third child William.

In truth this is an extremely ordinary sixteenth century town house. Which is just as well because the sheer number of visitors can do the fabric (what little original timber remains) no good at all. In the palaces in Russia they made all the visitors take off their shoes and put on slippers. Here, overweight Americans and stilletto-ed Italians are crammed in to tramp across hand-sawn 400 year-old floorboards.

The exhibition was very big on the earlier prosperity of John Shakespeare and only one very small paragraph in a dimly-lit alcove mentioned that he was effectively bankrupt during the 1590s and was removed from the town council.

After this rather claustrophobic experience we managed to escape down Chapel Street and have a much-needed cup of tea before embarking on our next port of call. The cafe, incidentally, was quite an amusing 'traditional' English tea-room with suspect timber framing, tacky prints, listless serving girls and so-on. At a neighbouring table were a pair of typically English busy-body middle aged women who had nothing to do but complain about the food being offered and all the while discussing the shortcomings of other cafes they had known.

Kate managing to look very pretty in the cafe, despite being extremely hot and suffering all weekend with toothache.

The Harvard House

Not one of the 'Shakespeare Houses' but another necessary stop for the Americans. The Harvard House was owned by the maternal grandfather of the founder of Harvard University. John Harvard was born in 1607 (an interesting year in terms of North American history) but the house dates from the fourteenth century and was substantially rebuilt in the 1590s by Thomas Rogers (John Harvard's mother's father).

The house has particularly nice carving to the front and is quite well preserved. The ground floor is a large open space which would have formed Thomas Roger's butcher's shop.

Apparently the house is owned by Harvard, and they charge rent to the Trust which run it as a visitor attraction. Although they finance the maintenance of the house they are reluctant to part with too much money. The house is mainly occupied by an exhibition of pewter, the relevance of which is not immediately apparent, although there are some nice bits and bobs.

Holy Trinity Church

Even the church in Stratford had succumbed to Shakespeare-mania. Despite being the resting place of many other (no doubt worthy) Stratfordians, and indeed being supposedly a place for prayer and contemplation, the church was extremely busy and noisy. You are charged £1.50 for the honour of entering the chancel and you cannot even get properly close to Shakespeare's grave.

So just to be stubborn we looked at other graves and spotted this fascinating tombstone, dedicated to Richard Hill and written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek as well as English. However it is not at all well-finished and contains several amendments and blank lines.

A stone- mason's practice piece?

From the church we walked back along 'Old Town' towards the next of the 'Shakespeare Houses'...

Hall's Croft

Probably because of its location on the fringes of the historic town, Hall's Croft was less busy and more atmospheric than the other properties. The connection with Shakespeare is provided by his daughter Susannah, who married the physician John Hall. The house is therefore more interesting than John Shakespeare's house as it contains quite a lot about medical practice in the early seventeenth century...and some slipware!

In the garden. In taking my photos I knelt under the Mulberry Tree and now have a purple knee!

Although quite well-presented, I felt that the interpretation here could well do with an update. The story being related is very much about John Hall and his Shakespeare connections. Which is all very well but there is little information about the changes to the physical fabric of the house itself. This contrasts very much with the Mary Arden houses and was a little disappointing as this is clearly a very interesting building.

We needed another cup of tea at this stage, so we had one and decided to do one more 'Shakespeare House'...

Nash's House and New Place

Otherwise known (to me at least) as Shakespeare's death-place. Well if you can have a birth-place why not a death place? In fact Nash's House and New Place is a quite bizarre experience. Another example of Victorian attitudes to conservation (many of which are still latent in modern conservation practice but that is another rant for another day).

Anyway New Place was a susbtantial timber-framed house on the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane, which was bought by William Shakespeare in 1597. He died there in 1616. It was 'radically rebuilt' in the early 1700s and then demolished altogether by the Reverend Francis Gastrell in 1759. Meanwhile the adjacent house was purchased by 'the first husband of Shakespeare's grand-daughter', one Thomas Nash, in the late seventeenth century and promptly modified with a new front and various alterations to the rear.

All of this post-medieval alteration was swept away in the 1870s when the two properties were purchased by Shakespeare enthusiasts. They promptly destroyed the Queen Anne frontage and replaced it with a timber-framed construction of their own imagining...

Nash House with its 19th century front and more authentic rear.

Another view from the site of New Place showing the 17th century bits at the back.

The interior was nice though, and included a hot-air powered roasting spit. Alas despite asking very politely I was unable to photograph this rather unique piece of eighteenth century cooking technology. The gardens were quite interesting as various bits of Shakespeare's old house were evident as foundations. There were also a couple of wells...

Well, well, what have we here?

...and a Mulberry Tree. This Mulberry tree is allegedly grown from a cutting of a Mulberry tree planted by William Shakespeare. The original tree was chopped down by the grumpy Vicar who demolished the house. After getting a purple knee from the last Mulberry tree I was more cautious this time. This is a picture of me waiting patiently for a tourist-free view of the very pretty timber-framed building opposite New Place - the Falcon Hotel.

Waiting patiently for a photograph of a Stratford that doesn't exist!

In fact I got my revenge on the Mulberry Tree, and hopefully will eventually have the 'grand-child' of the tree that Shakespeare planted. At the back of New Place was a very pretty knot garden, which was authentically shaped but I had my reservations about the authenticity of the stock. Many very modern breeds of busy lizzies, petunias and so-on. However it was a colourful sight.

Knot a garden.

Sorry about the puns! Anyway after all these excitements we were pretty Shakespeare'd out, so we drove slowly home. Feeling hungry en route we stopped at the Hundred House Hotel in Norton, just south of Telford. We had both driven past this lots of times as it is on the dreaded road between Bridgnorth and Telford. It does have a good reputation for food, which, as we discovered, is very well founded. We arrived at 7.00 just as they were opening up and had the place virtually to ourselves. A very nice meal - just perfect in fact as the conclusion to another adventurous weekend.

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