Visiting Shakespeare’s Hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon

Stratford-Upon-Avon

I had taken a day trip from London using the National Express when I was 22 years old or so to the birthplace and death place of Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon. I remember feeling quite alone that day, wandering about the town by myself amongst throngs of tourists in groups and couples and families. There was also something quite thrilling about it too though, I had been working for a few months in London by this point and this was a Sunday, a day off at a time when I tended to work six days a week.

I had graduated University in June that year, and had jumped-on a plane to England before the ceremony had even transpired. They can mail me my diploma, I thought, I’m not going to delay my escape to England by 3 weeks for a piece of paper, the work was already done and I was ready to go.

I had started my stay in London at a hostel in Bayswater, where I shared a room with a man my same age from South Africa. I can still picture him, with his cropped hair and gangly body, but I can’t remember his name. We did London’s Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour together. We both had student working visas, a reciprocal agreement between various countries whereby young people can experience life in another country for a limited period of time, under a certain age, and on a once-in-a-lifetime basis. For me, I could stay and work in the UK for up to two years and provided I was under 26 years old.

I visited an office called BUNAC (British Universities North American Chapter) where employers seeking North American workers posted job openings. I made note of a handful of positions and set-out to find a position in Central London.

“Do you like working here?” I asked a New Zealander working at an espresso bar on South Molten Street. This was my third business to visit. I wasn’t just dropping off my CV (curriculum vitae aka resume) willy-nilly, I wanted a job that I would enjoy for an employer I would want to work for. “It’s good, yeah.” “What do like most about it?”

“I have a break coming-up, do you want to wait 5 minutes and then I can chat more?” Andrea was aware of the job posting and had guessed that my chit-chat while ordering a latte was regarding the opening and was not just friendly banter. The current manager, Tanya from Vancouver, had given her notice and would be moving on soon, her time in London was coming to an end.

“At the moment there’s just the one store,” Andrea tells me, “but the owners have plans to create a whole coffee chain, like the Starbucks of the UK. I think they went to school in Harvard and that’s where the inspiration came from.” Coffee was a newish trend here in the tea-sipping country of England. Long a pub culture when it comes to meeting with friends for a drink after work, coffee shops were not yet widespread. There were a few companies poised to lead this industry, Seattle, Costa, and the Coffee Republic.

I did end-up applying for and getting this job. My interview was at a private flat in Kensington with one of the two owners. I was hired as a barista from my experience with the Second Cup during my last year of university. Andrea hung about waiting to become manager after Tanya left but got tired of waiting and took a management job elsewhere. I had a degree in Business Administration and I was a rather expert barista so it was not long before I had been offered and accepted the position.

Stratford was my first day trip out of London. It was my first time to experience the English countryside, my first time to walk down cobbled lanes and see thatched roofs and feel like I could see the past with the present. Certainly London had some of these aspects, but it was all tied-up in a busy, modern, hectic centre and I was leading a busy, modern, hectic life working 60 hours over 6 days and having an hour commute each way every day.

It’s an odd feeling to find myself 17 years later parking my rented Audi at a car park, wandering to a nearby Costa Coffee and keying this into my iPad with a view of the clock through my window at the central intersection. Here I am again. Still the solo traveler after all these years.

Since last I was here I’ve lived in Scotland, Japan, Canada, China, and Canada again. In Canada I lived in Uxbridge, Thornhill, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Toronto again. And of course I have traveled quite a bit.

Last time I was here I remember meeting a nice young couple, honeymooners from Japan. I did not know then that I would later spend 2 years in Japan. I remember how polite and kind they seemed, sitting beside me at an open-air patio of a pub. I was a young, fit kid. I often cycled the 13km maze-like journey from Walthamstow to Mayfair rather than take the tube. It gave me back part of my day to cycle, there was nothing entertaining about taking the tube, tired silent faces crowded together. Just waiting for it to be over. I do remember how unchatty I found tube-goers to be. They needed to create their personal space in the crowds by not communicating with each other.

Finished my coffee and the rain having paused, I will wander out onto the street now. It’s Friday, and there is some kind of street market on Fridays and Saturdays.

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Sitting inside Costa Coffee writing about my first visit to Stratford and working in London some years ago.

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Having had some reflections after arriving to Stratford-upon-Avon, now I am ready to head out and explore this lovely town again.

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The cold, windy, rainy weather made this not the best of days for the market vendors.

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It is COLD today! A high of 10 Celsius at the end of May. The wind is harsh and cold rain pelts on and off, it is a day for gloves and hats and scarves, but I have brought none of that with me today. I suppose I should buy some gloves, there have been quite a few days where they would have made the day more comfortable. I do have hats and a scarf, but it was sunny when I left Warwick this morning. I make my way to Tudor World where I look at some displays of life during the Tudor era before making my way to the swan fountain for a two hour walking tour.

The town of Stratford-upon-Avon received it’s original town charter in 1196, making it more than 800 years old. Being the home of William Shakespeare this small town of around 26 thousand residents welcomes an astounding 3 million visitors every year, that is 116 visitors for ever resident. Or over 8200 visitors every day, if each visitor only spent one day, but many stay longer. In short, tourism is enormous here thanks to the Bard.

Life in the Tudor era is highlighted due to the predominance of that architecture around the town, the timber frames exposed. It has become the norm to see the timber coloured darkly and the filler in-between coloured white, beige, or ochre. But during that time, fashion was to colour the entire structure lightly so that the timber blended-in with the filler. That is quite a different look than what we are used to seeing with Tudor style buildings.

Life looks like it was quite difficult during that era. Standards of living and hygiene were not all they could be and the town suffered two separate plagues. Someone with a bit of knowledge regarding the outbreak could make a decent sum acting as a medic during those times. They wore masks that had large cavities over their nose so as to ave their air filtered through a mixture of herbs they thought were protective. Of course the herbs did nothing but the process of filtration would have had some effect no matter the filtering substance used. Wearing these masks the practitioners looked like birds and the term “quack” to describe mis-directed or false medical doctor was coined.

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A cute little mascot at the entrance of Tudor World.

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In the lane leading to the entrance of Tudor World.

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Here you can see the doctor’s mask that contained herbs within the beak to filter the air through. This was one of the displays at Tudor World, it had little scenarios with waxed figures and information panels.

You can visit the website of Tudor World as part of planning your day in Stratford or to learn more about it. http://www.falstaffexperience.co.uk/

I meet a walking guide at the modern metal swan fountain by the river Avon at the bottom of Sheep Street. It is single-digit cold, raining on and off, and the wind is quite blustery. “I won’t make you take just me if no one else shows,” I offer since a two hour walking tour in this misery of weather has me feeling undedicated to the lovely idea. Two Canadian women turn up, one from Windsor, the other from Kitchener, both cities quite near to my own in Ontario. A doctor from London shows up as we are about to commence, his wife is also a doctor and he decided to join her to Stratford, just overnight, while she attends a conference and he enjoys an interesting day out.

Our guide is very enthusiastic, passionate about history. We spend nearly an hour at Holy Trinity Church, which is lovely but the focus on minute details is too much for me, not being a religious historian. This would have been closer to my preferred version, the most interesting bits, “In this church, the oldest bits from 1210, here is Shakespeare, here’s his wife, look at the pretty windows and lets go!” Okay, to be fair I may have highlighted a few more interesting tidbits, but not near to an hour’s worth, no matter the weather.

Outside we pass the 400 year-old home of Shakespeare’s daughter, she married a doctor of good repute, he was a puritan and probably didn’t kill as many people as would be the norm with bloodletting. Admittedly it was a time when receiving medical attention reduced one’s chances of survival. Time was the main healer during this era, and if any medical intervention was applied for the most part if one recovered is was despite the medical treatment rather than because of it. Blood letting only served to weaken one’s already weakened state, and it was the most common practice carried out. Barbers often doubled as surgeons to carry out this practice, hence the traditional red and white spiral barber polls, these represented blood-letting not hair-cutting. But being one-in-the-same person it came to mean both.

The doctor in our group tells us how medical doctors and medical surgeons are still distinguished by title. Even though they are both doctors, physicians go by “Doctor” whereas surgeons go by, “Mister”. A woman surgeon goes by “Miss”, married or not. It’s a very strange use of title that seems to always in reconsideration.

We end the tour at the home Shakespeare grew-up in. His father was a glove maker. Seems like a rather large home for a glove maker. He married-up.

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Some lovely homes along the River Avon.

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Home of the RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company. Also along the River Avon.

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Holy Trinity Church, Shakespeare’s burial place.

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Shakespeare was not outside with these plots, he and his wife had a very prestigious location inside.
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Hall’s Croft, where Shakespeare’s daughter lived with husband Dr. John Hall.

If you visit Stratford I would recommend taking the guided walking tour. In nice weather you would spend more time outside, but even with our cold, icy, rain we were well entertained and I would do it again for sure.

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The home Shakespeare grew-up in. His father would have sold leather gloves directly from the home, probably through large windows open onto the street.

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Some more sights wandering around lovely Stratfore-upon-Avon.

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Cheers! Darren

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