When my Mother suggested we meet up for a weekend to celebrate her birthday the culture vulture in me was obviously delighted when she chose Stratford-upon-Avon. It cannot be escaped that if you mention Stratford-upon-Avon the natural association is William Shakespeare. Over the weekend we made it our duty to follow the Shakespeare trail around the town.
First on the list was a trip to the The Garrick. The pub is said to the oldest in Stratford with parts of it dating from the 14th century but the building mostly dates from the 16th century. It was once known as The Greyhound but renamed after the famed Shakespearean actor and theatre manager David Garrick. In 1769 Garrick organized the first Shakespeare Jubilee and is widely credited with making Stratford-upon-Avon the tourist attraction it is today. Bizarrely it was staged 5 years after the bicentenary of Shakespeare's birth, was washed out on the second day and never had a performance of a single Shakespeare play.
On another historical note the building next to The Garrick is Harvard House. This was the home of Katherine Rogers, mother of John Harvard the founder of Harvard University. On my last visit to Stratford it was open to the public as the Museum of British Pewter but it now seems closed.
The next morning we made the short walk to where it all began - Shakespeare's birthplace. Rather conveniently it is situated in the town centre in Henley Street; this is now a wide, pedestrianized road. Shakespeare was born here on what is thought to be on 23rd April 1564. When I say 'thought' the exhibition inside does have a lot of 'probably' and 'possibly' attached to its assumptions as to Shakespeare's activities in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, this does not distract from the excellent interactive multi-media displays.
Although there has been some renovations and extensions to the building over the years it is clear that Shakespeare was born into a fairly wealthy family. His father, John, had a number of businesses on the go and at one stage was mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon. This position gave him a good standing in the town and enabled him send William to school. A workshop showing his glove making business has been set up in the house. You also get to see the room where Shakespeare was born in and a glimpse of what life was like in Tudor England.
In the upstairs exhibition room there is a window that has been removed from the house and now set into a display case. It has been preserved for posterity as over the years visitors to the house have etched their signatures into the pane of glass. Amongst the names you can still make out a few famous fans such as Thomas Carlyle, Sir Walter Scott and Isaac Watts.
Once you leave the house there is a large garden to explore. It now backs onto a busy road but even with the large number of visitors to the property it still retains quite a tranquil feel.
As Shakespeare fans we were in for a bit of treat as the performers from Shakespeare Aloud! were doing requests in the garden. To jolly things up we asked for something from A Midsummer's Night Dream or Twelfth Night. To our delight they quickly came up with a A Midsummer's Twelfth Night medley! Things got even better when they gave my daughter a line in their Antony and Cleopatra performance.
From Shakespeare's birthplace we walked to Hall's Croft. We had already bought passes at the birthplace which allowed us in to the four properties situated around the town centre. The passes are valid for 12 months so if you can't get round in one day you can go back the next day or even later in the year. After picking up various booklets and leaflets at the hotel we were able to get a number of discounts and ending up buying a family ticket which allowed our group of seven in.
Hall's Croft was the home of Shakespeare's eldest daughter, Susanna, who married Dr John Hall in 1607. As befitting his status as a doctor the house shows off the elegance of life as a professional in Jacobean times. There are a number of rooms set up to give an idea of the furniture and possessions of the time.
Outside, the garden has a number of points where fine views of the house can be obtained.
At the time of our visit the herbaceous borders where in fine flower with a a particularly good display of lupins.
Other points of note outside is the herb garden (essential for a 17th century doctor), rose garden and sundial. I can confirm the sundial was spot on for GMT!
Just down the road from Hall's Croft is the Avonbank Gardens. On the entrance gates we noticed a listing for a number of free open air performances of Shakespeare's works by various different theatre groups. Throughout the summer a temporary wooden stage becomes The Dell. As luck would have it the afternoon performance was about to start. Rather thoughtfully the RSC even set out a number of blankets for people to sit on. We were treated to a fine interpretation of Venus & Adonis by the Playbox Shakespeare Young Company. Two free live Shakespeare performances in one day!
A walk through the Avonbank Gardens leads you to the Royal Shakespeare Company. From there you can make your way up to Chapel Street to Nash's House & New Place. The two names do actually point to two different properties. New Place was the last house Shakespeare lived in and indeed died there in 1616. After Shakespeare's death it was passed to his daughter, Susanna, who moved there from Hall's Croft. Subsequently it was then home to her daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth's first husband, Thomas Nash, owned the house next door to New Place – Nash's House. Thomas Nash died in 1647 and in his will tried to leave New Place to his cousin despite the fact it actually belonged to his mother-in-law. Elizabeth remarried two years after Nash's death but remained childless thus making her the last direct descendent of William Shakespeare.
After Elizabeth's death in 1670 New Place was returned to the Clopton family who originally built it. By 1756 it was owned by Rev. Francis Gaswell who was starting to lose patience with the number of visitors coming to pay homage to Shakespeare. Gaswell damaged a mulberry tree in the garden, said it have been planted by Shakespeare. This angered the locals of Stratford-upon-Avon who smashed the windows of New Place. Afterwards Gaswell put forward plans to extend the garden which were rejected but his taxes were raised. In his fury he demolished New Place in 1759 and was forced to leave town.
The remains of New Place can be seen in parts in the grounds of Nash's House. Several archaeological digs over the years have unearthed some of the foundations and remains of New Place. One of 20th century additions is the knot garden laid out in traditional Elizabethan style.
The next day we went to Holy Trinity Church. It is situated on the banks of the River Avon, not far from Avonbank Gardens and Hall's Croft. Although it is known for its links to Shakespeare the church has a history dating back before his time.
Shakespeare's birth date is recognized as the 23rd April. This is because the records at Holy Trinity has his baptism registered on 26th April 1564 and babies in those times where baptized within a few days of their birth. It is likely Shakespeare worshipped there as a child due to his father's status in the town. His marriage records are unclear as his banns were said in a couple of churches. What draws visitors to the church is its location of Shakespeare's grave. Holy Trinity is a fully functioning church still and access to it is free but you do need to pay to go down to the chancel where Shakespeare is buried. This is included in the admission for the Birthplace Trust Pass. In the chancel are also the graves of his wife, Anne Hathaway, his daughter Susanna and her husband, Dr, John Hall and Shakespeare's other son-in-law, Thomas Nash.
Even if you are not a Shakespeare fan the church has a number of other notable features. There is a fine collection of stained glass...
...plus also 15th century misericords.
I've been to Stratford-upon-Avon several times and never failed to be delighted by it. With the 12 month pass it will certainly tempt me back especially as I picked up a leaflet for The Stratford Christmas Festival.