On a sunny summer’s day Stratford-upon-Avon is the epitome of Englishness. Families picnic on the grass. couples canoodle under trees, canal boats moor up beside a pub, ice-creams are scoffed, dogs are walked and swans are a-swimming. Children splash beneath an elegant sculpture of two of these famous swans, outspread wings reflecting blue sky and greenery.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is buzzing with people booking tickets for the latest Shakespearean play and enjoying a drink on the terrace overlooking the river. On the lawn at the back, there’s an air of laziness; in the heat of the midday sun it’s tempting to just flop down and soak up the rays.
Wandering along the river, the sounds of a brass band waft over the water; they’re playing ‘Summertime’ and at this moment, the livin’ really does feel easy. On a day like today the troubles of the world fade away and we forget our worries in the simple pleasures of a sunny Sunday in Stratford. In a glade a group of players act out a tale for an appreciative audience of kiddies and grownups. The quaint Chain Ferry slowly shuttles passengers across the Avon and a rowing boat drifts past enormous weeping willows.
The tall spire of Holy Trinity Church towers over the trees. It’s the burial place of William Shakespeare; thousands of visitors come every year to see his tomb with its inscription warning those who might disturb his rest,
“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
The market along the canal is doing a thriving business and there’s a big queue at the canal barge selling ice-creams and lollies to all and sundry. Stratford is busy with tourists from all over the world and visitors from the surrounding Cotswolds villages and Midlands towns. Shakespeare’s Birthplace, in Henley Street, strangely lacks any sign to denote its importance, but next to it is The Shakespeare Centre entrance; it’s expensive but very popular. He was born there in 1564; part of the house was his home and the other was a wool store and glove-maker’s shop. Giggling Japanese girls take photos in front of its half-timbered walls whilst local shoppers stroll past, familiar with its historic significance.
When Shakespeare had become famous and made his money, he retired to Stratford-upon-Avon and lived in a fine house called New Place. All that remains of this medieval building is the foundations and the gardens, accessible via Nash’s House next door. It’s currently being renovated, so is closed, much to the disappointment of the Americans, who’re on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Bard. Colourful murals depicting Shakespeare’s plays decorate the hoardings hiding the works and a banner exhorts us to ‘snap a selfie’ and show our support for New Place – so we do.
Back at the river, the world and his wife and kids continue to enjoy the summer sun but it’s time to leave. But there’s just time for a couple of photos beside the huge Gower Memorial; Shakespeare is seated gazing out across the main road, surrounded by characters from his most famous plays; Prince Hal, Falstaff, Lady Macbeth and Hamlet.
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”
Hamlet Act V, Scene I
I visited Stratford with friends on a sunny Sunday in August. The town is currently celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on the 23rd April 2016. There are lots of events planned for this year or you can do what we did and just wander round the town and along the river Avon, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying Shakespeare’s legacy at your leisure.
Many years ago I studied English and became a teacher in the West Midlands. I vividly remember going to the RSC to see ‘Coriolanus’ with Alan Howard superb in the lead role. We had front row seats and the spittle from the actors rained down on us, but couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the performance. I often accompanied students to Stratford, some of whom were not especially interested in Shakespeare but who got caught up with the brilliant acting and enjoyed walking round the town. I’d not been back for many years and was delighted to see Stratford has changed little over the years.
I felt as if I was there with you. Stratford looks lovely and, as you say, so English! Not been for many years but your article has reminded me we must go back.
Do hope you get back to visit someday very soon Carol, and that the sun shines for you too!