Thursday, 5 February 2015

Scones and Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon

"What do you think of Stratford-upon-Avon?" my housemate Alesha asked one day late last year.
"What's it good for?" I replied.
"It's Shakespeare's birthplace. There's a deal on Groupon."

And so we booked a weekend in January to head to the quaint little town.

We both had become so caught up with Christmas and New Years and the end of 2014 that we spared little thought for our weekend away. Being the off season, there were few theatre shows running and those that were were either booked out or the remaining tickets expensive.

Waking up painfully early for a Saturday, we quickly threw together the remainder of our packing for the night and set out into the freezing morning air that had created intricate frost patterns on the parked cars.

The coach ride there was largely uneventful; out of the city, a frosting of snow lazily covered the landscape, a bit of a shut eye, chat and a play with the phone and before long (3 hours, roughly) we stopped in the little town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

NB: The ‘upon-Avon’ part of the name is derived, unsurprisingly from the fact that the little town is situated on the River Avon.

A quick google search showed that our hotel for the evening was not in the city centre, but a reasonable distance out. No matter, we’ll catch a bus! Google maps also showed it was roughly a 45 minute walk so we decided to dump our belongings at the hotel, and then walk back in.

“I’d like two tickets please,” I asked the bus driver.
“To?” (Note: I thought the driver was reconfirming my want for two tickets, and so there was a moments confusion as we bantered back and forth until he said…)
“Where are you going?”
“Oh. I don’t know…”
“Don’t have my crystal ball,” he joked, as I fumbled with my phone to try to figure out where on earth we were headed.

It then occurred to me that one pays by distance and not overall fare and so, with the driver and remainder of the bus laughing at me, Alesha and I found our way to a seat.

Finger trigger ready to hit that stop button, it wasn’t long before we’d passed through the town and popped out into the country side. It was beautiful, and we decided that the walk back in would be well achievable. With a laugh and a thank you, we jumped off the bus and navigated towards our hotel. It was an older establishment, but cozy with a very little-country-town feel (which was strange, seeing as we were in Our room was already prepared, so we threw our stuff in and made our way back down the restaurant for our coffee-and-cupcakes-on-arrival and to make a game plan for the next two days.

Cue: amazing coffee. And delicious cupcakes. And the finding of a 50% off the Shakespeare’s Family Homes experience voucher. We set off out into the chilly but sunny afternoon towards the Holy Trinity chapel  where Shakespeare, his wife and family have been buried.

Did you know: There are no direct descendants of William Shakespeare living today. His children either sadly died young or remained unmarried. The more you know.

The walk was beautiful and seemed to pass in an instant. Alesha and I nattered away about all and everything, with me stopping every 15 seconds to take a photo of something, periodically squealing “Sheeps!” as we passed fields. At one point, I decided to check the map and realised we were actually very close to the church. We took a sharp left and soon we were positioned on the opposite bank of the river to the church. Cue: Photo pop.

“Shall we just climb under?” Alesha asked. There was a gate (mostly surrounded by..nothing..) and a bridge that appeared to lead straight to the church. My inability to break rules won out and so we walked the long way around (up the river to another proper bridge).

I whipped out my big camera, poised, snapped a photo. Looking at my screen to view the incredible picture I had just taken, I was confronted with “No memory card.” Bugger. I had been carrying my heavy camera this whole way as a deadweight. The card was back in the hotel, so I hadn’t forgotten it entirely but I pushed my annoyance aside and endeavoured to take pretty pictures with my phone.

Turns out I have a fascination with graveyards. It’s a far cry from the girl I was at 7, whose father tried to take a shortcut through a local cemetery. Hand held, he tried to drag me through the gates, my heels digging into the soil, absolutely petrified. Needless to say, he didn’t succeed. These days, I find them extremely fascinating and, moreover, cool to photograph.

The allure of the graveyard.

The afternoon light was filtering through the trees, the headstone etchings worn indecipherable, the moss growing strong out of the cracks and the shadows stretched their limbs the length of the small cemetery.

Not ducking under the Caution Very Low Door sign, we entered the church. The afternoon glow gave the inside of the church a soft yellow feel, as we made our way towards the plaque laid for Shakespeare. Strangely, he and his family are not laid to rest outside, but inside the church. Next to him rested his wife and children.

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebear,
To digg the dust enclosed heard;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

We left the church and investigated seeing a show that night. Shows were either
a) painfully expensive
b) standing tickets only (which, was fine, except for a 3 hour show)
c) at an awkward time that didn’t allow us to have dinner or
d) not Shakespeare.

After a quick consultation, we decided to forgo seeing a play in Stratford-upon-Avon. We wandered around the town, including into an old bookstore where I found an incredible turn-of-the-century book describing London in Shakespeare's time, before returning to our hotel where we were to have a carvery dinner and some wine.

Here’s me always going on about food. Well. This was a rather homely hotel, but the food was divine. They loaded up our plates with all the different kinds of meats, and then let us run free with all the vegetables, sauces and other bits and pieces we could squish onto our enormous plates. We overdid it, slightly. Dinner was followed by dessert - all still included and soon it was time to call it a night.

We were both rather excited to have an early night and a sleep in - something that’s not afforded to us often back in London and with the heater finally working drifted off to sleep.

Sleeping in was divine. An enormous breakfast, too, was included, and with it came that delicious coffee again. Our plan of attack for today was: check out, carry our things into the town centre (no buses run on a Sunday, so walking it was), visit Shakespeare’s birthplace and the other Family Homes of Shakespeare.

We prepped ourselves for the 45 minute walk back into the city. It was another lovely day, although carrying our stuff made our tread a little heavier than the day before and our pace a little slower. Once arriving in the town centre, already tired, we figured a sit down was in order and wandered into the Hathaway Tea Rooms. Very glad we did - one of the oldest tea rooms in Stratford-upon-Avon, named after Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. We had a delicious pot of tea and warm scones to share, and I felt decidedly British.

Care for some scones?

Energy revitalised, we made our way to our first stop: Shakespeare’s birthplace. This is a house, seemingly in the middle of the town that has been preserved since the mid 1500’s. It underwent a few changes in the subsequent centuries but thankfully had remained within the Shakespeare family until it was decided to be kept for preservation reasons. The museum attached was fascinating, with books and artefacts of the time, and soon we walked into the house itself.

I’m not a fan of recreated spaces, but some of the inside items were considered to be originals (such as the bed). Upstairs, the floor buckled and creaked, and the windows had been etched with the names of thousands of pilgrims from across the centuries.

I should possibly mention that the day before we had bought an enormous wall map of the world to decorate our house. I had this map sticking out the top of my backpack which made for quite the thigh exercises when I had to duck to pass through low doorways.

The cottage in which Shakespeare's mother did all the hard work.
One seems to forget about that part.

We signed the guestbook and moved on to Anne Hathaway’s family cottage. Unfortunately a couple of the houses were not open due to the time of year or construction (including a little farm) but the passes last a whole year so who knows?  I may make it back there in the summer as it was such a pretty little town.

It was a relatively big hike to the cottage and we were laden with our belongings. The cottage and surrounds were gorgeous. Orchards, the forest, the preserved home where Shakespeare would visit to woo Miss Hathaway. We sat and took in our surroundings after exploring the cottage with centuries old wooden beams, in places you could see down to the room below.

It was starting to get late, and so we trekked back to the city centre to see the last house which wasn't part of Shakespeare's realm, but was included in the package (partly because I think they felt bad 2 of the other houses were shut). Harvard House, is a 16th Century preserved house right in the centre of the town, owned by the Harvards who would then go on to create the university. It was a bit dull, but it was warm inside, so that was nice.

Finally, we collapsed in the pub that Shakespeare used to frequent, before finding some dinner and boarding our coach back to little old London town. It was a lovely, gently-paced-but-active weekend. Stratford-upon-Avon is a gorgeous little town, with it's beautiful river and riverside walks, and seeing the centuries of history preserved to honour one of the greatest writers we have ever seen was remarkable.

I think I'll go back for a cup of tea and some scones in the summer time.

Oh you.