The first thing that you need to know about Stratford-upon-Avon is that it's a totally different place to Stratford. If you catch the tube to Stratford then you'll end up by the old Olympic Village in east London. But the Stratford-upon-Avon that we're talking about is 100 miles away and two hours on the train -- a slight difference!
The only reason that you'd want to spend a whole day here is if you're the world's biggest William Shakespeare fan. That is literally the only reason (you can trust me on this). Stratford is where he was born, so they've got his old house, a couple of exhibitions and a theatre.
Did they make you read Shakespeare at school? Jesus christ... it's like learning another language. I'd rather learn Latin... I'm coming out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. They made us slog through Macbeth because it's full of blood and fighting, and presumably they thought that might keep the kids interested (school kids love a bit of blood and fighting -- especially at break time). I think we did Othello as well... was that the one where she dropped a tissue and he stabbed her in the face? King Lear... old fella went nuts and his daughter jumped in the canal. Romeo and Juliet... everybody says that is romantic but all I remember is Romeo committing hari-kari and Juliet sucking up a toxic miasma. If that's romance then I think I'll stay single, thank you very much. I'm actually thinking about re-writing that play with me in the lead role; but I'll have to make a few changes in case they make it into a movie. For starters, I don't care how pretty she is, I'm not climbing up a balcony to sing her a song — not with my knees. She'll have to bloody well come down here if she wants a kiss.
My first impression of Stratford when I pulled into the station was that it was just like any other town, but with fancy lampposts. Things start to look up when you walk five minutes down Greenhill Street to the market (on the corner of Wood Street and Rother Street). That's when you'll see your first few Tudor houses with rickety wooden beams. They've got a nice thatched pub on the corner that looks like it might fall down if you lent on it. I'm assuming that the houses are genuinely old judging by the sloping walls, because they'd never let them get away with building anything that shoddy these days.
If you want to see some more rickety old homes then head up Windsor Street and turn right into Henley Street. This is the Holy Land of Shakespeare, and you can see his original house just past the Shakespeare Centre. I am finding it very difficult to bite my lip here, because ten feet next to that little gem is a modern monstrosity that is about as in-keeping with the street as a tu-tu at a funeral. Just shut your eyes and join the mile long queue of tourists (that's the only way to get into the house).
Once you've whizzed through the first few rooms of the exhibition — they've got a copy of the Folio and a few theatre props, but that's about it — you'll enter the back garden of Shakespeare's house. This was the first bit of the day that I actually enjoyed — a whole hour after stepping off the train. It's like an English country garden with pretty flowers and a pear tree, and they've got a little stage set up for impromptu performances. It was quite pleasant having a sit down in the sun whilst they did their little scenes in period costume. They even had an old geezer limping around playing the lute. They don't perform a whole play though... they just do his 'greatest hits': the famous bits that everybody knows, taking requests from the crowd and shouting out their lines across the garden. Obviously I didn't understand a word of it (it's Shakespeare!) but when you're sitting five-feet from the lupins and tulips and lavender it's certainly worth the entry fee. Unfortunately they've also got a load of kids shouting around on the lawn having mock sword fights with wooden sticks — they were giving them sword fighting lessons with their mums and dads watching on. So in one ear you've got "to be or not to be" and in the other ear it's all "clack clack clack clack clack ow!".
When you get inside the actual house you can have a walk around every room from top to bottom. It's certainly a creaky old place, but I'm not sure that it's 100% legit... they seem to have restored a lot of it with bits they bought from B&Q (that's what it seemed like to me). Amongst the whitewashed walls and Tudor beams are modern tables and chairs and IKEA-style coat hooks. The highlight is supposed to be the room where he was born, but it looks like a modern bed with one of those electric fireplaces in the hearth: the ones with crappy fake flames and glowing red embers. They've sprinkled some kids' mittens and toy mice on the tables too, and a few pottery pots and jugs. I appreciate that none of his original possessions have survived, but come on guys! You can at least try and make the objects look original. I thought the whole thing was a bit amateurish, to be honest. It was nice to see the outside of the house and hear the floorboards creak, but that's the best thing that I can say about it.
If you fancy a walk then there are some more Tudor-style houses down the High Street, Chapel Street and Church Street. All three roads run in a straight line and they've probably got the best architecture in town -- especially the ones down Church Street.
The bit that saved my day was Anne Hathaway's cottage (Shakespeare's wife). It's about a mile outside of town and I walked the entire way, but in hindsight I definitely recommend getting a bus. It's straight down a busy main road for fifteen minutes... past the car wash, past the job centre, past the B&Bs and suburban semis... the last half mile is down a country lane with roadside nettles and berries and a couple of pretty little thatched cottages. They've got a few fields full of sheep as well which is quite pretty, and then you come to her chocolate box cottage that is too good to be true.
It's like something out of a movie — it could have been set-dressed by Disney. It's like something that Hansel and Gretal might stumble across. The cottage is thatched with cream-coloured walls and chocolate beams like sticks of Flake in vanilla ice cream, and outside the front is a country garden in a paintbox full of colours. Inside the house is even better — in fact, it is everything that Shakespeare's house should have been. It is dark and moody with low-slung ceilings, big thick oak everywhere you go, floorboards that talk to you as you walk across them... moaning and creaking with the weight of your feet. The only people who could live in here without bending over are stooped-over old grannies. It's got rickety old chairs and beds and kitchen cupboards hanging with black pans and long-handled pots. It's like something lifted out of time and it's amazing that it still survives intact. If I had to visit just one thing in Stratford then this would be it -- forget the Shakespeare stuff! Anne Hathaway's house is definitely worth seeing.
If you've still got some time left over then have a walk along the river to Holy Trinity church. Once you've made it past the tourist boats and ice cream stands it turns into a very nice woodland path that takes you down to the 13th-century church where Shakespeare is buried (you have to pay a few quid to get into the burial chapel). All that's left of the fella is a faded slab of stone set against the altar, plus whatever bones are kipping in his coffin. Most holidaymakers fly home believing they've seen his grave at Westminster Abbey, but that tourist trap in Poets' Corner is actually just a monument — his real bones are buried underneath this stained-glass window. And very pretty it is too.
To sum up it then... unless you're really into Shakespeare and you're desperate to see his house, I would forget it. You're looking at two hours on the train -- both ways -- so you're basically giving up an entire day of your holiday. I recommend just going to the Globe Theatre exhibition instead, which is ten times better. And if you really want to see a copy of the Folio then you can do that at the British Library or the V&A. Anne Hathaway's cottage is definitely worth a look, as are the original Tudor houses in town, but they're not good enough to make me recommend wasting a day of your holiday.
A bit disappointing really...
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