With this year marking 400 years since the death of its most famous son, Sarah Freeman heads to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Talk to my mum long enough and the conversation will eventually come round to Stratford-upon-Avon. While today’s teens hanker after a booze-filled fortnight in some Mediterranean resort whose history has been concreted over by British bars and greasy spoons, back in the 1960s Mum’s summer focused on the home of the RSC.
She and a friend would travel down from Leeds and camp out overnight so they could be first in the queue for whatever tickets were available for that day. Afterwards they would wash in the public loos and buy vol-au-vents from a nearby bakery for breakfast. I know, it’s straight out of Alan Bennett.
It was in Stratford that she saw Ian Holm as Richard III and Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind in As You Like It. It was where she spent a day watching the History Plays back to back and where she amassed the kind of memories that last a lifetime, including one involving a particularly attractive Belgian student. He was a couple of years older and could quote poetry, a skill most 17-year-old boys from east Leeds had yet to master. Summoning the spirit of Keats, he wrote in Mum’s autograph book: “A thing of beauty is a Joyce for ever.” It might have been romantic had my mum’s name not been Margaret.
Anyway, such is her love of the place that she has tried admirably to persuade her grandchildren to share her passion for Shakespeare and the theatre. They have yet to be won over, but I was more easy to mould. Before Shakespeare had even been mentioned at school we went to see various open-air productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then just before my A-levels we went to Stratford to see a production of Henry IV Part I. It was a revelation.
Falstaff was this giant of a figure, part of the set was a brothel and suddenly every soliloquy we’d pored over in class made sense when it was spoken aloud on that stage. We’ve been a few times and while you can’t move far in Stratford without seeing a bar, tearoom and gift shop named after Shakespeare or one his plays, the commercialisation of the town’s most famous son aside, it remains a pretty and historic place where it’s easy to while away an afternoon doing not very much in particular.
There’s an added reason to go this year – 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Later this year, New Place, where the playwright lived for the last 19 years of his life and where he wrote 26 of his major works, will open as a new attraction and Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall is also undergoing a major restoration in time for the April anniversary.
Both will give previous visitors more of a reason to return, but if you visit before then there is still plenty to do. It’s worth hopping on the tourist bus, which not only provides a potted history of the place, but also takes you out of the main centre to some other popular sights, like Ann Hathaway’s and Mary Arden’s farm, both of which are worth exploring for an hour or two.
Also worth a look back in the centre of town is Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The Tudor property houses an impressive exhibition of the playwright’s life and times and while there is often a queue to get in, it is worth the wait. Central to any trip to Stratford has to be the theatre and on a two-night break we booked to see Othello and the Christopher Marlowe play The Jew of Malta. The RSC theatre was remodelled a couple of years ago and while the design wasn’t popular with everyone and the accompanying changes to the road system caused near revolt among the town’s taxi drivers, it has given Stratford the world class theatre it deserves.
Some things have changed since Mum first visited in the 1960s – the bed and breakfast has somewhat cruelly been turned into an old people’s home – but if you’ve never been, go now, it might just be the start of a lifelong love affair.
Sarah Freeman stayed at the Stratford Hotel, just a few minutes walk from the main attractions (01789 271000, qhotels.co.uk).
Cross Country Trains run from both Leeds and York to Stratford via Birmingham.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current season includes productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Cymbeline, Doctor Faustus, Don Quixote and The Alchemist.
For general information visit shakespeares-england.co.uk