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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Stratford upon Avon

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas OCTOBER. 14, 2020

A couple of posts about Stratford upon Avon, one about the town and some history, and a second one will be about the theatre buildings which have a long history of their own and underwent many changes in the last ten years.

First though a word of warning to anyone visiting Stratford. Never say Stratford "on" Avon if you want to win friends and influence people. It is very much "upon" Avon and people will have no qualms about correcting you on that point.

I'm starting early on my word for the day today.

Qualms- Don't you just love that one, it has the bonus score of being something very useful in Scrabble? "an uneasy feeling of doubt, worry, or fear, especially about one's own conduct; a misgiving."

Origin, have a guess? Old English? Correct. "Old English cwealm death or plague; related to Old High German qualm despair, Dutch kwalm smoke, stench".

The origin of this word is fascinating, deriving from the natural instinctive fear of plague or death something we acquire as a natural defence, the same reason we are alarmed by certain bad smells. In fact during The Black Death period it was thought that bad smells themselves spread the disease. A warning of disease. On a serious note, it rings bells with how we are all behaving now when we go out in public, we all have qualms about going out.

On the 11th July 1564, the plague hit Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, in Warwickshire, or rather the first death from the disease was recorded in the parish. John Bretchgirdle, vicar of Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare had been baptised on 26th April, recorded the death of Oliver Gunn, an apprentice weaver who died in what is now The Garrick Inn in the town's High Street. The words "hic incepit pestis" ("Here begins the plague") are scribbled next to the burial entry, although they may have been added to the burial entry at a later date.

The epidemic lasted six months and killed over 200 people, around a fifth (some say a seventh) of the population. William Shakespeare's family were fortunate in escaping the plague. (If you want an account of this period, try Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years, an incredible book, which I found both fascinating and very moving, written by someone who lived through it).

And this was where they lived, Shakespeare's birthplace. Shakespeare's Birthplace is a restored 16th-century half-timbered house situated in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, where it is believed that William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and spent his childhood years. It is now a small museum open to the public and a popular visitor attraction, owned and managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. (Wikipedia)

The Grammar School of King Edward VI at Stratford-upon-Avon is a grammar school and academy in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. It is almost certain that William Shakespeare attended this school, leading to the school describing itself as "Shakespeare's School". There has been an educational facility at the current site of the school since at least the early thirteenth century - established by the Guild of the Holy Cross, the School can trace its origins to May 1295, when in the Register of Deacons of the Diocese of Worcester there is the record of the ordination of Richard as rector scholarum, to teach the basics of learning the alphabet, psalters, and religious rites to boys. A schoolroom, schoolhouse and payment of £20 per annum for a master was one of the provisions of King Edward VI's charter which established Stratford-upon-Avon as a borough in June, 1553. The school was re-founded as one of King Edward's schools nine days before the young king died of tuberculosis and is believed to be the last of the King Edward VI Schools.

Swans are one of the symbols of Stratford, being on the river Avon. Shakespeare's nickname being the Bard of Avon.

Standing on the corner of Church Street and Chapel Lane, the Guild Chapel is one of Stratford-upon-Avon’s most iconic and important historic buildings. Its rich history dates back to the 13th Century when it was built by the Guild of the Holy Cross, a prominent social and religious organisation. As the Guild grew and prospered, so did its chapel, becoming central to medieval life in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Standing across from the site of Shakespeare’s final home, New Place, and right next door to his schoolroom, the Guild Chapel has long associations with the playwright and his family.

And here is the man himself in Henley Street where he stands motionless on most days, a ghost of his former self. If only he were on commission for all the turnover of Shakespeare related sales of souvenirs in the town, he'd probably be making more in a day than he made in his lifetime.

Being a tourist town, Stratford can in season and in good weather have a merry, party atmosphere, particularly in the large gardens that front the theatre and run alongside the river. Here can be found, fire eaters, jugglers, and picnickers. (Now there is a strange word), also street markets and street food. All the fun of the fair in fact if you time your visit right.

There is absolutely no shame in Stratford when it comes to naming, advertising or promoting your business in using the Shakespeare name. For that matter in using any name associated with Shakespeare, be it his family or his plays or his characters.

So you will find, the Shakespeare in Love Wedding Boutique, the Shakespaw Cat Cafe (not sure if they serve cats with food or are serving cats as food), the Anne Hathaway Tearooms, the Garrick Takeaway, the Arden House B&B, Barry the Butcher (I added that one just to check you were paying attention, no Shakespeare connection at all just Barry and fabulous sausages), the Chaucer Head Bookshop (now they really got their research wrong, totally different author), the Shakespeare Inn, Tudor World, The Shakespeare Spit Roast Co., The Thespians Takeaway (some thespians, you can definitely take away as far as I'm concerned and you can start with Emma Thompson), Shakee's Ice Cream Barge (now we are scraping the bottom of the barrel), the more considered Pen and Parchment takeaway, Pickwick Gallery (again wrong author) the Bard's Nest B&B, Bards Well B&B, Juliet Terrace Holiday Rental, Hathaway Green Stores, Shy Lock Smiths, VW Portia Sales, Olivia Oils, Tyb Alterations, Ham Lettings, Ophelia Massage, Hamlet House B&B, and Twelfth Night Self Catering. I'll leave you to work out the ones I made up because frankly, most of them are real. I only fantasised six of them and Barry who doesn't count, apart from when you need change from a Tenner for some Gloucester Old Spot Chipolatas.

Don't talk to me I'm in character, although I am no expert, so I'm not sure which character. Looks a bit Feminist to me so could be a modern interpretation. I certainly wouldn't argue with her, not with those fists.

Swans again, this is the Swan Fountain in Bancroft Gardens outside the theatre. Designed by British Sculptor Christine Lee. Invariably there is no water in it because either students have added detergent overnight so the whole place looks like "A Winter's Tale" or it is in winter and in danger of freezing over in an actual winter's tale.

Yet more swans, this is getting ridiculous now, do they not have homes to go to?

Just one shot of the theatre because my next post will feature the theatre in more detail. This gives a good view of the unholy mess history and planners have made of it. My theory is that they were going for the "tip all your Lego out into a heap and see what happens" look. So it is a fine example of the Late Legoist Movement.

On a bad day the swans have a good day. It is not uncommon for the flood plain opposite the theatre to do just that. You can just about make out the riverside walk by the half submerged row of benches and then in the background the bandstand. This would be a good moment for a small quartet to wade to the bandstand and do a lovely rendition of Handel's Water Music. The spire in the distance is where Shakespeare laid his head when all was said and done. Even in death he has this place all sewn up.

This is Clopton Bridge, still in use today. Most visitors would probably be really surprised to find out that this very plain unassuming busy road bridge is a.....

Grade I listed masonry arch bridge with 14 pointed arches, which spans the River Avon, crossing at the place where the river was forded in Saxon times, and which gave the town its name. The bridge carries the A3400 road over the river.

The bridge was built in 1486/7, in the reign of Henry VII, financed by Hugh Clopton of Clopton House, who later became Lord Mayor of London. It replaced a timber bridge which may have dated back to 1318. Two arches were rebuilt in 1524. The bridge was again repaired in 1588 following flooding, and in 1642 after an arch had been destroyed to block the army of Oliver Cromwell. In 1696, money was raised to heighten the parapets, which were as low as four inches in places. The bridge was widened on the north side (upstream) in 1811, and a ten-sided toll-house tower added in 1814.

So you could say it is a work in progress like humanity in general. Prior to the establishment of the English nation-state under Henry VII, some 95 percent of the population lived in conditions little better than cattle. Serfs worked the land using agricultural techniques that were little changed from generation to generation, and which had actually deteriorated over the preceding two centuries. At the time of Henry’s accession in 1485, the population of England was approximately 2.25 million people, fewer than it had been two centuries earlier; the average life expectancy was little more than thirty years. That is when this bridge was built, just pause to think about that as a silent Tesla swishes across it's 550 year old foundations.

This is "Anne Hathaway's Cottage", famously the wife of Shakespeare who when Shakespeare died infamously inherited his second best bed. Her highest grossing film was The Princess Diaries, 2001. Ooops, sorry, wrong entry in Wikipedia.

They were married in 1582, when he was 18 and she was 26 years old. She outlived her husband by seven years. Very little is known about her beyond a few references in legal documents, and that it appears, that she was, what we call today a Cougar. Who knew Shakespeare was a Toy Boy. Her personality and relationship to Shakespeare have been the subject of much speculation by many historians and creative writers. Hathaway is believed to have grown up in Shottery, a village just to the west of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. She is assumed to have grown up in the farmhouse that was the Hathaway family home, which is located at Shottery and is now a major tourist attraction for the village. Her father, Richard Hathaway, was a yeoman farmer. He died in September 1581 and left his daughter the sum of ten marks or £6 13s 4d (six pounds, thirteen shillings and fourpence) to be paid "at the day of her marriage".

There is a great National Archives website that gives monetary values through the ages. It tells me that in todays terms that was £1,363.70, which frankly was not very impressive. It would have bought you three cows or paid a skilled tradesman for 133 days. It may have explained why she was on the lookout for an up and coming national celebrity to marry, and with a three cow dowry on offer Shakespeare who was not famous yet, knew a good thing when he saw it.

Just some boats which I spotted in a very early morning visit. Most of the boats have Shakespearean names.

Mary Arden's farm house. And hereby lies a great Shakespearean tale of mystery. Mary Arden's House, is the farmhouse of Mary Shakespeare (née Arden), the mother of Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare. Because of confusion about the actual house inhabited by Mary in the mid-sixteenth century, the term may refer to either of two houses. Both are grade I listed and located in the village of Wilmcote, about three miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

A house wrongly identified as Mary Arden's (it actually belonged to a neighbour) was bought by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1930 and refurnished in the Tudor style. This timber framed house has been maintained in good condition over the centuries. In 2000, it was discovered that the building preserved as Mary Arden's house had belonged to a friend and neighbour Adam Palmer and the house was renamed Palmer's Farm. The house that had belonged to the Arden family is Glebe Farm, near to Palmer's Farm. A more modest building, it had been acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1968 for preservation as part of a farmyard without knowing its true provenance. The building has lost some of its original timber framing and features some Victorian brickwork, but it has been possible to date it through dendrochronology to c.1514.

So if you visited Mary Arden's house before the year 2000, you haven't visited Mary Arden's House. I'm really sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But on the plus side it means you have another reason to visit Stratford.

Here she is again, this time he's turned his back on her, she does not look pleased, this may not go well for him.

Why is this Ice Cream seller below ground level I hear you chorus. Because that is water and a boat on it. They do really look up to all their customers though.

Hall's Croft is a building in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, which was owned by William Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna Hall, and her husband Dr John Hall whom she married in 1607. The building is listed grade I, and now contains a collection of 16th- and 17th-century paintings and furniture. There is also an exhibition about Doctor John Hall and the obscure medical practices of the period. The property includes a dramatic walled garden which contains a variety of plant life that John Hall may have used in his treatments. John and Susanna Hall later moved to New Place, which William Shakespeare left to his daughter after his death.

I haven't included a photo of New Place because it was demolished in 1759 and photography had not been invented by then. New Place was Shakespeare's home at the time of his death.

To indicate how irritating it can be living in a tourist hotspot I recount the tale as passed down to me from venerable sources, ye olde wikipedie, they just added an e to things willy-nilly back then.

In 1756 (and yes Stratford was even besieged by tourists back then) then-owner of New Place, Reverend Francis Gastrell, having become tired of visitors, attacked and destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden said to have been planted by Shakespeare. In retaliation, the townsfolk destroyed New Place's windows. (Cancel culture is nothing new, annoy the mob at your peril) Gastrell applied for local permission to extend the garden. His application was rejected and his tax was increased, so Gastrell retaliated by demolishing the house in 1759. This greatly outraged the inhabitants and Gastrell was eventually forced to leave town.

So Shakespeare's final home was wiped out in a hissy fit. If he'd been alive he could have written a great play about that.

If you visited Mary Arden's House before the year 2000 this is what you probably saw. It's Palmers Farm, her neighbours house. I'm not trying to rub salt in the wounds but there it is. It's very lovely just the same and you can regale all your friends about how you have been to Palmer's Farm, if you say it with authority and confidence they will probably be impressed and too embarrassed to ask "Who is Palmer"? It's much more impressive than that plain old brick thing Mary Arden lived in.

Here is the really old but plain bridge again. I'm missing the last arch on the right which would make the requisite 14.

So I leave you with the classic Stratford view. River, swans, theatre, last resting place and floating Ice Cream shop.

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