On the banks of Avon

Rachna Singh finds herself transported to the Elizabethan Age at Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare

Statue of William Shakespeare in Stratford
Statue of William Shakespeare in Stratford

As a student of literature, I often wondered how Shakespeare, a playwright of the 16th century, retained his popularity in the modern world. I would spend hours in the library or on the Net hunting for titbits on the Bard. So in Birmingham for a holiday, I decided that my British sojourn would be incomplete without a visit to Shakespeare’s home. That was how, one fine morning, I found myself on a train heading towards Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town in South Warwickshire, England, situated on the banks of the Avon river.

Stratford has a tiny two-platform station painted white with a black trim. As I walked into this historical town, I found these colours replicated everywhere. I learnt that this obsession with black and white was a Victorian legacy. Victorians painted all their buildings black and white for no reason but that it made for a neat look.

Walking through the quaint old town, I felt I was in a time warp and had actually stepped into what was called the Elizabethan Age, so named after Elizabeth I. Arden Street, Tavern Lane, Eversham Road, Guild Street, Grove Road — the names of roads and lanes were reminiscent of the life and times of the Elizabethans. The Tudor-style timber house, bought by John Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s father, on the Henley Street strengthened this impression. This house became the birthplace of the world-renowned Bard. Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust has kept the Bard’s legacy intact.

For an entry fee of `A37, you are allowed entrance to the timbered cottage. As you walk into what was probably the parlour of Elizabethan times, you are welcomed by a life-like statue of Shakespeare sitting at his desk, quill in hand, as though penning his famous plays. Walking up the wooden rickety stairs, you find yourself in a room containing a canopied bed in red and cream velvet with a raised cushioned back. It seemed too tiny to allow complete rest. One of the guides told that the Elizabethans slept in half-prone positions.

A sculpture of Hamlet in the town
A sculpture of Hamlet in the town — Photos by the writer

The guide, in all seriousness, said that those who visited this room would become playwrights or actors. The most enchanting relic in the house was a glass panel that has signatures of literary greats like Thomas Hardy scratched on it. Kitchen, pantry, servant room, dining room et al replicating the Shakespearean era added to the old-world ambience. The lawns outside had an old mulberry tree, believed to have been planted by the great man himself.

One could also gain entrance to Anne Hathaway’s beautiful cottage on the Shottery Road, with its wavy roof, tiny windows and ubiquitous white walls bedecked with flowering creepers. This cottage has often been described as one that offers a beautiful view. And, why not? This was the place where the young romantic William wooed and won his wife Anne. Those interested can take the grand tour of all six cottages associated with Shakespeare, be it the home of Will’s mother Mary Arden or Nash Place, the house belonging to Shakespeare’s daughter Susanne and Dr William Nash, her husband. The tour also covers what is called the ‘New Place’ on the Chapel Street, where Shakespeare died in 1616.

The house of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanne
The house of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanne 

The Holy Trinity Church, set within the boundaries of a sprawling, somewhat over-run garden, is another spot of great interest as this was where Shakespeare was baptised and buried. In fact, it is said that Shakespeare was rich enough to be buried inside the church rather than in the graveyard of the commoners. Wanting to absorb more of the literary flavour that Stratford had to offer, I decided to visit the Royal Shakespeare theatre, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Company also runs two smaller theatres, the Swan, modelled on the Elizabethan theatre, and the Courtyard theatre.

The Courtyard Theatre was presenting Trevor Nunn’s King Lear that day. The show was sold out but luckily there was a last-minute cancellation and I managed to get a ticket in the last aisle. I was ushered into the theatre reverently by a severe looking theatre attendant. The stage was circular with two low-lying ramps for the entrance and exit of the actors. The consummate actors, the authentic costumes, the period props and the achingly sensitive music, together made for an unparalleled performance.

Perhaps the most impressively enacted scene was the ‘Storm scene’ in King Lear. The sound of the thunder rolling and crashing down the hillside, the torrential rain and the lamenting Lear appeared uncannily natural. Even the rafters of the roof were ripped out to create the elemental quality of the storm. The macabre quality of the scene where the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out was chilling. After more than three hours of ‘catharsis’, you come out of the theatre feeling emotionally drained and yet philosophical about life.

For lovers of Shakespeare, the journey into the life of Shakespeare would be incomplete without watching a play by the Royal Shakespeare Company. But for the uninitiated there is ‘Shakespeareience’ — an indoor theme park that takes you through the life of Shakespeare without making the show academic or boring. There is also the Ghost Walk and Ghost Cruise for those with a thirst for the past. But, the boat-ride on the Avon, ice-cream vendors on the riverside and the ever-present McDonalds bring you back with a thump to the 21st century. That’s Stratford-upon-Avon for you.