Getting back to our visit to Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare’s birthplace in May this year…
Stratford-upon-Avon, known locally as Stratford, is a medieval town that is situated on the River Avon, and is largest town in the district of Stratford-on-Avon. The term “upon” rather than “on” is used in relation to the town, to distinguish the town from its surrounding district.
Stratford-on-Avon was founded by the Saxons in the 7th century when they invaded the old Roman area we know as the county of Warwickshire. “Stratford” is a combination of the Old English word strǣt, meaning “street” (the “street” in this case being a smaller Roman road connecting the larger Roman roads Fosse Way and Icknield Street), and ford, meaning a place at which a road forded a river. The town’s name, Stratford-upon-Avon, is made up of Celtic and Saxon words: the Anglo-Saxon term “straet ford” means the ford by the Roman road, and “Avon” which is the Anglo-Celtic word meaning river or water.
The afternoon we were in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was extremely difficult to find a place to eat. It seemed as though everyone on England had decided to have a late lunch in Stratford that Friday–and why not? The weather was glorious. We gave up and walked down Henley Street towards the Avon River.
Below: we strolled in the park alongside the river and its canals (which were first opened in 1816) and bought mouth-watering gluten-free ice-cream from a canal boat that is permanently-moored to the side of the paved wharf area that belongs to the park. We watched the canal boats working, took photos of the sign indicating the distances from Stratford to Birmingham, London, York, and Liverpool by canal, and then took photos of Rybrook Stratford Rowing Club on the opposite bank and the Queen’s swans. All swans in England belong to the Queen, so we were told.
Below: The crowds had thinned considerably by the time we made our way back up Henley Street towards Shakespeare’s birthplace, and we finally found a place to eat.
Below: in the restaurant, the ornately carved hand-rails of the stairs leading to the upstairs loos took my mind to the stag horns and the Beltane Fires of King Arthur’s day; I felt that they were well-worth a photo or two.
Stratford-upon-Avon, so we were told by the National Trust authorities in the Shakespeare Museum, was a market town. In 1196 King Richard I granted Stratford the right to hold weekly markets. By the middle of the 13th century the town boasted a small grammar school. In 1553 King Edward VI incorporated Stratford-upon-Avon (formed a corporation to run the market town), and re-founded the Stratford Grammar school. Once a town (big or small) was made a market town by royal decree, always a market town. Stratford-upon-Avon was a market town in Shakespeare’s day, and Stratford-upon-Avon is still a market town now. Despite being a medieval town, and despite being a market town by royal decree, Stratford-upon-Avon has become more famous as being the birthplace and home of William Shakespeare.
I pinched the following from someone else’s blog:
The town is a popular tourist destination owing to its status as birthplace of the playwright and poet William Shakespeare, often regarded as the world’s greatest playwright of all time, receiving about 4.9 million visitors a year from all over the world. The Royal Shakespeare Company resides in Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, one of Britain’s most important cultural venues.
The Henley Street house where Shakespeare was born was purchased by the National Trust (or by the Shakespeare Trust?) in 1847 and turned into a monument. These days, even though Stratford still does very well as a market town, Stratford relies more on the tourist trade for its wealthy existence. In fact, today, Stratford-Upon-Avon thrives on tourism. Further to this we were told that even though Stratford has grown considerably since Shakespeare’s day, the town had always been a very busy place; and given that it was much smaller then, it was probably much busier in Shakespeare’s day with the multitudes of shoppers and business people and workers and wool and leather and grain merchants milling around than it is these days with the hordes of tourists turning the place on its head.
William Shakespeare was born in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon on the Feast Day of St. George, 23 April, 1564, and died in Stratford-upon-Avon in his house, New Place, on the Feast Day of St. George, 23 April 1616, at the age of 52. Shakespeare died a wealthy man. He died within a month of signing his will, a document which he begins by describing himself as being in “perfect health.” Local tradition has it that Shakespeare was very fond a drop of the best, and would sometimes walk from Stratford to nearby Bidford-on-Avon with a group of his friends to join in ale-drinking contests at the Falcon Inn. No-one really knows the circumstances surrounding Shakespeare’s death though it is generally thought to have been a case of too much of a good thing.
Shakespeare owned many properties of value in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, one of which was the Henley Street house where he had been born. He inherited the house in Henley Street in 1601, upon his father’s death. By then, Shakespeare had left Henley Street; he had purchased New Place in 1597, and had moved his family to the new house. After his father’s death, Shakespeare leased a part of the Henley Street house to a friend, Lewis Hiccox, who converted it into an inn known as the Maidenhead, and which later became known as the Swan and Maidenhead Inn. Below: this pub-sign hangs on an inside wall in the Henley Street house.
I do not know if it took place at the Maidenhead Inn or not, or if the Maidenhead was by then called the Swan and Maidenhead Inn, and I do not know if he was celebrating his birthday or just celebrating in general, but as the story goes Shakespeare and his friends Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson went on a merry drinking spree, and Shakespeare caught a fever as a consequence and never recovered. One of the tributes that came in for Shakespeare from his contemporaries referred to his early death: “We wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went’st so soon/From the world’s stage to the grave’s tiring room.”
Shakespeare’s funerary monument, which was carved in bluestone by Gerard Johnson a few years after Shakespeare’s death but during Anne Hathaway’s lifetime, is mounted in the inside north wall of the chancel in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, the same church in which Shakespeare was baptised. The inscription below the figure on the monument reads:
STAY PASSENGER, WHY GOEST THOV BY SO FAST? READ IF THOV CANST, WHOM ENVIOVS DEATH HATH PLAST WITH IN THIS MONVMENT SHAKSPEARE: WITH WHOME, QVICK NATVRE DIDE: WHOSE NAME, DOTH DECK YS TOMB, FAR MORE, THEN COST: SIEH ALL, YT HE HATH WRITT, LEAVES LIVING ART, BVT PAGE, TO SERVE HIS WITT.
There is an abundance of hotels, motels, inns, bed and breakfasts, and holiday lets in Stratford-upon-Avon and the surrounding district. But, much to our dismay, we discovered that after we had visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and watched Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company players enacting Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, all the overnight accommodation in Stratford had gone. There was not a bed left to be had anywhere in the district. So, since there were still hours of daylight left in the day, and mindful that our short time in England was slipping away quickly and there was still a great deal that we wanted to see, we decided to push on to Taunton and Nether Stowey in search of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and find somewhere there for the night.