She Loved This Place

by afatpurplefig

Stratford-upon-Avon is such a delight, I am lamenting its category as a one-day restoration point. It is different to what I expected, although I’m not sure what I expected, so I make this statement with only my surprise in mind.

It’s no secret I am a Shakespeare fangirl. Many years ago, I directed a student performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that so captured my imagination, it consumed my every waking thought for the entire duration of the event. I remember standing in front of the (not-insignificant) audience on closing night and bursting into tears as I tried to express that it had been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’m afraid to this day to watch the footage of the play, in case we look like a school production, as opposed to the magnificent, definitely-award-worthy marvel of my memories.

With this in mind, we began our explorations at a first light (a respectable 8.30am) with a coffee from this gem, @boxbrowniecoffee:

…which is quite literally a stone’s throw from the birthplace of Shakespeare himself. I am prone to bouts of unexpected tears when I feel overwhelmed and am accompanied by a similarly-afflicted Lucy, resulting in some spontaneous weeping in front of the home where a young William presumably toddled around with a quill behind one ear. I’m glad Stratford’s residents were sensible enough to have stayed inside while we sniffled and took photos beside Shakespeare’s statue and the medieval building that houses the public library.

Stratford is to Shakespeare as Edinburgh is to Harry Potter, with the town bearing Shakespearean influences all over. We are staying on Guild Street, between Shakespeare and Great William, and there are cafes and restaurants called Bardia’s and Midsummer Garden and Prospero. The souvenir shop windows house rows of busts of the bard, and his visage can be seen on everything from the canal boats on the river to the walls of the public houses.

After seeing his birthplace and the ‘New Place’, where Shakespeare died, we wandered down to the Holy Trinity Church to see his grave, which bears the inscription:

‘Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebeare, To digg the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.’

It’s hard not to love a curse as an epitaph. Alas, it was not to be, with the church being one of many locations closed, for either the pandemic or for winter, leaving us to be content with the river Avon on one side, with its swans and rowers, and a cemetery on the other, inhabited by squirrels and red-breasted birds. I am especially fond of the plaques that adorn the trees and timber seats alongside the Avon, in remembrance to those that were loved and are missed. My favourite remembers Jean Williams with a simple ‘She loved this place’.

A brisk walk to Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Shottery, led us down laneways and past streams, leading to exchanges such as:

Me: Look, it’s a brook!

Lucy: And it’s babbling!

Everything is so damned English here…and so old. The pubs include ‘The Red Lion’ and ‘The White Swan’ and the cottage plaques bear names like ‘April’ and ‘Honeysuckle’. The medieval buildings lean and I am often surprised that they house residents, instead of spitting out rambunctious revellers with tankards of mead. If yesterday made me feel like an extra in an end-of-the-world film, then today I am a character in an Elizabethan novel. I can already feel my speech changing – give me a week and I will be asking kind sirs if I can trouble them for an oat latte. Lucy is her own version of theatrical, and keeps saying ‘oh, stahhhp’ and ‘how DARE you!’ (ie. be so gorgeous). We are like children, darting from one (often ordinary) sight to the next and engaging in a revelry all of our own.

Yesterday, when we arrived in England, I felt a similar sensation to that of my arrival in Scotland, which was of somehow coming home. This is manifestly unfair to the country where I have lived all my life, yet it is difficult to shake. I suppose it is the culmination of a life spent connected to Britain, both through her novels and poetry, and the ordinary rituals of life; the scones and tea, the ‘Our Lady’ and ‘Britain’ magazines, the jokes, the ditties, the tales. The history I so love to see is built into my own past, meaning I am predisposed to like this place. In fact, like Jean, I’m pretty sure I love it too.