Wednesday 17 August 2016

Memories and the Bard in Stratford upon Avon

My first visit to Stratford upon Avon was on a school trip. It was the first break my friends and I had been on without parents and also our first time seeing live theatre. We had an amazing time, lots of sightseeing, messing about on the River Avon, soaking in the history of the area and lots of youthful
Me Messing About on the River Avon in the 1970's
fun. Shakespeare came alive on stage and I was captivated, and so started a lifetime of being a fan of The Bard. Not long after that trip I went back twice, and then never went back. I don't know whether it is getting older but recently I started wanting to go back and so my friend Marian (who was with me on the school trip) and I recently spent a few days there.

My journey took four and a half hours but it all went smoothly. Marian and I met up at the railway station and walked the short distance to our accommodation, a two-bedroom house in Guild Street. We had a cuppa and then went out to explore. It was another short walk to the centre of Stratford and it really hadn't changed much at all, so good to see.  We got a little shopping in and then went to look for a restaurant to at at. We found a place called Mida and had a lovely meal there, I had pizza that was delicious followed by an equally delicious tiramisu. The owner was a little eccentric but very friendly.

The Auditorium

 After that we headed for the theatre, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a little different, there now was a tower to its right, and a change to the roof another floor I think, but otherwise pretty much as I remembered it. People sat on seats amongst the flower beds in the large open area in front of the theatre just as years ago, though there was now also a beautiful swan fountain.

We had tickets for A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of my favourite plays and it was good to see it at midsummer too! Once inside I realised how much the theatre has changed, it was now in the style of the original Globe Theatre in London. The stage jutted out into the auditorium was surrounded on three sides by galleries of seats, that were decorated in a actors also came on and off the stage via walkways between the stalls seats. It made for a very personal experience and you felt almost part of the play. I loved this production, the humans were dressed fifties-style and fairies in black and scarlet with Oberon in a striking white suit. Local school children were also amongst the fairy cast. Puck (played by a woman, Lucy Ellinson) was a feisty, mischievous and energetic character. All the humour, magic and brilliance of this play shone like a beacon. It may have been written almost 400 years ago but so much is still relevant today. And I've taken up one of the lines as my motto, "Though she be but little she is fierce."

Me Outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
We came out into a warm and relaxed evening with people milling around, I remembered well how it had been such a revelation to see Shakespeare live for the first time, I was blown away, and now here I was, many, many years later still being captivated by the Bard.

We strolled back to our house and had some prosecco before retiring to bed.

21st June
Marian was up early and went exploring, I met her at the theatre and we walked up to the Dirty Duck pub, which had been a popular haunt for us in the 70's even though we were under 18. In this day of constant change and age it is wonderful to be able to say the Dirty Duck was hardly any different. Two sets of steps up, seats and tables outside and a friendly atmosphere. I had a delicious brunch of ham, egg and chips.

We walked up to Holy Trinity Church and wandered around it, I couldn't remember much about it from that first visit to be honest.

Shakespeare's Classroom
After this we went to Shakespeare's School Room and the Guild Hall which have recently been renovated. The Guild Hall is downstairs and was built between 1416 and 1420 with a school, chapel and almshouses added over the next hundred or so years. The schoolroom is upstairs, and is a large room with huge oak beams, desks, chairs and a raised platform at the front on which stood a well used leather bound chair for the master. You could dress up and play the master which I couldn't resist doing! Boys here were schooled from the age of seven to fourteen and had long days, 6am to 11am and then 1pm to 6pm. Shakespeare attended this school in the 1670's. I couldn't help but look around and think that a young Shakespeare would have seen the same things, the room was so atmospheric, so much has been learnt there.

We went home for a while before heading up the the Fairy Portal Camp in Avonbank Gardens inbetween the theatres and Holy Trinity church. The camp was set up by Slung Low Theatre Company who do similar events all over the country. This particular production was based around A Midsummer Night's Dream and the belief humans can open a portal to the world of the fairies at midsummer. They provided free meals, classes and entertainment, all very interactive with people who drop in. We decided we'd go for the evening meal but when we got there it was curry, which I can't eat, so we decided to go to somewhere else and come back for the entertainment later.

Pimms at the Dirty Duck
We ended up back at the Dirty Duck and had a great meal, I chose chicken supreme which was delicious and very reasonably priced. We washed our meal down with an equally delicious Pimms, the perfect summertime drink.

Afterwards we walked back up to the Fairy Portal Camp which was in full flow. We were warmly greeted and given headphones for the silent performances and disco. There was a small bonfire surrounded by tree trunks on which people sat. There were also tables and benches and about eight teepees. We were given labels on which to write an "incantation" which would be used in the final big celebration the following Saturday, then we went to a small tree and tied the labels onto it. The performances were really good, I especially loved on by a young woman which was haunting, very "sean nos" in style. Then it was time for us, and we danced away to Whigfield's "Saturday Night" of all things! Finally it became a mad group dance, everyone joined in and it was great fun. All in all it was a lovely way to spend our time and it cost us nothing.

On our way back we passed a fabulous, huge oak tree which must have been around in Shakespeare's day. Still buoyed up by our hippy abandon at the camp we had a tree hugging session lol. We walked along the riverside path and it was a beautiful evening, there was a stillness about it I remembered from that schooldays visit. We passed the theatre and on back to our accommodation.

June 22nd
We first visited a nearby Costa for the WiFi (the only downside of the house we rented was that there was no WiFi.) Then went to the canal basin and went on a barge trip along the river on the Jennifer May. It was very relaxing, and went as far as the church and then back on itself. Some of the famous Stratford swans followed us for a while hoping for some treats I think.

We had a browse in the theatre shop which was quite expensive but interesting to look around. Although we'd been to Shakespeare's birthplace on our first trip we fancied going again and so headed there. However, on seeing the entry price of £17.50, we decided to give it a miss!

That evening we went to the Edward Moon Restaurant on the High Street for the pre-theatre menu. It was very reasonable and the food excellent, I had chicken again, in a white sauce with butter beans which I love.

Afterwards we strolled to The Swan Theatre, which is housed in a Victorian Gothic-style building that is the only remaining part of the original theatre that burned down in 1926. There was a very grand staircase that took us from the foyer to the first floor. We went into the auditorium and found our seats. This theatre was just like the main theatre but on a smaller scale.

We were there to see Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. I found this production very stark and dark, I have seen this play before and enjoyed that version more.  Both Marian and I commented that the two plays (though of course very different in content) really showed how special Shakespeare's work is, he speaks for very type of person in his plays and people can relate to that.

And that was it, my return to Stratford Upon Avon. They say you shouldn't go back to places that hold special memories years later as you remember them differently and places change so much over the decades and you are left disappointed. But I can say that Stratford hasn't changed much, Shakespeare still captivates and is somehow more special seen in his home town. The town itself also still feels very much the same for me as it did to the young girl all those years ago, and it was lovely to share it all with Marian who was with me on that first visit too, more good memories to add to those of the past.