At a lovely cottage and a pretty garden in Stratford-upon-Avon, Vijaya Pratap visits the Bard.
The journey from London to Stratford is an eyeful. Green, rolling meadows dotted with white balls of sheep grazing, quaint little cottages with pretty flower beds and deep dark woods. It feels as though pages are opening out from the books I read long ago. Manors and parks bring back memories of Jane Austen and the like. At the turn, driver Roger shows us the Warwickshire Castle, with a stream in the front, a beautiful picture that flits past.
Stratford-upon-Avon, a quaint little town still retaining its old-world charm, has a special place in my tour. The bard’s birthplace is a lovely cottage with a pretty garden, and a striking statue of the Clown nearby. With every conceivable object that featured in his life well preserved, it has costumed guides taking us back to that era. At the entrance, a young man in a well-modulated voice (the Bard would be displeased otherwise) gives an intro. Later, a lady in period attire conducts us through the house. A bed with a trundle bed underneath and a crib on the side in the bedroom, raises curiosity in some, to ask if it was the very same bed where the birth took place. Embarrassed, the lady guide answers, “You see, those days ladies delivered at home, in the privacy of their bedrooms, but not on the very bed, for reasons best known....it gets spoilt you see,” she trails off, with a slightly stern and amused look.
In the courtyard, two characters come alive from The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio and Katherina deliver their dialogues while strolling in the garden. I become nostalgic, going back to my amateur theatre days with adapting and directing Shakespeare plays, especially when I played Kate’s role. Dressed in a silk gown and a white nylon umbrella (a bit out of place with her period look), Kate poses with me for pictures. A bald and aging Petruchio shatters my romantic image of him forever.
We visit the adjacent glove-making unit of John Shakespeare and scrutinise William’s “Will” in the museum. For want of time, we opt out of the most haunted of the Shakespeare houses, the Hall’s Croft. It was home to William’s daughter, and her husband Dr. John Hall. Also Nash’s house, where he breathed his last.
Thatched with wheat grass, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage looks elegant. In Anne’s garden, trees laden heavy with red and ripe apples almost tempt me to pluck one, but I check myself. Anne, eight years his senior, was two months pregnant when she married William, who was barely 18. All his love for Anne was sealed in his sonnets. Oh My God! Is this the very place where their romance bloomed, under these apple trees? My fondness for the forbidden apple grows further.
In the Hathaway kitchen, an enthusiastic guide explains how the bread was baked in the oven (it’s here that words like “upper crust” and “stopgap” originated), demonstrates how meat was grilled near the hearth, how chimneys were cleaned by dropping a hen from the top (its fluttering feathers cleaned the chimney of its soot but the frightened fowl ended up in the fire and became dinner for the family!). How fires were kept alive the whole day and the townspeople were warned by a bell man ( from 8 pm to 9 pm) to put off the fire in the nights, to prevent fire accidents (the word “curfew” comes from the French phrase “couvre-feu” which means “cover the fire”). Some fellow tourists, who realise that many clever things existed 400 years ago, punctuate his oration exclaiming, “Oh My Gaaad!” and “That’s crazy!”. The guide chuckles in merriment.
Shakesperare’s mother, Mary Arden, came from a wealthy farmer’s family of eight daughters and inherited the property. It’s a huge working farmhouse with a pig sty (a strong stench permeates), geese, sheep and all that go into making Old Mc Donald’s farm. Clad in period costumes, the farm hands are warm, friendly and eager to please. The maids, dressed in long gowns, aprons, scarves and caps, giggle at their awkward chores as they pose for photographs. The unpredictable English rain makes us miss out on some parts of the huge farm. Bob arranges a falconry show for us in the barn, which I duly film on my handycam. Later he gives me leather gloves and the bait while the falcon takes my commands. Dressed in jeans and jacket, Bob looks smart but slightly out of place.
Watching a Shakespeare play in The Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres is an exhilarating experience, tickets for which are booked months in advance. While going around the town, I overhear young men speaking impeccable English (probably students of theatre), with the right diction and intonation. It is music to my ears.
If every inch of Stratford-upon-Avon breathes “Shakespeare” even after more than four centuries, certainly there is something.