This happened once, last August, invited to be one of four people on a stage (not the main stage) for the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing Vienna, the city, Measure for Measure. A wonderful moment in a bad time. A happy memory.
I had not expected to like Stratford-upon-Avon so much. It really was terribly touristy, several hundred years it’s been that way. I suppose I expected just how much is gone, but not that so much should be left…almost anything vaguely of Shakespeare’s time survived if it got through those early crucial years when worship of his work had not quite stretched to full preservation of anything of even remotest connection to him. The 1800s more or less, in 1846 Dickens helped raise funds to buy his birthplace.
The house Shakespeare bought after success (New Place) is gone, but the house he was born in still stands (thanks Dickens!), as does the house he wooed Anne Hathaway in, his grammar school, the homes of his daughter and his friends, the premises of his butcher, the guild hall. Splendid buildings all of them. This is like a vernacular building wonderland.
I loved Anne Hathaway’s cottage most. I walked through town out to Shottery where it sits, across well kept fields. I walked alone, arrived late in the day. The Hathaway family and their descendants lived there until the death of Mary Baker in 1892. Her parlour has been left as it was for the most part, small decorative things, pictures in frames. The simplicity of her life without electricity, running water, indoor toilet. A small area on the upper floor of the cottage where smoke from the fire was diverted to smoke meat.
More than anywhere I’ve been I think, perhaps given the lateness of the hour and fewness of people and the fact that it still retains some remnant of a sense of being lived in, you get a sense of the smallness of it (though it had been expanded greatly since Shakespeare’s time there). A sense of the interior darkness, the crowding, the low ceilings, dim light, everything hand crafted mortise and tenon wise. A life utterly different. Hard to imagine a life lived in such housing as this, in such intimate proximity such absence of privacy. So few things, all made by those known to you.
I confess too I shivered walking the flagstones.
I loved the tales of how much Mary Baker charged for her stories, for postcards, for pieces of the settee where she claimed Shakespeare courted Anne…you can see how it has disappeared little by little. She sounds canny and fabulous.
There is a museum where the New House stood — a lovely garden and a tale of crime: Shakespeare bought New House from a man named William Underhill in 1597, only two months later Underhill was poisoned by his oldest son Fulke Underhill who was hanged in 1599 — all property was confiscated by the crown. The sale was not finalised until 1602 (by youngest brother Hercules!). Still, Shakespeare was holding malt there in 1598 (well, his wife was holding malt there in 1598). She totally kept everything on track as he moved between Stratford and London — he always came back here. I resist so much of the scaffolding of gossip and guessing built around the frame of his life, but I love the fact that this remained home. To return to the New Place as home, even while they waited for full possession of it from the court, the Globe was being built (1599), and Shakespeare’s father died (1601). A hard time.
His birthplace? Hopeless, packed full to wonder at glove making and beds, you troop through in a line. I did like the names of the famous and not-so-famous etched into the glass. His daughter’s home ‘The Cage’ was better. But so many people. I should have visited everywhere late in the day, just before closing. Coaches all gone home so they cannot vomit out their hordes that move past you in waves of people speed viewing, pictures, conversations.
Still. To be honest, I could feast on a diet of Tudor homes for days, I love everything about them.
Just as I loved being there with purpose that would make my folks proud, a slap up fish supper with cheap white wine, and the most swans I have ever seen in one place before.
I wish this travesty of ‘Independence’ day meant anything like adequate precautions were in place, or that we could travel beyond the hospital and its MRI machine. Holiday continues.