x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

There's another Stratford in England that might interest you

For those in need of a break from Olympic venues, Max Davidson suggests a trip to the birthplace of the playwright William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon Avon.

The river and bridge at Stratford Upon Avon Warwickshire.
The river and bridge at Stratford Upon Avon Warwickshire.

As London braces itself for the Olympics, there is one small problem which the organisers may not have anticipated. How many foreign visitors are going to get off the train in Stratford, the London borough where the Olympics are being held, under the misapprehension that this is THE Stratford, the one for which Britain is best known, the birthplace of William Shakespeare?

That other Stratford - Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire - is more than 160 kilometres to the north-west of London, and could hardly be more different than its namesake. It is a provincial market town, surrounded by green fields, and but for the literary exploits of its most famous son, would probably not merit so much attention.

But Shakespeare and the Olympics are more closely entwined than you might imagine. The Olympic ideal of fair sporting competition is a very Shakespearean concept - the phrase "fair play" was first used in King John - and the organisers of the Olympics have not been slow to appreciate the importance of Shakespeare in shaping British identity and culture. He is a one-man brand, imperishable and unassailable.

Lines from The Tempest will feature prominently in the opening ceremony, and among the plethora of non-sporting events running in tandem with the Olympics, the World Shakespeare Festival, which runs until November, is probably the most wide-ranging and ambitious. There are a bewildering number of productions to choose from: some in London, some in Stratford-upon-Avon; some by British companies, some by non-British companies in foreign languages; all aimed at celebrating the glove-maker's son from the provinces who became a global phenomenon.

For theatre-goers, open-air productions at Shakespeare's Globe, modelled on the theatre where many of his plays were first performed, have become an established part of the London summer; and it is certainly worth taking in a live performance if you are in London. But no Shakespeare-lover, young or old, should miss the opportunity to pay a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, a charming and comparatively unspoilt town.

The River Avon itself - which you will cross if you are coming from London via Oxford - is no more than 50 metres wide, but as pretty as a picture, particularly in summer, when it is overhung with weeping willows and picnickers take to the river in rowing boats. Probably the first thing you will notice is the swans, dozens and dozens of them, gliding lazily across the dark green waters. Do they perhaps explain why Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend and contemporary, called him the "sweet swan of Avon"? The ghosts of the past are all around you as you take in the scene.

On the other side of the old stone bridge - the bridge Shakespeare would have crossed on his way to London - the dominant building is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which reopened last year after a major refurbishment. There are productions here all year round, a decent riverside restaurant and a handsome new viewing tower from which you can get a bird's-eye panorama of Stratford and the surrounding countryside.

What is so heartwarming about Stratford today is how much of the town in which Shakespeare was born in April 1564 has survived the ravages of time. Timber-framed Elizabethan houses overlook busy, narrow streets. Swallows swoop above the old chimney stacks. Lurking among the souvenir shops and fast-food outlets is a centuries-old community, deeply embedded in the English countryside. That boy ambling home from school, jabbering into his mobile phone, is probably a pupil at the very school Shakespeare attended, the King Edward Grammar School, still going strong after all these years.

Of the Shakespeare-related attractions in the town centre, the birthplace on Henley Street, though very popular with visitors, is probably the least atmospheric: it has the feel of a tourist trap, somewhere people visit because they feel have to visit, but leave disappointed. The museum attached to the birthplace has a lot of useful background information about Shakespeare, but you get no sense of a real, lived-in home.

Far more redolent of the Elizabethan age is Hall's Croft, the former home of Shakespeare's daughter Susanna and her husband Dr John Hall, a prominent physician and herbalist. Inside the house, furnished in the style of the period, there is a fascinating exhibition about the medical theories and practices of a bygone age, such as the application of leeches to affected parts of the body. Outside, there is a delightful little garden, planted with herbs and formal hedges.

From Hall's Croft, it is just a short walk to Holy Trinity church, on the banks of the Avon, where the poet is buried. It would be a beautiful building even without its historical associations, with its elegant stone spire, slightly crooked, and its avenue of lime trees, gnarled with age. But of course, it is Shakespeare's grave, in the sanctuary of the church under a stained-glass window, which takes the eye: just a simple stone slab with its celebrated inscription, purportedly written by Shakespeare, invoking a curse on anyone rash enough to disturb his bones.

For devotees of the Bard, the high point of the Stratford-upon-Avon year is the Birthday Parade, which takes place on the Saturday closest to his birthday, April 23rd. In a touchingly low-key ceremony, good-humoured and without a trace of pomposity, actors, dignitaries and members of the general public process through the town from the birthplace to Holy Trinity church and lay flowers on the grave.

The final and, for the kind of hopeless romantics who cry during Romeo and Juliet, crowning stop on the Stratford tourist trail is Anne Hathaway's cottage in the village of Shottery, two kilometres to the west of Stratford. The thatched, 12-room farmhouse where Shakespeare courted his future wife is remarkably well-preserved. Let your imagination roam and it is not difficult to imagine the 18-year-old William walking across the fields from Stratford, heart fluttering, to woo the 26-year-old Anne. Was it a marriage made in heaven or something more prosaic? We will never know. They married in 1582 and you get a definite flavour of their courtship in this rickety old cottage with its sloping floors, smoke-stained furniture and low wooden beams.

The garden of the house, a real labour of love, has been planted with all the plants and flowers to which Shakespeare referred in his plays, from musk roses to wild thyme, pied daisies to honeysuckle, eglantine to crab apples. Statues of Shakespearean characters lurk amid the maze of greenery. It is as English a corner of England as you could hope to find, tranquil and unkempt, and it feels a long way from the hubbub of the Olympic Stadium, in the other Stratford, in London. If one of the broader aims of the Games is to highlight the best which the host country has to cover, Shakespeare's evocative hometown enjoys a special place in the roster of must-see British attractions.

If You Go

The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies to London from Dh4,030 return, including taxes; approximate flight time is seven hours

The info For details of productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, both in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, visit www.rsc.org.uk