Travel: Stratford-upon-Avon sets the world’s stage

Hall's Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon
Hall's Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon

On April 23, literary fans worldwide will commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Anthony Looch visits the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

I feel awe, and some emotion, as I stand in the dark beamed Tudor schoolroom where William Shakespeare was taught in the middle of the 16th century.

I am in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Warwickshire town where England’s most famous playwright and poet was born, and which always remained his home, despite long stays in London pursuing his theatrical business career.

I am viewing some of the many preparations in the town to commemorate his legacy, as the 400th anniversary of his death on April 23 approaches.

On that day, the schoolroom - and the ancient Guildhall in which it is situated - will be permanently opened to the public, following a huge restoration programme.

Visitors will be invited to step into the shoes of the young Shakespeare and take part in a live Tudor lesson with a schoolmaster. They will also be able to learn about the role of the Guildhall, which was at the heart of Stratford’s civic governance and where Shakespeare’s father served as mayor in 1568-69, when William was a child.

In his play As You Like It, Shakespeare memorably describes the Seven Ages of Man and talks of “the whining schoolboy, with his satchel. And shining morning face, creeping like snail. Unwillingly to school”.

Would he have been like that when he came here in the mornings? One will never know, because of the lack of intimate, personal information about him. But he must have been a highly intelligent boy with a curious mind, and one can reasonably assume that he would have enjoyed gaining knowledge, despite the strictness and physical confinement of the classroom.

I move on to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) complex, situated at the heart of the town. The main theatre, which seats over 1,000 people, principally stages work by Shakespeare.

Many of Britain’s greatest stage stars began their careers here, at what must be one of the most prestigious theatrical venues in the world.

I explore substantial new developments inside the theatre complex, which consists of the main theatre, the smaller Swan Theatre, and the Other Place.

The Other Place is the RSC’s research and development hub, and is now home to a new studio theatre, rehearsal rooms, costume store and cafe bar. It’s reopened with a new discovery tour bound to delight theatre buffs of all ages.

I also visit a building that, to me, is one of Britain’s greatest historical gems - the little house in which the Bard was born, and which amazingly has survived for so many centuries.

The low-ceilinged, heavily beamed dwelling has a parlour, hall, workshop and bedchambers, which are furnished as they would have looked in the 1570s, when William and his siblings lived there with their father John, a glove-maker, and their mother, Mary.

When William grew up and became one of the most prosperous men in Stratford, he bought the second largest house in town close by, in 1597.

It was called New Place and, after it passed out of the Shakespeare family’s hands, it was demolished in 1759, and the site has remained a garden ever since.

Eventually, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust acquired the site and the house next door. This is known as Nash’s House, and it was once home to Thomas Nash and his wife, Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth. It is among a number of properties related to Shakespeare, which are owned and cared for by the Trust, whose headquarters are in the fascinating Shakespeare Centre next to the birthplace house.

The highlight of the global celebrations will be the re-opening of New Place in July after what the Trust describes as a “transformation”.

This, it says, “will showcase artworks, contemporary landscaped and traditional gardens, as well as a major new exhibition in the restored and extended Nash’s House next door”.