Sunday, April 26, 2009

Celebrating Shakespeare's Birthday--in Stratford and Warwick

Sunday, April 26, 2099
Stratford-on-Avon and Warwick

Though I switched off my bedside lamp at 1.30 am last night, I did not fall asleep for at least an hour. Awful tossing and turning and vain efforts to count sheep left me deeply frustrated. Yet, I awoke at about 7. 00. So it is little wonder that I was yawning loudly and frequently in Stephanie's car on our way back from Warwick this evening. We'd spent the day in Warwickshire (visiting his birth place of Stratford-on-Avon--for the third time, in my case-- which is the second most popular tourist town in the country after London) in celebration of Shakespeare's birthday. Can you believe that he was born and died on the same day--April 23!!! Stephanie couldn't. " How weird is that?" she kept asking for she simply had never heard of anyone coming into this world and leaving it forever on the same day.

Now that Stephanie lives in Richmond and I have a bus pass again (and the Tube fare to get there and back is a whopping 7 pounds), I thought I would try to figure out the way to get there by bus. And using Journey Planner, I discovered that it wasn't difficult at all, especially on a Sunday morning when there is barely any traffic and the bus flies. I was there in about an hour and a half and that's just because I wasn't sure where to make bus connections. On the way back it took me just an hour and ten minutes--on the Tube it takes an hour--so it felt really great to find the way without having to spend a bomb on the Tube ride.

Stratford-on-Avon--Shakeapeare's Beautiful Birthplace:
Stephanie and I first made our way to Stratford-on-Avon (which, I finally found out, is pronounced exactly like the name of the cosmetics company). It took us about an hour and a half to get there which meant that we were parking at the Stratford Leisure Center a little after 12 noon. Stratford was swarming with visitors--not just because this is The Bard's birthday weekend but because the Stratford Triathlon was also held today (the same day as the London Marathon) and hundreds of people had arrived on what was a splendid day indeed.

As usual, we were famished by the time we reached the town and headed straight for food. Only since my low-carb diet lays strict restrictions, I could only eat the fried fish part of a fish and chips platter that I found at a place called The Golden Bee--certainly not the best fish and chips I have eaten. It was soggy and greasy and over-fried and quite disastrous. Stephanie had gone off to see Shakespeare's birthplace (I have seen it before, so did not go inside). When we did hook up again, we walked through an antiques fair where I was delighted to find a watch at a rock bottom price. It felt so good to have a wrist watch again!

Our next port of call was Trinity Church with its beautiful grave yard and moss-covered grave stones. This is the church in which Shakespeare was baptised and then buried. Inside, I made the discovery that visitors are required to pay 1. 50 pounds to visit Shakespeare's grave as it is badly in need of funds and figures it could make some money this way. On the two occasions in the past when I have visited this church--once, 22 years ago, when I was a student at Oxford and then about 10 years ago when I had returned with Llew and Chriselle during our tour of the Cotswolds--we had seen the grave without paying any money. While Stephanie went up to the altar to take a look, I used the opportunity to say a few prayers in the church before we walked out again on to the sun-flooded banks of the River Avon where boats plied on the swan-filled waters.

En route, we had seen the other important Tudor and Elizabethan buildings for which the town is known such as Nash's House and Hall's Croft. Since this is the week on which Shakespeare's birthday is celebrated, there were yellow flags lining the streets and arrangements in the garden that created his portrait in fresh flowers--a rather unusual touch. Poetry readings and a literary festival were a part of the week-long celebrations but both Stephanie and I lacked the enthusiasm to do much more than stroll around at leisure.

Everyone felt suitably festive in the bracing spring air. For me, one of the best parts of England in the spring is the opportunity to admire the incredible chestnut tress with their profuse large candle-like white flowers that we do not see at all in the United States. Also putting on a showy display of lavender blooms all over the stone walls of aged houses are wisteria vines. It is impossible to pass them by without stopping to examine their complicated construction--they hang in heavy bunches, looking for all the world, like grapes. Flower-beds in all the public gardens are blooming luxuriously with flowers in a shocking variety of colors and I have been taking pictures galore. Oh, it sure feels good to enjoy England in the spring time!

It was just 3 pm when we were done strolling around Stratford. We were both disappointed the The Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theater is undergoing massive renovations and has been closed down temporarily. All shows are being performed in the nearby Courtauld Theatre which we visited briefly. Stephanie was not interested in seeing the home of Shakespeare's wife--Anne Hattaway's Cottage in nearby Shottery--even though I told her that it is one of England's prettiest thatched cottages with a delightful cottage garden. She was more keen on seeing Warwick Castle which is only an 8-mile ride away.

Arrival in the Town of Warwick:
I thought it was a a capital idea and into the car we went. Just fifteen minutes later, we arrived in the medieval town of Warwick which I had never seen before. We headed straight for the castle but by then it was already 3.45 pm and we discovered that entry fee was almost 17 pounds. Neither one of us thought it worthwhile to spend so much money on a ticket that we'd only be able to use for a couple of hours. We skirted the periphery of the Castle property spying some showy peacocks in the Elizabethan Knot Garden before we decided to discover the town on foot as we had already spent money on the parking meter.

Warwick is one of England's most intact medieval towns. It has all the ingredients that make a town a tourist attraction and we had a chance to sample some of those: the River Avon flows gently through it (as it does at Stratford) and we were able to see a few oarsmen rowing their boats in the water. There is the beautiful stone Church of St. Mary with its blue-faced clock staring benignly upon the bylanes of the town that are lined with listed houses. Then, there is, of course, the massive 13th century castle which until very recently was inhabited by a family of Dukes. There was several medieval buildings with exposed beams and stucco walls including the stunning Lord Leycester's Hospital which is a misnomer as it was never a hospital at all. It was once the guildhall of the town and then a chantry and a chapel and, ultimately, on being purchased by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (and supposedly the only man that Queen Elizabeth I ever really loved), it was turned into homes for former military men --a function it still fulfils. We took some charming pictures of this lovely gabled building before we strolled for a bit in the public gardens that were a riot of colors as flower-beds had sprouted to life bringing tall and stately tulips in their wake.

It was at about 5 pm that we started our drive back home and it was at 8. 30 that I arrived home, tired and very eager to have myself a nice shower and a light dinner, to write this blog and get straight to bed.

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