diamond geezer

 Monday, April 23, 2007

Shakespeare's Stratford: Shakespeare's Birthplace
William Shakespeare born here:
23rd April 1564

The greatest playwright that ever lived was born in a half-timbered Tudor cottage in a Midlands shopping street, just up the road from Argos and opposite a store which sells Christmas decorations all year round. It's a small miracle that his house still stands at all, to be honest. But this is one of England's first proper tourist attractions, acquired by a charitable trust in the mid 19th century, and millions of visitors have since passed through its hallowed portals.

Entrance is via a separate visitors centre, of dubious architectural merits, inside which there's a worthy but dull exhibition about Shakespeare's life. You pass out into an ornamental garden, blooming rather beautifully at this time of year, and then enter the cottage itself. This was home to the comfortably-off Shakespeare family, upstanding citizens of Tudor Stratford, and the interior has been sympathetically restored as it might have looked in the late 16th century. Each of the small rooms has its own custodian, only some of whom manage to sound like they haven't given the same talk umpteen different times before. The elfin guide hovering in the cottage hallway delivered a bravura performance on topics ranging from Elizabethan cutlery to the manufacture of leather gloves (Will's father's trade). Upstairs in the bedroom, probably the site of one of the human race's greatest chromosomal couplings, the guide was somewhat less enthusiastic. She spent the requisite amount of time discussing the main features of the family bed, deflected my follow-up questions with querulous disinterest, and then directed me out in the general direction of the gift shop. Here it was possible to buy a huge range of Shakespearean paraphernalia, from Complete Works to fridge magnets, in commemoration of the baby genius born just a few yards away some 443 years ago.

Shakespeare's Stratford: New Place
William Shakespeare died here:
23rd April 1616

New Place, the house in which Shakespeare died, hasn't fared so well. Whatever Stratford's snapping tourists may think it's not the building dripping with wisteria in the photograph. That's Nash House - his granddaughter's residence nextdoor. Our William lived out his last years in the foreground of the photo, where the grassy lawn now stands. Here's the story.

Nobody's quite certain when Shakespeare left Stratford to seek his fortune in London, but by 1597 he'd amassed enough money to pop back and purchase his first property in his hometown. He bought a large brick and timber townhouse in the shadow of the old Guild Church, and it was to this house that he retired in 1610. Six years later he died right here at New Place, on the day believed to be his birthday, and the house passed into the ownership of his eldest daughter Susanna. But, as every tour guide in Stratford delights in telling you, William Shakespeare has no direct living heirs. His only son died aged 11 and, although both his daughters married, neither of their families continued beyond the next generation. The genius's genes died out with them.

New Place and Nash House were therefore eventually sold on to a Cheshire vicar, a certain Reverend Francis Gastrell. He was no fan of the Bard, nor of the regular stream of sightseers who came to peer at his famous house, so in 1759 he decided to take drastic action. First he lopped down the splendid mulberry in the garden, a tree supposedly planted by William's own hand. And then, when this merely enraged rather than discouraged, he had the entire house razed to the ground for tax reasons. Following this wanton destruction all that remains today are a few arches from the original cellar wall, and the remainder of the estate is given over to grass and a gorgeous garden.

Tourists can now access the remnants of William's historic home via Nash Place nextdoor, the house with the photogenic wisteria. The ground floor of this visitor attraction has been restored to resemble a 17th century middle class residence, while upstairs there's an exhibition devoted to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Don't go expecting anything exciting and interactive, it's just a single room containing a few old books in cabinets and a missable bit of a film. Oh, and there's also a "Top 10 favourite plays" chart compiled weekly from the votes of visitors (currently led by Macbeth, followed closely by Romeo and Juliet). I was intending to contribute my own top 3 until I realised that I've only ever read two Shakespeare plays in my life, and that was because I was forced at school. This either makes me extremely uncultured, or extremely normal. I suspect it's the latter. The tourists thronging Stratford may have been there to celebrate Shakespeare's unmatched linguistic flair, but they seemed far more likely to walk away with a tea towel or a novelty apron than a copy of one of his plays.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (with 5 properties to visit)
Shakespeare - the Complete Works
Shakespeare - a brief biography

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