What to say about Stratford Upon Avon?
It’s a toy town.
I mean, make no mistake, as toy towns go, it’s a very nice toy town. For a start, it’s the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company which is, as previously established, a Good Thing. It’s got some of the most excellent theatre going on that you are likely to see for £5 of your English pounds (if you’re under-25, that is…) and this is its major draw. Stratford was the birthplace of our Mr Shakespeare and oh boy has he left his mark on the town. You will be lucky to leave without buying a mug entitled ‘Yea Olde Stratford’ or possibly a tea-towel bearing the serene, almost enigmatic face of the scribbler. Whether Shakespeare imagined when writing Hamlet that his face would be used for drying dishes in the future, no one will ever know. You are likely to have a drink in a pub somehow related to his works, or maybe stay in a bed and breakfast honouring his plays, or possibly even have a local drink that is somehow derived in his honour – yeap, there’s no getting round it, Stratford is heavy on the dude.
But personally, for me, Stratford Upon Avon is all about the swans. I mean it’s about patching and theatre and lighting too, but if you take those out of the equation and for a moment play purely the tourist, then it’s about the swans. Spend any great amount of time working in the town and you quickly discover that besides the theatre, the place you are likely to spend most of your time is along the canal or the river, looking at swans and listening to brass band music played on a weekend, or to the cricket scores being blasted out over a loud speaker that can probably be heard half way to Warwick. I lived in Stratford for just under a month, and when not working, my main occupation was to sit by the river and watch boats and swans go by and read about witch hunts in the early modern period and write plays. (All of the above seeming the most apt response to being in the town.) On a weekend there’s a market by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre where you could buy anything from Indian dreamcatchers to home-made soaps with bits of raspberry in, and of course there was the perpetual traffic of little tourist boats paddling up and down the waterways.
Other than that, though, there really isn’t much to do for a stranger in town. If you’re a local the situation is clearly different – the family I was lodging with seemed abuzz with perpetual activity, from local amateur productions of plays to continual production of baked goods to raise money or test recipes or just have legendary ‘pudding parties’ in local villages, to football matches and skating challenges, not to mention while working 9-5 – but as a stranger whose sole occupation is based around cable and electricity, your day off can quickly become something of a muddle. Unless you’re already involved in local activities, and unless you’re sticking around long enough to get involved, there’s really only so much soap you can buy or so many Shakespearean monuments you can visit. The near-by hubs of alternative activity – Leamington Spa, Birmingham or Warwick – aren’t much to write home about if you’re by yourself, and quickly the project on a day off becomes one of filling it. My first serious day off work was spent in quest for a cheap haircut, under the slightly naive belief that everything was cheaper outside London and that after a year, even I should probably consider getting a trim. I eventually received a haircut for free, from a lovely trainee hairdresser from Zimbabwe who admitted as she practiced her art that she had never once seen a show by the RSC and didn’t really have any interest in theatre whatsoever. Her bosses laughed and said they’d been invited to see the latest show at the theatre for free, but had drunk a little bit too much before going in so didn’t really get the plot and prefered modern dramas…
“Stratford is a dump,” was the opinion of another local resident. “No one who works in Stratford would ever actually live in Stratford. You’ve got to live in the countryside, which is beautiful, and keep boats, and never, ever go into Stratford unless you’re actually being paid.” In the coffee shop which I quickly established as my base of operations on those days when work merely consisted of changeovers and where I would sit for hours writing and nursing one much-loved muffin, even the character of the tourists became kinda apparent. This is a town where your visitor will not only complain about the level of the music being played in the back room of the cafe, but they will name the composer and opus as they do it to politely request that the works of Mr Mozart, while very fine, be turned down a little so they can hear themselves think. Outside the cafe was a regular pair of living statues, complete with gold-sprayed ruffs and Tudor trousers (not a flattering fashion…) who would occasionally jerk into life, inducing screams from passing gaggles of teenage tourist girls in headscarves or neat school uniforms, who’d never seen such things before.
So all things considered… with my best tourist face on… Stratford Upon Avon is probably worth a weekend of your time, particularly if you’ve booked your tickets to the theatre first, but make sure to see the swans, avoid the souvenir shops, and if you’re staying for long, pack your football boots and a good recipe book first…