One thing I love about English (and indeed French) place-names — and think is not done nearly enough in Canada, though to be sure we have enough same-named towns that it would work — is when they add some sort of locational qualifier to the name. Bidford-upon-Avon. Welford-upon-Avon.
Curiously enough, later on I came across another Stratford near another river Avon — although in that case, the Stratford was named Stratford-sub-Castle, which is even better; it was tucked underneath the hill of Old Sarum. That’s for a few more posts ahead!
After I eventually made it to the youth hostel, I decided to take a rest day so as to explore Stratford a bit. I’d been there once before, with my family driving back to London from a Christmas in Wales. On that occasion we went to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and a couple of other sites, but not the church nor the other houses. I decided that I’d remedy that on this trip.
I particularly liked how the church of the Holy Trinity manages its nature as a parish church that also happens to have the most famous English writer’s grave inside of it. It’s free to enter, with a strongly suggested donation to enter the chancel where Shakespeare, his wife, and his daughters (and their husbands) are buried. In that area there are a number of signs talking about the major things — the baptismal font, the altar, that this is where William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway were married — and connecting them from his life, via his plays, to the wider implications of those rites in the Anglican church of Shakespeare’s day and our own. I thought this was very well done.
I also learned several things. I hadn’t realised that the Shakespeares are buried in the chancel because Shakespeare was a substantial patron and lay member of the parish in his later days; it was entirely do to being a man of substance within his parish, not for any fame he might have earned in London, that gave him that notable placement. And as far as the church itself goes, it’s an interesting place — the altar is one of very few pre-Reformation English altars still in use, and although the baptismal font was for many years used as a horse trough, it was rediscovered and cleaned up and is the one Shakespeare would have been baptised in. There is also a very rare pre-Reformation carving of Christ’s head tucked away in the carved ceiling, made visible by the thoughtful placement of a mirror.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised at how peaceful and spiritually welcoming the church was, despite the steady stream of Shakespearean pilgrims coming through it. This was on a Friday in October, but it was a quite busy weekend in Stratford because it was half term in the English schools . . . something I had vaguely known about but didn’t pay much attention to until I tried to find a place to stay for Saturday night.
The Stratford youth hostel was fully booked. So was the one in Stow-on-Wold. So was every bed and breakfast or hotel within walking distance under 90 pounds (with one exception, who remained one because they didn’t get back to me until I’d made other arrangements). I had made arrangements to stay with people in Oxford during the next week, but I knew they were busy on the weekend.
I was growing more panicked when I realised I had another couple of friends doing library research in Oxford for the semester. I wasn’t sure of their living arrangements, so had thought the other option (the former rector of my church in Halifax, who’d moved with his family to take up the Principalship of Pusey House) would be less burdensome. I didn’t have a phone number for them, and had no idea of their internet access, but sent them messages via Facebook and as many emails as I could, and was deeply relieved when they wrote back very promptly and said I could definitely come stay with them.
So I hopped on a bus and headed down to Oxford and a delightful weekend with A—-. and S—-., which redeemed my previous unpleasant experience in Oxford and also meant I managed to miss the storm that crossed most of southern England. A bonus — but it did mean that when I eventually got back to my walking, using public transit to get to and from my daily distances, I was crossing the Cotswolds where every stream and most fields were in spate. I spent a lot of time on the roads.
Next up: the Cotswolds to south of the Thames!