STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, United Kingdom – Rev. Francis Gastrell would be harrowed with fear and wonder.
If the ghost of the man who tried to kill tourism in this town can find solace these days, it might in the fact that landscaping won’t be ready at the New Place grounds, where William Shakespeare’s great house once stood, by April 23, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
It was a very wet winter, and though daffodils are out for my late-February visit the special gardening project won’t be ready until July.
Other than that, it’s slings and arrows for Gastrell. The last man to live at New Place, the arch-villain of our tale, would despise attention the Queen, her prime minister and national institutions will bring to 2016’s festivities, though nothing would rankle him more than Shakespeare’s acclaim and the pilgrimages it inspires.
Gastrell had New Place demolished in 1759 in part because he couldn’t stand people coming up from London to pay homage in his gardens or to peer through the windows of a house the Bard owned for the last 19 years of his life.
The reverend was run out of town for his actions, says tour bus driver Jeff Nice, who adds: “He didn’t much like Shakespeare, and Gastrell became a very bad surname to have throughout Warwickshire for a very long time.”
Locals have yet to forgive him.
On this day, the tourists are from much farther afield than in Gastrell’s worst nightmares – and they’ve brought opinions.
At the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, Bobur, an Uzbekistani high-school teacher, stabs the air in a one-sided broken-English debate with a retired couple from Paraguay: “It’s not just that themes are universal,” he declares. “It’s timelessness; that matters now – and always!”
At the birthplace house, a woman from Hong Kong adamantly tells a guide Shakespeare should be reburied in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey (read the inscription at his grave, you’ll know it’s “curst be he” who moves the bones).
The townspeople are preparing for more than the three million visitors seen in an average year, and even on a grey, blustery winter day, this city of 25,000 teems. Yet, after talking with locals and listening to guides, it’s tough not to ponder how close the modern world came to missing out on the Bard’s excellence.
He was, by some accounts, no more than the fourth-most-popular playwright in London at the time of his death. Would-be biographers ignored the possibilities until a century later, by which time there hadn’t been any known living descendants for close to 50 years.
You mightn’t know the names John Heminges and Henry Condell, but if they hadn’t taken the costly and unusual step of publishing the First Folio in 1623, it’s unlikely many of the plays and sonnets would have survived. Even then, Shakespeare’s plays were often derided or ignored. Several weren’t performed for centuries, and some that were often suffered significant “improvements.”
Modern popularity, which will likely fill the streets and inns here for centuries to come, dates to the 1740s and is largely attributed to David Garrick, who ran Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London (a town that also claims Shakespeare as its own and which will have dozens of institutions celebrating this year).
Garrick so excelled at reviving interest that, within a decade, Gastrell was driven batty and the medieval market town was discovering the economics of tourism done well.
These days there are undoubtedly locals eager to gouge, but I couldn’t find any on a day visit. I’d also challenge you to find another tourist town where guides are true dramatic performers – informed, articulate, engaging. (Special mention to two at the birthplace: Paul Avery’s poetry recitals and Katie Neville’s cheeky dishing of 17th-century dirt are crowd pleasers.)
Fearing tackiness, I’d avoided Stratford-upon-Avon on U.K. trips. I was wrong; this town has handled fame well. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which controls several structures of interest, has long played a big role in the success; it was formed in the 1840s after P.T. Barnum proposed moving the birthplace house to the United States, for reassembly on wheels.
Plans for a Shakespeare’s World theme park also mercifully crashed nearly 20 years ago: Someone with money thought it would be smart to build a faux medieval town across the river from a genuinely charming real one.
My last impressions, while awaiting a train back to London, come after dusk over an ale at the Old Thatch Tavern (here since 1470). Two couples and a bartender enthusiastically trade Shakespearean barbs, including: “Thine face is not worth sunburning,” “Thou art a flesh-monger, a fool and a coward,” and, “Your virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese.”
Yet the insult that brings the house down, while clearly rooted on the banks of the Avon, was not from the Bard’s quill at all. An eruption, followed by clinks and calls for another round, comes when one of the women plays her trump: “You’re a Gastrell, a right proper Gastrell!”
If You Go…
Sixty per cent of the town’s tourists are day-trippers. From London, it’s two hours driving the M40 or a 29-pound ($58) return rail ticket (it took me nearly three hours by train because of track work and transfers). There are several day bus tours from London, including some taking in Warwick Castle and Oxford. A couple at my hotel liked the Evan Evans Tours (evanevanstours.com) package. (They would have skipped Oxford to spend longer in Stratford and initially thought 84 pounds was steep, but returned calling it good value.)
Where to stay: Accommodations are in short supply with the 400th anniversary ceremonies on tap. Even if you plan to stay overnight in late spring or summer, book soon. There are many B&Bs starting at around 60 pounds per person close to the heart of town and the rail station.
Preparation: Do some advance reading. At least a dozen new significant books about Shakespeare and his work will be released this year. Bill Bryson’s 2007 book, “Shakespeare: The World as Stage,” is a very fun, informative read.
What to do: If you aren’t part of an organized tour, do the hop-on-hop-off bus with a full combo ticket (27.50 pounds for adults), which gets you into the houses. It’s a small town, but Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is a five-kilometre hike if you’re not on the bus. On a lovely day, a walk by the river could be gorgeous. Watch for speeding drivers, especially near the visitors centre.
The play’s the thing: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s main and Swan theatres have full schedules planned all year, not all of it Shakespeare. https://www.rsc.org.uk/
If I visit again: I’d stay overnight in one of the many B&Bs and take in a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (tickets start at just 12 pounds). Though I always recommend the BritRail pass for getting around the U.K. (and town’s an easy walk from the station), if I were doing this as a day trip from London again, I’d take a bus tour that includes Warwick Castle.
Shakespeare in London: The Metropolis, where the Bard made his name, has too many special 400th events in 2016 to list. But we should highlight that the Globe To Globe production of “Hamlet” returns to its home stage in April after a two-year, 196-country tour, and that the National Archives and King’s College presentation of “Shakespeare By Me,” a major exhibit of historic documents, is at Somerset House till May 29.
For more information, visit www.shakespeare400.org/