A guided walkabout kicks off our summer rendezvous with Shakespeare. “At Shakespeare’s birth, only 1,500 people lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon,” David explains. “Guildhalls, 50 taverns and small, straw-thatched houses with open-pit fires crowded the foul, muddy streets. Three fires destroyed much of his hometown.”
Shakespeare’s Birthplace has long attracted literary pilgrims like us. In the large, Tudor-style home, carved oak furniture and linen wallpaper suggest his family’s comfortable, middleclass life. The still-equipped workshop recalls his father’s prosperous leather glove business. Upstairs, the nursery showcases the bed where Will and his siblings were born and slept. And after their marriage, William and Anne lived in this childhood home another five years.
His granddaughter’s house on Chapel Street lies adjacent to the foundations of New Place, Shakespeare’s last residence. Will attended the still-functioning grammar school just beyond, leaving at 13 when family fortunes reversed. Daughter Susanna and husband John Hall’s elegant house, Hall’s Croft also remains in this neighbourhood. Walled gardens enclose the eminent physician’s beds of medicinal herbs.
Holy Trinity Church towers nearby. Inside, Will’s marble baptismal font stands beside the parish register listing his 1564 baptism and 1616 burial. His bust sits on a shelf above the chancel where he, Anne, Susanna and Dr. Hall rest.
Near our B&B, a two-kilometre footpath leads us to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Lush Elizabethan gardens surround this thatched farmhouse. Antiques include the “settle” where William wooed Anne. A Hop-On-Hop-Off bus takes us on to Mary Arden’s Farm, five-kilometres further. His grandmother’s 1570s farmhouse remains central to this working Tudor farm.
Our explorations here conclude at Gower’s memorial in Bancroft Gardens. Shakespeare sits upon a pedestal. Below pose Hamlet, Prince Hal, Lady Macbeth and Falstaff, evoking his remarkable insights into philosophy, history, tragedy and comedy.
Leaving the Bard’s hometown under blue skies, our self-guided walk along Shakespeare’s Way begins, approximating his route toward London. Unlike him, our baggage is shuttled ahead; guidebook maps direct us cross-country to Oxford.
Bridging the Avon, the footpath heads southward; above the river Stour, distant church spires, a manor house and black-faced sheep inspire us onward. Hoofing through rolling pasturelands, a roadway ultimately leads to our lodgings, an 18th century coaching house in Alderminster. In time for traditional “Sunday roast,” day one ends in scrumptious style.
Hearty English breakfasts launch each day with eggs, sausages, mushrooms, baked beans and grilled tomatoes. Bypassing kidneys and kippers, we instead sample regional favourites like black pudding, fried bread and bubble-and-squeak.
Our leisurely pace allows chats with locals, country pub refreshments… and photos. Averaging 16-kilometres daily, treks sometimes take up to six hours. Climbing stiles into pastures, we traverse peaceful woodlands and parks and squeeze through metal “kissing gates” into delightful villages. Around 1585, Shakespeare began commuting to London’s Globe Theatre, covering this same terrain, seeing similar honey-hued stone cottages.
Way markers bearing Will’s image confirm directions. Especially crucial at junctions, riotous summer growth often obscures these discs; locating them prompts excitement – and relief! Still, that afternoon our route vanishes amid a wheat field. Wandering and trapped, we barge desperately through a hawthorn hedge toward some power lines, wade across another field of waist-high wheat and Eureka! A riverside path! Triumphantly crossing the bridge into Shipston-on-Stour, we easily locate our accommodations. Steak and ale pie in a nearby tavern celebrates our escape.
Morning birdsong cheers us from thickets threaded with wild roses and blackberries. Leaping up from a leafy hideaway, one handsome stag bounds over the rippling barley and disappears. Our track later follows Long Compton’s busy roadway past 13th century St. Peter and St. Paul. A local tells us its unique, two-story thatched lichgate once housed a cobbler’s family.
Carrying fresh Cornish pasties and sausage rolls from the village store, Vicarage Lane leads to our destination. The family farm’s renovated barn annex perfectly suits our rustic picnic supper and restful Scrabble evening.
Breakfasting in the stone farmhouse, we discuss today’s 21-kilometre challenge. Our host beams, “Ride inta Chipping Norton wit me; I’m goin’ there anyway.” His car putts up a backroad above Long Compton and onto Oxfordshire’s limestone ridge. At the Neolithic Rollright Stones, he shows us King’s Men, a ceremonial circle of 77 stones. “They say a witch turned an ancient king and his army inta stone here,” he remarks. Just across the road in Warwickshire rises the King Stone; his five Whispering Knights lean together as if plotting.
Dropped on Church Street, a 12th century Norman Church merits investigation before trudging uphill past centuries-old almshouses to Market Street. At an outdoor market, a jolly baker directs us toward the trailhead. Once part of the old London Road, Shakespeare’s Way now bisects peaceful meadows strewn with scarlet poppies, daisies and purple thistle. A lakeshore lawn becomes our snack stop. A fellow walker joins us, excitedly describing wild orchids he’d seen.
Winding onward through hamlets of thatched cottages, their walls covered in climbing roses, we eventually crisscross immense hayfields into Enstone. Awaiting our transfer in front of St. Kenelm’s, a plaque tells us this church was dedicated to a martyred Anglo Saxon boy-king. At 4:30 sharp, the prearranged taxi whisks us to Churchill and cozy rooms in a transformed 19th-century blacksmith forge.
The morning driver returns us to a spot near ancient forests, pointing confidently, “Your trail’s down the bottom of this lane.” Skirting King’s Wood and Wooten Wood, we tramp up hillsides and down into forested valleys to the steep Stonesfield Steps, enabling us to span Blenheim Estate’s 14-kilometre, dry-stone wall.
The public footpath proceeds through shady woodlands and countless pastures. Relaxing under copper beeches, we watch sheep snooze and white pheasants strut the fenceline. Following farm roads and crossing more sheep-filled fields, we arrive at the Column of Victory and sight distant Blenheim Palace. Angling down grassy slopes, over an electric fence and along a paved walkway gets us to the huge green door opening into Woodstock. Our heritage inn lies around the corner from the cobbled town square.
Our off-trail day at World Heritage Blenheim Palace bedazzles. Using multi-media magic upstairs, a bonneted “apparition” appears in chambers representing three centuries of aristocratic history. Affectionately sharing family stories in each, she relates John Churchill’s romantic intrigues and military successes, including the Battle of Blenheim victory gaining him the 1st Duke of Marlborough title… and this estate. Downstairs, tapestries and paintings depicting Churchill’s triumphs decorate state apartments. And birth room exhibits honour Winston Churchill, one renowned descendant’s achievements. Strolling the formal gardens of this baroque palace concludes our splendid visit.
Passing Bladon’s churchyard the last day, we stop by Sir Winston and Lady Clementine Churchill’s simple tombstones. Photos and news items displayed in the tiny church further memorialize Winston’s accomplishments. Outside the village, a long, steep farm road bestows magnificent panoramas. Descending through a wooded arcade to Yarnton, we discover tributes to John Churchill’s relatives in its medieval church. Like Shakespeare’s, his family came from Snittersfield near Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Our ramble through rural countryside ends at Duke’s Cut. Canal towpaths carry us on into bustling Oxford. Bidding Will adieu at old Crown Tavern where he’d often stayed with friends, our 96-kilometre journey wraps up in a guesthouse beyond Folly Bridge.
Stratford-Upon-Avon and Shakespeare’s Way provide wondrous walks in English history, culture and landscapes.
IF YOU GO:
Macs Adventure: www.macsadventure.com
Buy in Canada BritRail Passes from ACP Rail International: www.acprail.com
Heathrow Airport buses go to Reading Station, where Chiltern Line trains travel to Stratford-upon-Avon OR London’s Marlybone Station offers six daily direct trains: www.chilternrailways.co.uk
Award winning walks: www.stratfordtownwalk.co.uk
Adelphi Guest House, near the train station: www.adelphi-guesthouse.com
One Elm, pub near Shakespeare’s Birthplace: www.oneelmstratford.co.uk
Shakespeare: The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson www.amazon.ca
Much Ado About Shakespeare by Jimmy Hartley www.amazon.ca
INSPIRED SENIOR LIVING - JULY 2016
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