Stratford s bard influence
The Gower memorial on the edge of the town centre next to the River Avon.

"It's summertime and the living is easy," chirped the radio announcer as I drove through showers and patchy fog into Warwickshire. Good weather, he promised, was on the way.

Perhaps he was trying to cheer his gloomy audience who'd just been informed on the news bulletin that despite greater-than-average rainfall in June, the drought in England had not broken.

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Such are the exigencies of an English summer. Charles II once defined it as "three fine days and a thunderstorm". Global warming notwithstanding, nothing much seemed to have changed since Charlie's days.

Nothing much seemed to have changed in the villages I was driving through, either, as I continued towards Stratford-upon-Avon. I'd turned off the M42 earlier than the signposts recommended to see something of Stratford's surrounding countryside, pretty much the centre of England, and wasn't disappointed by my decision.

Wooton Wawen is home to the impressive The Saxon Sanctuary ("Warwickshire's Oldest Church") and soon after comes the impossibly pretty village of Henley-in-Arden.

But even though the sun has been up for a good three hours, only the cows seemed awake. In England, the natives tend to rise later than, say, West Australians. When they do get up, however, they like to grumble about the weather, and I reckoned they'd be pretty depressed when they saw what today had delivered.

Stratford was as deserted as Henley-in-Arden. I parked the car and walked into the centre of a town that revolves around William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was born, educated, married, and buried here, and that curriculum vitae is sufficient to attract thousands upon thousands of visitors to sample a taste of his Elizabethan life.


GOWER MEMORIAL

It didn't take long for a first glimpse of a Stratford nod to its most famous son: in the Bancroft Gardens by the River Avon stands the Gower Memorial, a work donated in 1888 by sculptor Lord Ronald Gower. Surrounded by five characters from his plays, the Bard is captured sitting pensively, no doubt mentally penning another sonnet, a new play or simply cogitating on the meaning of life. Undecorously, and rather sadly, his head is covered with bird droppings.

The memorial originally was situated a short distance away outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which was destroyed by fire in 1926. The theatre's water tower proved a dismal failure in fulfilling its main purpose and following the calamity, the statue was relocated.

I had morning coffee in Vintner, one of the town's many timber-framed old-world eateries. It was built in 1490. Impressive, eh? But then in Stratford, if you haven't found a cafe that's got a few years under its belt, you're not really trying.

As I supped, I found an article in The Times about (not surprisingly) the weather. "Get the sunblock and shorts out: summer has arrived this weekend," it trumpeted. It went on to quote the Met Office's prediction that temperatures would soon hit 30C, adding triumphantly, "as hot as France and Italy". Really?

Outside Vintner, Stratford was filling up fast as the tourist coaches disgorged their contents into the town centre. The centrepiece of all the sightseeing was Shakespeare's birthplace and his first home in Henley Street. This was also where his father John - a glove-maker, trader and money-lender - conducted his business and where Shakespeare and seven other Shakespearean children were born.


SHAKESPEARE'S HOME

In 1847, the house was bought at auction by public subscription and today, visitors can enjoy a multimedia tour and wander round the restored home and its gardens. It's well worth a visit, though at £12.50 ($19.70), it's not exactly cheap. (And with some half a million visitors a year, it's quite a money raiser, too.)

The birthplace is one of several Shakespeare-related properties in and around the town. Others include the famous cottage of Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway. A ticket to five properties can be bought for £19.50, which is undoubtedly better value.

The other significant part of Shakespeare's life is but a short stroll away: Holy Trinity Church is where he was christened, quite possibly wed, and most definitely buried, on April 25, 1616, aged just 52. The church sits on the banks of the Avon with a graveyard that runs down to the river.

The churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. Picture: Mark Irving
It would surely have provided an idyllic resting place for the Bard; in fact, his remains are inside the church. He'd bought land from the church and that apparently gave him the right to be buried in the chancel. For a £2 donation, visitors can see the final resting places of Shakespeare and his closest family members.

WHERE TO EAT

By lunchtime, I was searching for somewhere to eat and there's no shortage. Walking back to town, I came across The Arden hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which probably sits at the top end of the market. Recently renovated, The Arden (directly opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre), boasts the Waterside Champagne Bar and Brasserie and a pre-theatre menu at £18 for three courses.

I plumped for a more modest ploughman's lunch at the Pen & Parchment pub, before doubling back to the newly restored Royal Shakespeare Theatre for an afternoon performance of Macbeth.


ROYAL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE

Opened officially in April by the Queen, the building is a stunning blend of two theatres and three architectural styles - Gothic, Victorian and contemporary. The restoration cost more than £110 million and the result is a magnificent stage for 1040 playgoers, as well as restaurants, bars and a shop.

I was told what could be recycled had been, and the battered teak floorboards outside the theatre shop were taken from the stage of the old theatre. This allows the tour guides to solemnly inform tourists that they are walking on the very boards once trod by Laurence Olivier. Perhaps.

Inside the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre, ready for a performance of Macbeth. Picture: Mark Irving
Guided tours for £6.50 are available on most days but unfortunately not this day. Instead, I took the £2 ride up the 32m tower for a gaze around Stratford and its surrounds.

The performance of Macbeth (the first new production at the new theatre) was spectacular, and I emerged with a warm glow into bright sunshine to witness cyclists, dog walkers, rowers and thousands of tourists milling through the town.

Though the economic news in Britain all summer was all about struggling retailers, Stratford's town centre certainly didn't resemble Struggle Street. Instead, it displayed the same gentrified prosperity that the nearby Cotswolds enjoyed. Such is the economic benefit of a continual stream of visitors.

Along the riverside, those same visitors were enjoying ice- cream and basking in the sun. It was 26C, I heard someone say, and 32C was promised for the next couple of days.

And then, perchance, a thunderstorm?

The West Australian

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