For anyone who enjoys Dave Gorman’s Sunday morning radio show (and the podcast that accompanies it), Stratford-on-Avon holds instant appeal in that it is home to ‘Much Ado About Toys’, a toy shop denied a place on the fictional ‘Pun Street’ thanks entirely to the word ‘Toys’ failing abjectly to pun the word ‘Nothing’. The shop itself is worth a look round too, albeit mainly to marvel at the number of middle-aged men browsing the expensive products, most of which are radio-controlled reproductions of vehicles even a mid-life crisis can’t afford for the average bloke.
Where children are concerned – the principle targets of a toy shop, you would think – there appears to be little more than marbles and some miniature animals to spark their interest. There is Scalextric too, a mainstay of many an upbringing, but given that even a car based on a now non-existent Formula One team costs £37, only kids with wealthy parents are going to be indulging that hobby. A shame, if you ask me.
Anyway, that is by the by. Not many places are worth visiting just for one shop, so it’s a good job that Stratford has considerably more than ‘Much Ado About Toys’ to recommend it. If you happened to live under a rock your entire life before visiting the town then you might miss that ‘Much Ado About …’ is clearly a reference to Shakespeare; for anyone with even a basic grasp of English literary history, however, the connection between town and playwright is well known.
As a direct result, one of the most satisfying aspects of visiting Stratford is that Shakespeare isn’t entirely rammed down your throat. Indeed, in many places it is surprisingly restrained. Sure, you might see the housing estate that starts with ‘Hamlet Road’, and there are enough examples of buildings claiming no more than a “reputed” connection to the man himself if you look for them. But there is no tacky merchandise. The Christmas shop does not stock baubles with Shakespeare’s face on them, for example (although, ironically, I probably would have bought one if it did. That says more about me than anything!).
Milk it though the town undoubtedly does, it is with respect. And there are surprising perks at times: Holy Trinity Church, which houses the graves of Shakespeare and his wife (Anne Hathaway), requests the sum of £2 to view the altar where they lie. Initially that seems a pretty steep price, but unlike most churches and cathedrals that usually restrict camera usage, once the donation is paid there is positive encouragement to take as many pictures as desired. To use Facebook parlance: We LIKE this *thumbs up*.
Stratford is a beautiful place – the river is delightful (and fully utilised, with moored barges selling ice cream, baguettes and other refreshments), the open space – particularly the Bancroft – is invigorating, and the architecture is outstanding. The RSC is worth paying the car parking charges alone, but a stroll up and down half a dozen of the town centre’s streets offers an absolute wealth of history. You suspect the town would do well enough without ‘the Bard’, but Shakespeare elevates Stratford’s prosperity that little bit further. In these ‘dark and difficult times’, that is a pleasure to witness.
There is one final quirk worthy of mention. Walking through the Avonbank Gardens, one stumbles across a number of small plaques on the ground commemorating deceased individuals. With no prior knowledge, these plaques – all marking no obvious graves or memorials, with the exception of one that marks a tree stump – appear entirely random and no explanation of the person identified is offered. Having done a brief bit of research (i.e. having googled the names!) it is now rather clearer what significance some of them have, but to try and capture a little of the joy in wondering about them innocently, I won’t detail the findings, just transcribe the plaques:
“Caroline Jackson. 1889-1992” (this one marked the tree stump)
“Norman Rodway. 1929-2001. Hello Forever.”
“Buzz Goodbody. 1946-1975.”