Treading the Bard’s Floorboards – An Afternoon at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford

“A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller: he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire.”

“He was not of an age, but for all time!” ~ Ben Jonson (1573 – 1637)

Birthplace signI say floorboards, but technically the ground floor of Shakespeare’s birthplace is stone. The original floor in fact, in the parlour, has remained in place for over 450 years. It’s something of a mystery to me why I’ve only just been able to visit the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest literary icons – but better late than never.

I had a few hours spare on my recent business trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, so I was determined to pay homage to ‘our William’, home grown poet, wordsmith and playwright. The weather was decidedly wet, and we had intermittent heavy rain showers, plus it was late in the afternoon; so luckily for me it wasn’t as busy as I suspect it usually is.  Without any of my beloved brood by my side to moan and whinge at me about how boring it was and when could we go, I was free to meander and absorb the environment of a time and place that has had a global impact and continues to define our cultural heritage to this day.

front of Shakespeares houseWalking up the old High Street, (now Henley Street), you see the Tudor house on your right. It’s wonderful, but you probably wouldn’t stop and stare for too long other than to admire a historic building if you weren’t aware of its illustrious son’s writings…

The main entrance is past the birthplace, through the modern building further up.  There’s a fascinating exhibition to take in before you pass out through the garden and into the rear of the birthplace.

Rooselvelt signature visitors book 1910As part of the exhibition I was interested to see that American President Teddy Roosevelt visited the house in 1910 (and stayed at the same hotel as me, the Welcombe Spa), although in 1910 it was a private house owned by George Otto Trevelyan.

Also in the exhibition his family tree is laid out, clips of his plays and film adaptations run, some of his personal items, and a chronological list of his works are on display. The first folio was produced in 1623. There are no known surviving hand written papers of his individual plays, as penned by him with quill and ink, so we are very fortunate they were collated shortly after his death and have been in print ever since.

I have included a small photo album at the end of the post. The drag and drop option wasn’t working so I’m afraid they are a bit random!

The entrance is through the dwelling next to Chez Shakespeare, a simple one up one down house which was also owned by William’s father, John Shakespeare, and rented out. From this small room you enter the parlour, which has a decent fireplace and a bed, which I was told was a sign of wealth. I suppose if you got bored of the conversation you could just snuggle down… Also what struck me is just how vertically challenged people were in medieval times, I had to stoop to pass under the low doorways.

John Shakespeares work studioThere is more natural light in the adjoining dining hall. Again there is a large fireplace and a table and bench, and kitchen items.  Moving on from there you come to John Shakespeare’s workshop. This was easily the biggest room in the house, and the place where he made his leather and suede gloves and bags.  The window would have been absent 450 years ago, so that he could sell his wares directly to customers passing in the street. There would have been a market in the street in front of their house too. I couldn’t stop thinking how draughty and cold it must have been, especially in winter.

In the 1500’s Stratford had a population of around 1500 inhabitants, and at that time Birmingham didn’t exist, so it was a stop off point for travellers and traders journeying from Liverpool to London. It was roughly two to three days ride from Liverpool to Stratford, and four to five days from Stratford to London. John’s gloves sold well, and the family was wealthy. Although, his stint as a ‘brogger’ (illegal wool dealer) was probably more lucrative than glove making!

From there you follow the stairs up to the bedrooms. There is a bust, letters from famous visitors, the birth window that was signed by many literary figures, and of course, the birth room itself. A section of the wall has been left open so that visitors can see the original wattle and daub materials used in its construction.

lady in period costume at Swan Inn SHFrom the birth room you then go to the extension made to the house by John Shakespeare, which served as an Inn. In the upper floor of the Swan Inn a lady in costume sat on the window sill and we shared some witty repartee. She told me she was wearing the traditional middle class costume of the era, a white chemise, long wool pinafore dress and silk overskirt, all held in by a corset.  I learned that the way a woman’s corset was stitched up said a lot about her status and moral standing. There were three ways to do up a corset. If it was cross-stitched (whereby a finger could unhook it all in a single lift and let it all hang out in one fell swoop) then she was considered a strumpet. The girl assured me that she wasn’t but that the costume had been easier to do up that way! Then you could strait-lace it (hence the saying about someone being puritanical), and the wealthiest women were done up at the back.

It was amazing to place myself into 16th century life, and imagine the place as William was growing up. He later inherited the house from his father and lived there with his own family. After his death the property passed to his sister, Joan Hart, and later his daughter, Susanna.  There is a timeline of ownership from his day to modern day, which also shows how the house was modified over the years.

What is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust? Great video that features two of the guides I spoke to.

After purchasing a few tomes in the shop I went for a stroll past the Encore pub and along the canal and river, by the modern RSC theatre. In conclusion, Stratford and Shakespeare’s birthplace are well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the heart of ye old England.

In Search of Shakespeare – a documentary for further education if you are a Bardolater!

A Time of Revolution:

The Lost Years:

The Duty of Poets:

For All Time:

“Till that I’ll view the manners of the town, Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings. ~ Comedy of Errors

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