The Great England Trip: Volume I

Volume I: Stratford upon Avon

I'd always wanted to visit Stratford. And this year, I thought it would be nice to go there with the Annoying One. However, A.O. was busy with exams and he is a disastrous planner (though he vehemently denies this). So by the time he actually agreed to a weekend in Stratford (I'm sure he was lying anyway), my aunt Susan - who is the most organised person I've ever come across - had sent me a detailed five day tour of Stratford that she'd laid out for me. My cousin Pria's friend Izzie, who was on her gap year, was keen to see Stratford too. Was I willing to go with her?

I was willing. The trip was very tempting. And it meant I didn't have to take care of anything myself - by the time I emailed her, accommodation had been sorted, plays had been booked, and talks had been organised. How could I say no to that? Besides, I had a sneaking suspicion that a Stratford trip with A.O. would turn into a binge drinking session at his local pub. I never say no to binge drinking, but since I actually wanted to visit Shakespeareland, I decided to give it a shot.

It was to have disastrous consequences but more on that later.

Before I left, my cousin Rajeet asked whether I had any id on me. He seemed doubtful that I'd be let into a pub without one, since I look about fifteen years old compared to most English girls my age. He seemed even more doubtful after seeing my id which, I have to admit, looked a tad bit on the shady and fake side since it was a duplicate of my college id (which I'd lost obviously). Decided not to risk my passport though (which I'm convinced was one of the few wise decisions I have ever made) and packed it (the id) along with two sweaters, a raincoat, and a summer dress (optimism).

Izzie and I left for Stratford on the Monday after I arrived in London; her mother, Ruth, drove us there. I got into the car and before we were out of Dulwich, I was asleep. When I woke up, we were in Stratford, outside the B&B we were going to be staying at. Izzie had an oh crap look on her face. As in, oh-crap-am-I-going-to-be-stuck-with-a-hibernating-jackass-the-entire-week.

I can't remember the name of the couple who owned the B&B. The lady was tall, thin, blonde, middle-aged, wrinkled, and haggard. I don't remember what her husband looked like. I only remember that he wore glasses and that his voice, unlike hers, didn't sound like it was going to burst into song.

The first thing they did was point to the breakfast menu. Breakfasts are a very important part of Bed and Breakfasts (surprise, surprise) and people in the English countryside take their breakfasts seriously.

Could we, they asked, place out order with them the day before to make things more convenient? So there, at noon, I ordered my breakfast for the next morning. Full English which comprises...wait for it...two eggs (either fried or scrambled or poached or in omelette form), bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans, toast, and tea or coffee. Cereal and juice to start with if you wish. By the time the three of us (Ruth was staying the night) ordered our breakfast, we felt really hungry, so we dumped our bags in our rooms and head out to explore Stratford/search desperately for some lunch.

Several things struck me about Stratford. 1) It’s tiny, 2) It’s pretty, 3) It’s full of tourists (I think the locals spend most of their time in hiding). 4) Every second house is a B&B (so maybe the locals spend their time cooking breakfast all day). 5) There are lots of little shops and cafes, and everywhere you go, you see big signs advertising all day breakfasts. 

So, I decided, people were obviously obsessed with two things there- Shakespeare (a wild guess) and breakfast (hard to miss).

We had lunch on Henley Street, which is the street where Shakespeare’s birthplace is, at a lovely outdoor cafe. Across the street was a musician playing a lute and two people, dressed in Elizabethan costume and sprayed in gold, moving like robots and doffing their caps to fat Americans and large groups of Japanese in slow motion. 

It was strange.

Next to the cafe was a shop called The Nutcracker Shoppe. It looked like a Christmas shop. Ruth said, yes, it probably was an all year round Christmas shop. First time I’d ever heard of an all year round Christmas shop and of course, I had to go in. The interior was terrifying. There were shiny baubles hanging everywhere, and coloured bells tinkling, and lights flashing, and fake Christmas trees piled into corners, and fat Santa Clauses sitting on shelves staring with beady eyes. Like Chucky except with white hair  and a beard and a red cap with a bell on it. I got out of there as fast as I could. Izzie came running after me, hair wild, eyes wide, murmuring about how sinister the entire thing was. I knew then that we were going to get along fine.

The three of us decided to do a bit more exploring and wound our way down the High Street until we reached the park. It was a relatively sunny day so naturally, it was crowded with half naked people trying to get a tan. A glimpse of twenty first century culture. 

The river Avon ran along one end and along its banks stood what seemed like hundreds of Japanese tourists, all feeding the swans that had accumulated by the shore. Some of them (the swans, not the tourists) had the audacity to actually get out of the river and waddle around the park, going up to lobster red tourists and honking at them. These people instead of screaming and running away or calling Animal Control, like any normal person would do, laughed and acted like it was great fun to be menaced by gigantic birds with yellow beaks and evil eyes.

I managed to drag Izzie and Ruth away from the river and we walked to the local church – The Church of the Holy Trinity – where Shakespeare is buried. It’s a very beautiful church. Quite small, made of pale grey stone with some really lovely stained glass windows. 

Shakespeare’s grave is before the alter. His important position, we were told, was nothing to do with his status as a playwright (even though he was already pretty famous by the time of his death) but because he held an important position in the Church. There’s a specific term for it but I don’t remember what. His wife, Anne, is buried next to him. What really excited me was his epitaph which I’d heard about – the lines are legendary after all – but never completely believed in. I can say with complete confidence now that Shakespeare will indeed curse whoever dares to steal his bones. Epic.

That night, we went to see Morte de Arthur, based on Mallory’s book. There wasn’t a single moment where I got bored or wished it would end quickly. Considering it was four hours long, I think that says something about the performance.

The next morning, we tackled the Full English. It took a while, but I managed clearing my plate.

Afterwards, Ruth drove us to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and it really is as beautiful as it looks in photographs. It’s surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens and the cottage itself (which has been built up since her time) is gorgeous. Apparently when she lived there, it comprised only two or three rooms on the ground floor and in the living room, we saw actual tables that SHE MUST HAVE USED and the bench where SHAKESPEARE MUST HAVE SAT WHEN HE CAME TO COURT HER. I went into some strange, slightly psycho mode, where I kept touching the furniture left over from her time and imagining I was Anne, waiting for William to come over so we could make love in front of the fireplace (note: she was six months pregnant when they got married and also, the Shakespeare in my head looked like Joseph Fiennes, not the original bald Shakespeare). I could totally make love to Joseph Fiennes in front of a fireplace.

But I digress.

We went upstairs (there hadn’t been an upstairs when Anne lived there; it was built later by her brother) and I have to admit, the floorboards did make me feel a bit nervous. I could see the floor below through the gaps. The rooms all lead into one another, Tudor style. It made me wonder how people had privacy back then. I was informed that they didn’t. My respect for Shakespeare and Anne, in light of their pre nuptial activities, increased.

Ruth dropped us off at the town centre and drove back to London. We wandered around Stratford for the rest of the day – visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. And then we did a whole lot of things that were mildly interesting then, but which will bore anyone if I set them down now. And to tell you the truth, I don’t really remember what we did. We ate a lot and we looked at the shops (I went slightly insane when I found an H&M which was having a 70% discount) and then we trudged back to the B&B. 

We were already realising the downside to country towns: there is, literally, nothing to do.

The next day had been set aside for us to do whatever we wanted. No plays, no talks, nothing. We woke up and looked blankly at each other before sadly heading down to our Full English.

In the morning, we went to Hall’s Croft, which was where Shakespeare’s daughter moved to after she got married. She married a Dr Hall who was the town physician and who was bloody rich. The house was gorgeous but the garden, even more so. Apparently, people can get married there and I instantly pictured myself surrounded by roses in full bloom getting married to a host of tall, green eyed men. (When I mentioned this to Minnie, she said I was sick).

We stretched lunch out for three hours and by the time we were done, it was five thirty. We were walking on Henley Street and stopped in front of a pub that claimed to be Stratford’s oldest pub.

Stratford’s oldest pub.

Built in the sixteenth century.

Standing during Shakespeare’s time.

Located on the street where Shakespeare lived.

Izzie and I looked at each other and walked – no, I think the appropriate word would be ran – in. It wasn't as empty as I thought it would be, considering it still wasn't even six (to be honest, it wasn't even five thirty). Evidently, people were as fed up as we were. 

Izzie ordered a gin and tonic but I couldn’t make up my mind. There were so many choices in front of me (including cider). I asked to see the wine menu and the bartender (who was kind of gorgeous) pointed to a single menu that stood on a shelf attached to the wall. Then, looking at me, he realised it was a hopeless cause and, sighing a bit, came round and lifted it down for me.

Honestly. It’s not my fault the English are unnaturally elongated.

Looked at the wine, debated for ten minutes whether to have red or white and finally settled for what Izzie was drinking. 

The bartender looked thoroughly fed up.

May I just say though, that the English know how to drink. The glass my gin and tonic was served in wasn't an Indian sized glass, oh no, it was the size of...of...three Indian sized glasses. I had one and Izzie had one and then we had another and when we stepped out, we were happy. Not drunk, not tipsy, just happy.

And then Izzie decided she needed food and once she started describing how much she was craving Italian, I decided I needed food to. We walked around for a bit, looking for a nice place and ended up (half an hour later) outside the pub, cursing because we couldn’t find Italian food anywhere. Lots of sandwich places, lots of breakfast places, even a Cornish pasty house but no Italian. We were bitching about how lame country towns are when we saw that there was a really nice looking Italian place right next to the pub. We must have missed it earlier.

Went in and I can’t remember what we ate but I do remember that they served a very nice house wine. We finished off an entire bottle and stepped out.

“We should go back now,” said Izzie, swaying slightly.

“Yes, we should,” I agreed.

So we started walking back to the B&B but on our way, we passed a pub which looked warm and cosy and inviting and without even looking at each other, we walked in. 

I knew we’d get along.

I insisted on buying Izzie another gin and tonic and then once we’d finished that, she insisted on buying me one in return. Once we finished that, I realised I had to return the favour. She bought the next round, except it wasn’t gin, it was vodka.

 Things get a little hazy after that, but I vaguely remember stumbling out of the pub in search of cigarettes (I had quit but when you’re drunk, you need cigarettes.) We were walking around Stratford – it must have been about eleven thirty by then – stopping random people, asking them if they’d seen any cigarette shops. No, they all said. But they were looking for one too. Damn country towns.

We then ended up outside a club and the bouncer stamped our hands and ushered us through (he didn't ask me for id - score!) and then we were inside this crazy place with flashing lights and people dancing. They were all drunk and they’d been dancing for a while. You could tell by their wild hair and the slightly glazed expression in their eyes. We ordered something to drink – more vodka tonic – and then we saw a machine with cigarettes inside in a corner. Everything else turned blurry (well, blurrier) and I saw the machine clearly (more or less). It was bright red and it was calling my name. Stumbled towards it, shoved some money in and there it was, sitting in my hand, the first cigarette pack I’d held in weeks.

On the way out, we had a quick shot (to celebrate finding cigarettes) and then we ended up smoking with some French people and we were all, I am ashamed to say, bitching about Japanese tourists. Came back in, had another shot (to celebrate smoking cigarettes) and then I think we ended up sitting on the pavement for a bit. Finally, we decided we should get home so we went in for a...uh...nightcap and then we were lurching about on the streets, giggling. There were other people too, stumbling around. Bless tourists who claim to be literary.

Somehow, this Dutch guy attached himself to us and we kept walking and suddenly, we found ourselves outside another club. We went in and I really don’t remember much except the music was loud and the Dutch guy kept buying us these cute little green shots (when I mentioned this to Min, she said it was absinthe but I don’t think it could’ve been because there’s no way I would’ve been standing.) 

When we finally stumbled out, it was nearly dawn. Izzie and I decided we really needed to get back to the B&B and the Dutch guy gallantly insisted on escorting us. The trouble was, we were too drunk to remember the way back and we found ourselves climbing down a little hill until we were right in front of the Avon. The sun still hadn't come up but the sky was pale grey and the Avon was misty and wonderful. Best of all, IT HAD NO SWANS.

(Daddy, I know you read my blog and for the love of all that is holy, do NOT mention what I am going to write to my mother.)

“I feel like swimming in it,” I said happily.

“You will not swim in it,” said the Dutch guy, laughing.

“I will swim in it,” I said, annoyed.

“Trish, don’t be ridiculous,” said Izzie.

I glared at them, stripped, and dived in.

There are no words to describe that moment. When I’m on my deathbed and my life is flashing before my eyes, that moment will be there. Call it legendary, call it idiocy, it wasn’t just a moment. It was a Moment. Izzie and the Dutch guy looked at each other, looked at me (I’d started swimming across to the other side) and jumped in as well.

The water was cold but in a good way. It seemed clean. There was a point when we saw a boat emerging out of the mist and started scrambling around to get out but we sort of forgot after ten seconds and started floating on our backs. Later, when we were finally climbing into bed, I asked Izzie what happened to the boat.

“I don’t know,” she said, looking at me with wide eyes.

“But we all saw it coming out of the mist,” I said.

“I know.”

We looked at each other for a second and turned around and went to sleep. 

We dragged ourselves out of bed four hours later and went to attend a backstage tour. I’m really glad I went (even though I felt like I was dying on the way) because I heard two stories, told to us by the guide, that absolutely made my day.

Story #1:

Two actors had a major fallout. They were in the same play and there was a scene where one of them (let’s call him A) had to hand the other one (B, obviously) a letter which was then read out on stage. Now, B didn't memorise what the letter said because he could, naturally, just read it from the paper which was handed to him.

So it was the night of a big performance (the guide didn’t mention the name of the play) and A handed B an envelope. B opened it but there was nothing inside except a blank piece of paper.

Without blinking an eye, he tossed it back to A, saying, “I can’t be bothered to read this. You read it.”

We never learnt what A did.

Story #2:

Hamlet, who wasn't needed on stage for a couple of scenes, went out for a quick cigarette. He managed locking himself out. No one knew where Hamlet was because he hadn’t bothered telling anyone, evidently not anticipating that he wouldn’t be able to get back in. In fact, no one realised Hamlet was missing.

So the show carried on smoothly until Hamlet was needed. 

But there was no Hamlet. 

Now ordinarily, the show goes on no matter what (Antony, in one of the performances of Antony and Cleopatra broke his nose, but didn’t go to the hospital till after) but you can’t really stage Hamlet without Hamlet. So they had to stop the performance and search high and low for Hamlet who was finally discovered sitting on a stoop, muttering to himself and chain smoking frantically. At least he was in character.

That night we went to see King Lear. I don’t really like the play much because it depresses the hell out of me, but it was a really good performance. The Fool was especially good and I was thrilled to learn (not to mention surprised) that she’d be playing Cleopatra the next night.

But before I go there, I have to talk about how I managed to ruin the phone my aunt had lovingly bought for me to use in England.

This is the phone conversation I had with her when I called her from Izzie’s phone to tell her about my phone.

Me: *trying to sound cheerful* Hello!

Sue: *actually cheerful* Hi. Having a good time?

Me: *nervously but in a tone that would hopefully strike the chords of her heart* Something really bad happened.

Sue: What? Are you alright?

Me: I am, but the phone isn’t.

Sue: Oh no. Did you lose it?

Me: Nope. Dropped it in a fountain.

Sue: *silence*

Me: It wasn’t my fault. A swan attacked me.

Sue: *faintly* A...a swan?

Me: They’re evil. I’ve been telling you this for years.

I don’t think she believed me and I can’t really blame her but later events were to make my entire family sit up and take notice that I really do not exaggerate when I say birds are evil and they seem to have specially marked me out for persecution.

Anyway, the Stratford holiday was (thankfully) drawing to a close. The plan was that Sue would drive up on Saturday afternoon and the three of us would watch Antony and Cleopatra before heading to Oxford. We were going to spend the night at St Catherine’s, her old college, before having breakfast with my cousin Pria (a shadow of her former self because she was in the midst of finals and she’s one of those people who gets stressed out before exams even though she always does brilliantly) and then drive back to London.

Now I enjoyed my time in Stratford – well, some of the time – but six days is too long. Too long. Iz and I spent our last afternoon in the local library, reading. 

My aunt came and we had dinner and we watched the play (definitely my favourite, mainly because of Kathryn Hunter who played Cleopatra) and then we headed to Oxford. All according to plan.

The next morning, before we left to meet Pria for breakfast, my aunt showed me around her college a little.

We were standing in front of a little moat (there was a pretty stone wall separating us from it) when an Incident occurred. And yes, it fully deserves a capital I. 

Like I said, we were standing in front of the moat and on the other side, waddling along the bank was a duck. The duck looked at us, waddled (unable to think of another word to describe its movement) towards the water, swam across the moat, hopped onto the wall and flew at me.

And I regret to say that for once, I am not exaggerating.

Anyway, I was traumatised (and I probably always will be) but everyone finally believed that perhaps it hadn’t actually been my fault that my phone had been annihilated. For once, as my mother unkindly pointed out. I think that was rather unfair. The time it fell into the sea wasn’t my fault either.

Had breakfast with Pria. I managed a Full English once again, but Iz gave up and ordered the muesli and yoghurt. She doesn’t have any stamina.

And that was the end of my trip to Stratford upon Avon. It was an unforgettable experience.

Unfortunately, the Lake District was going to be unforgettable too.