A few weeks ago, while house-sitting out in a small town in the Buckinghamshire region of England, I decided to cross a long-awaited item off of my bucket list and visit Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare.
Often when I visit a place I have been wanting to see for a long time, I am amazed that my expectations are exceeded, even though I've built it up a lot in my head.
Examples of this are: London, Provence, Notre Dame, Florence, Edinburgh.... All of these places blew me away and were even better and more beautiful than I had imagined.
This was unfortunately not the case with Stratford-upon-Avon.
Packed to the brim with tourists even in late October, Stratford-upon-Avon to me, seems like it's trying a bit too hard to get tourists' money yet not hard enough to offer anything special or unique. There are too many big signs pointing out 'important' sites, that look more like modern buildings which, presumably, sit where the older historic versions of the buildings once did. It seems every inch of the town has been touristified (yeah I made this term up) and the pubs, bars, and restaurants honestly hold nothing very impressive except for the prices (which were higher than other areas in England I've visited)
Walking past the touristy town center and down towards the Avon river, one encounters a barrage of advertised boat and river tours and river facing restaurants with large porches and banners advertising their selling points. The restaurants are Italian, or French or whatever other cuisine is thought to draw the biggest crowd (certainly not the food that was available in Shakespeare's time)
A bit further on past the main strip of touristy restaurants, lies the Royal Shakespeare Company. And beyond that lie the few pubs, that to me, look like the only authentic places around. For both the reason that they are a bit further from the worst of the crowds, yet still near the river and in close proximity to the theater. They are also nestled into simultaneously crumbling yet well restored old historic buildings that have obviously been there since Shakespeare's time.
These pubs, of course, are also very touristy due to being in such close proximity to the RSC, and having a reputation for being where all the RSC actors hang out after a production. However, being full of tourists in a tourist town isn't a crime and I chose to have lunch at The Dirty Duck, one of the pubs with a reputation for really good food (not sure why or how it has this reputation as the food was average at best as pubs go).
The ambiance: the radio blared American elevator music (not quite the ambiance I was hoping for in Shakespeare town) while the disenchanted staff who's faces showed their distaste for tourists, questions about Shakespeare, Shakespeare and their jobs poured overpriced low quality wines and draft beers. I didn't spend any longer than necessary at this disappointing place.
Across the street from the Dirty Duck, lay the Royal Shakespeare Company Theater. I'd always wanted to visit it, and I was surprised to find that the theater wasn't actually showing any Shakespeare productions. It's simply a good theater who puts on a wide assortment of productions. Granted, with a prestigious reputation and some great actors showing up on it's stage, but I had always thought, for some reason, that coming to Stratford-upon-Avon and the RSC would be a bit more of a 'historic' experience. I thought I'd encounter all day long productions of Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Taming of the Shrew or something along these lines...
Lack of Atmosphere
I also envisioned minstrels with old fashioned apparel and instruments strumming on the street corners, flagons of ale being served by classically dressed wenches at the theatrically inclined pubs, and an all together more old timey feel that, in actuality, there was in S upon A.
Musicians were in fact on every street corner, but, to my surprise they were singing mostly modern music and often times even American rock and roll or popular songs from the radio. Nothing historic or 'Shakespeary' (which of course I felt would really add to the atmosphere. If you're going to be touristy why not go all the way?)
Anne Hathaway's House was lovely to be sure. As was the church where Shakespeare was buried (photo on left). But, all in all I wasn't greatly impressed with my trip to S upon A.
It's one experience that didn't meet with my expectations, and ended up costing me quite a bundle of money and a long, disjointed train ride, as well.
Did I expect too much? Did I romanticize it? Probably. But it's definitely the type of town I try to avoid when possible: a town that offers poor quality overpriced everything to throngs of constant tourists and has not much personality of it's own.
If given the choice of where to spend my time in England I'd recommend both Oxford and Windsor over Stratford-upon-Avon
That's it in a nutshell. I'm sure many people really enjoy the town, but I can only write from my own perspective.
Signing off here in Spain where more of my dreams are soon to be met with reality when I visit Penedes, Tarragona, and Madrid!