From the minute I walked down Henley Street and saw Shakespeare t-shirts in the window I knew that the entire trip would be a living Venn Diagram between “I already have that” and “I must have that.” I was not mistaken. Every trip to every gift shop was basically, “Yes, yes, one each please of all the things!” But I knew I had to be selective. How many miniature copies of the sonnets do I really need? 🙂
I could pepper my timeline posts with “…and then I bought this!” But that would just make those posts longer. So instead I decided to just do a gallery right here of all the stuff I ended up coming back with. Enjoy!
The first store we went into was actually your classic “tourist stuff” gift shop, part general England stuff, part Harry Potter, part Shakespeare. T-shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs. It’s here that I spotted my first “not by Shakespeare” t-shirt (I think it was “Earth has music for those who listen?”) and called it out to my kids, not necessarily loud enough to shame the clerk but hopefully enough to let anyone who was thinking about it know the mistake they were about to make. Here we picked up a hooded sweatshirt, at my wife’s suggestion, because honestly I do need a new one. A practical purchase.
This store does have a number of “dust collector” type things that would be perfect for my desk at work. Little busts of Shakespeare sort of thing. I keep coming back to one (literally, I return to the store twice to look at it) but decide I just don’t like this one, his features are too pointy. I decide to keep looking.
I have wanted to add a Shakespeare rubber duck to my collection for years. So when we spotted these at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust I knew I wanted one. The problem is that this one is small (phone for scale). It’s the kind of thing you could balance on your thumb. I debate whether to get it. It’s still early in our trip (and that’s how I tend to buy things, telling myself to hold off until the last moment). But my son decides that this is something I want, and wants to use some of his trip money to buy it for me. They actually want 4.50 for it, which seems a little outrageous, but we learn later that’s because it’s actually got lip balm in it 🙂 My daughter gets one for herself as well because she prefers the tiny ones.
And wouldn’t you know it, the next day we find the “real” size ones (imagine the kind of thing you can hold in the palm of your hand). What’s more annoying is that they only want about 5 for this, where the smaller one was 4.50 (that’s when we realized for the first time that the smaller one served a dual purpose). My son’s all bummed out now because clearly this is the one I really would have wanted, and he does not have enough trip money to buy both. So we compromise and decide that *I* bought *him* the smaller one with my own money, and thus we can also get the big one, which can be from him. In fact, the little one is now sitting on his desk next to his phone. The big one is on my desk at work. Problem solved.
More than one person said to go to the RSC Gift Shop, they have stuff that nobody else has. I found that hard to believe, but I’m a believer now. I don’t need yet another copy of the sonnets, or a shot glass or coffee mug, but I could wear Shakespeare socks every day. I have a pair that my kids got me for Christmas and now I have two!
Last but not least! I’m glad I didn’t buy pointy featured Shakespeare on that first day, because at the RSC shop I found this little guy who I like much better. He’s now sitting happily among his friends on my desk.
That’s it! We now resume your regularly scheduled trip through Shakespeare Geek’s Stratford-upon-Avon.
Couple of funny stories to start this one as we wrapped up Monday. Heading back to the airbnb we walk past the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) again, and this time there’s no crowd out front. I’m offended. The same man from earlier, the same one who didn’t really care who I was, was still out there. So I asked, shocked, “Where is everyone??” He shrugged. I wonder at what point he started thinking I’m weird. I try to engage him in conversation again. I see the “Reception” door next to the normal entrance, and again name drop that tomorrow morning I guess I should go in that door. My family is trying to get me to stop bothering the man, and only later did I realize I sounded like someone out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I was sent for! I said in my earlier post that this day was just like any other day for them, but I like to think I was at least a bit more memorable than average. Did you guys see that weird American? Seems to think we should know him. Apparently he’s been bothering Professor Wells.
I’ve also failed to mention thus far that I have no particular shame – I went ahead and pinged Stanley Wells to tell him I was coming. What did I have to lose? Told him that if he was in town it would be great to say hello in person (since we follow each other on Twitter and have had conversation). Unfortunately (for him or for me I’m not sure), he was in Italy on holiday. But later in the trip where I asked on Twitter where my wife could get a good shepherd’s pie, Stanley chimed in with suggestions. 🙂
Wrapping up Monday we got back to our place and tried to figure out how much energy we had left for dinner. My son had spotted a Subway sandwich shop so we thought ok, cool and easy, grab some sandwiches from a recognizable American joint and just relax for the evening. We walk back to Henley Street at about, oh, 5:55pm and … everything’s closed. All up and down the street, the coffee shops, the gift shops, the sandwich shops … closed.
I get back on Twitter and write, “Hey people, in the weeks leading up to this trip when I kept asking if there was anything I should know, don’t you think maybe the fact that everything closes at 6pm was something I should have known!?” And one of my followers wrote back, “I TOLD YOU!” Sure enough she was right. That was back in January, and I’d completely forgotten. She was right, I was wrong.
Tickets in hand we headed right to the center. The plan was to meet Chris Smith, but not until 11:30, so we would go see the actual birthplace and gardens right at 9. I think I levitated to the door and handed over my tickets.
First thing we saw was a Folio, which had someone stationed with it to answer people’s questions. I point it out to my son and start answering his questions, and the guide chimes in with her own answers and practiced responses, and I become “that guy” as expected as my son can’t decide whether he’s supposed to listen to her or me 🙂 She’s plainly talking to him, of course. I’m trying to engage her in conversation about the topic like “Yup, you work here, I’m just a random guest who walked in, but we’re the same.” She probably couldn’t wait to get rid of me.
I’m realizing only just now, as I write this, that I took almost no pictures this first day! I think I was in shock. There was so much “I have no idea what to look at, there’s so much stuff!” that it never even really occurred to me to single anything out as picture worthy, I think I would have felt like if I can’t take everything I don’t know where to start.
Maybe I was just in a daze, but I don’t really remember everything about that first day. Is that weird? I don’t really feel a connection with baby Shakespeare. The idea of Shakespeare as child? Shakespeare with brothers and sisters? Doesn’t resonate with me. It’s interesting in a sort of “complete the puzzle” way, but I don’t have much expertise in this stage of Shakespeare’s life. I couldn’t recite his siblings. Or what happened to the house over the years. I feel.
We did take several pictures. They’ve just got something of a random quality to them. They’re not of anything special because of its significance. They’re just of … well, stuff. But, if you’ve never been, please enjoy!
There’s really two parts, there’s the exhibits (where we see a Folio, and various artistic representations of Shakespeare), and then there’s the actual birthplace. Here, people are dressed up in costume and telling us all about Shakespeare’s life and times. I’m afraid to talk to anyone because I don’t want to monopolize. I don’t really have questions, I just want to hang out with these folks. If they said “We’ve got a costume in back, throw it on and come join us” I would have bid my family a fond adieu and told them to pick me up at closing time.
As we near the exit I think, you know, I do want to talk to one of these
people, I’ll feel like I missed my chance if I don’t. So the last woman we see, I ask about “the chair”. She has no idea what I’m talking about.
Does no one know about the chair? In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the birthplace, and carved a chip from Shakespeare’s chair as a souvenir. I always thought that this was a tradition that people did (like touching the Juliet statue inappropriately in Verona) and wondered if I would have my chance. When friends have gone to Stratford I’ve told them, “Get a chip off the chair.” Guess I’ve misunderstood that story? If these folks don’t know what I’m talking about, chances are I’m wrong. The woman I’m speaking with does tell me that “Shakespeare’s chair” is at Anne Hathaway’s cottage, though, so we shall see on another day!
We go sit outside, where there’s to be Shakespeare performance. I wonder what they’ll do, and if they’ll take suggestions from the audience, and think that something from As You Like It would be nice on a day like this. While we wait, I google for the Jefferson chair story, and decide to go back in to show it to my new friend. While I’m waiting, I hear “All the world’s a stage….” begin from outside and think, “Look at that, I was right.” I never get a chance to show the link to my friend because she’s talking to a regular tourist about regular things, and I decide not to interrupt (or wait forever). I go back outside.
The Good Stuff
Before you know it, it’s time to meet Chris. I have no idea what we’ll do or what we’ll see, I’m just happy to be able to go in the special door and say, “We’re expected.” We get cool visitor passes. My family of five hangs out waiting in the lobby as Chris (who I’ve not yet met) enters and tells me, “You don’t look like your profile picture.” 🙂 True enough, but how many other people you got bringing their children into the collection?
We go inside and meet Chris’ colleague Madeleine Cox, and finally I get to have the “We’re here and we do this because we love this stuff and we think life’s a better place because it’s got Shakespeare in it” conversation I’ve wanted to have. Hurray! Madeleine tells us that she was trying to decide what would be sufficiently cool to show us. Then she comes over with something and tells us, “We just got this from Sotheby’s last week. It’s so new it’s literally not even catalogued yet.”
That is a passport issued by James I (complete with seal!) to young Thomas Puckering, who was known to John Hall (Shakespeare’s son-in-law), thus making the Shakespeare connection. Looking for additional links to learn more about the document I found this interesting one on a site called Passport Collector, apparently the personal site for expert Tom Topol, where he was called in to the SBT for, “Assistance of identifying a 1610 issued document as safe-conduct for Sir Thomas Puckering. One of the earliest British passports in existence.” Nice! I think that Chris and possibly Madeleine might eventually read this, so if either wants to fill in some of the detail please feel free! Yes, I know you gave me the notes, I can’t find them. 🙁
Ok I’m going to wrap it up here, even though we did grab a bus to go see more of the Shakespeare Houses. Despite this being quite possibly the longest post I’ve ever made, it only takes us up to about lunch time on my first full day in the center of the universe. I haven’t even gotten started.
A special public thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for the hospitality, especially Alisan Cole (who got me started, including hooking me up with the taxi driver to get us back to London), Chris Smith (who now knows what I look like behind my profile picture) and Madeleine Cox who satisfied my need to “geek out” in Shakespeare land!
I thought for a long time about what we’d do the minute we found ourselves in Stratford-upon-Avon. I had no idea what I was walking into. Would it be everything, or nothing, that I imagined? Would I fall to the earth and kiss the ground? Well, let’s not get too silly. But the point is we were here and we needed a plan.
We scheduled nothing for Monday other than, “Walk around and learn where everything is.” I had my tickets to the Shakespeare Houses, and I had my invitation to come peruse the Collection, but that was all for tomorrow. Today was just for whatever today was going to be. Getting our bearings about us.
Out the door we went and started walking around. No idea where to go. We knew that we were right up against the Birthplace, but my sense of direction is my Achilles’ heel, and the minute I get to an intersection with more than two options I’m lost. So it wasn’t long before we were wandering aimlessly, just taking in the scenery. And then this happened.
Two things of note about this picture. One, the taxi is an Othello taxi. I shrieked with joy and had to get a picture. “It’s an Othello taxi!” I grabbed my nearest child and shook whichever one it was. “Stuff is named after Shakespeare! Oh my god!” (Little did I know!)
Second – that’s hail, people. That’s not rain. That is full on, “Hey, this hurts, maybe we shouldn’t be out in this” hail. We took cover in some cool archway looking thing. Luckily it didn’t last long.
We walked around a bit more. Still haven’t seen any of “the good stuff”. My wife sees a woman consulting a map. “Excuse me,” she says, tapping the woman on the shoulder. “Where did you get that map?”
“It was given to me!” the woman said, rather defensively, before walking briskly away. I think she thought we were going to steal it.
Starving, we made our way into the nearest food looking place we could find. No idea how any of this works, how to sit (do we wait or just seat ourselves?), how to order (will it be table service or order at the bar?) and just a million questions. There’s half a dozen stupid American tourist stories I could tell at this point but I’ll get to the one where I offended the waitress. I mean, we’ve already been in the country a few hours, it seems like it’s about time.
My wife asks, “Can you tell us where we go to see stuff? You know, the tourist type things?” I think this is a silly question and I am embarrassed that she asked it. We’re in Shakespeare country, everybody is here for Shakespeare, the universe revolves around Shakespeare at this point.
“Well,” she tells us, “If you go out here and over the hill you can go down to the river, that’s a nice walk. Or if you go to the intersection and turn by the statue that’s the street where they have the Shakespeare things. If you’re into that stuff.”
“Who in the world would be in Stratford-upon-Avon and not be into Shakespeare?” I ask, incredulously.
“Me?” says the waitress.
I suppose it’s at this point where I can answer the question, “Was it what you expected?” No. What I had in my head was something more like a rock concert, where everywhere I went I’d see people like me, adorned in Shakespeare merchandise, staring wide-eyed at everything around them, just amazed to be there. What I got was a perfectly normal working town that just happens to be famous for its connection to Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, they do have a very special connection to Shakespeare, and for certain events (like his birthday) they do very special things. But do they all have the level of excitement that I had? Every day? I don’t see how they could. For many it’s a job. For others it’s just kind of there.
I thought of a great comparison just this morning. I grew up next to Quincy, Massachusetts. Two presidents were born there. I would drive by their houses regularly. Depending on where you were in town relative to the historic areas you could go into gift shops and get merchandise. Did I go? Nah. Was I excited? Nah. Did I care all that much? Nope. It was just sort of there. Cool that it was there, but that was it. I didn’t introduce myself by saying, “I live near where two presidents lived.” That’s kind of how Stratford ended up being. For me it was a life changing event. For them, it was Monday.
Anyway, back to the tour! Found the statue!
And suddenly I’m looking at Shakespeare’s birthplace. It’s surprisingly plain, and without the coat of arms it looks a little bit like a haunted house attraction you might see at an amusement park.
“Is that it?” the kids start asking me. “Is that his house? What is that?”
Honestly I don’t even know. I think so? It must be. But I had no idea what to expect, and now that I’m staring at something, I don’t know what I’m looking at. It’s very non-descript. No one is going in. People are taking pictures in front, and tour guides are explaining, but there’s no obvious “in”. (Turns out we’re looking at the back of it, but that’s for another story).
I see the entrance to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and tell the kids, “That’s where we’re going tomorrow.” There’s a crowd there, that makes me happy. Someone that works there is hanging out in front so I take the opportunity to say hello. I’ve got this crazy idea that at one point someone is going to say “Oh damn, are you Shakespeare Geek? We’ve been expecting you!” But that does not happen. He’s nice. I tell him we’ll be coming back tomorrow. He says that’s nice. I say that we have plans to meet with Chris. This means nothing to him.
Having found where we’ll go tomorrow, we’re now free to explore. My wife wants to go see the river, so we head in that direction. I have downloaded an offline map of Stratford so we have a general idea of where everything is, and I realize that the church is down by the river. It’s at this point that the magnet takes over.
I once described the idea of going to on this trip by saying that it’s felt like a magnet pulling me in this direction for as long as I can remember, and suddenly I’m letting it take me. Reality gets in the way, there are schedules and airplanes and lodging and taxis, but at some point the only thing that stands between you and that force you’ve been feeling is your feet.
So we start walking. It’s a bit of a walk, and part of my logic in heading right for the church is that it’s the farthest away thing we’ll see, so getting it out of the way first means we don’t have to find the time later. That’s the practical reason. The more instinctual reason is that this is just what you do. You come to the castle, you pay your respects to the king. You go to someone’s house you meet the host. In the days that have followed and people have said what was your favorite part of the trip? I tell them the grave. Because that’s it, man. That’s the center. He’s there. Everything else that’s built up around him all comes from there. And that’s where I have to go.
It’s quite a beautiful building. Surrounded by graves, and I want to go exploring, but we are on a mission.
As I wrote on Twitter at the time, Hello my friend. I’m sorry it took me so long. I wish I had a picture of myself here, but none of us thought to get it. I did get one with my kids. I call it, “The center of my universe at the center of my universe.”
BONUS! Over the next few days I’m going to be surrounded by Shakespeare stuff. It’ll be easy to lose track of where everything is. Where’s his birth certificate? Right here.
I love that this is here. It bookends his life so nicely. This is how Shakespeare was born, this is how Shakespeare died.
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
Where do I begin? How do you build up something in your mind for your entire adult life, until it becomes as close as you’ll ever get to a religious pilgrimage, and then one day, there you are? How do you describe that? I’m torn between my desire to brain dump literally everything I saw and felt and did, and my knowledge that nothing I write will capture it. Who do I think I am, Shakespeare? Even trying to craft this post a flood of Shakespeare memories came pouring back into my brain as I likened my trip to how the London Olympics both opened and closed with Caliban’s “I cried to dream again” speech. But as you can see, I chose Bottom’s Dream. Because the experience was one of wonder, and when it came time to leave I was ok. I wasn’t sad. But I was changed.
I don’t know how many posts I’m going to get out of the trip. There’s going to be at least half a dozen. I don’t want to miss anything, but I don’t want to drag it out forever either. As I post, I hope people with questions will jump into the comments or social media and ask, because though I may find it difficult to sit down and write about, I’m certainly more than ok talking about it. So if I don’t get to something that you really wanted to know, ask away and I’ll answer.
How This Is Going To Work
To recap the details of the trip and put some context on the stories – we took a red-eye into London, leaving Sunday night and arriving Monday morning. We then got a car service to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we stayed in an Airbnb Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Thursday it was back into London for a week (including a show at The Globe) before heading back home. Along the way there’s several dozen pictures I’ve got to share, including a number of pictures of things I’ll bet you’ve never seen before!
With that in mind I’ll leave you with the view outside the front door of our Airbnb in Stratford:
If you can’t read it, that’s the back of The Shakespeare Centre, home to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the spiritual center of my universe for the last several decades. All we have to do is cross the street.
By the time you read this, I’ll be on a plane to London. From there we’re going straight to Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace and a town I’m still not sure I’m spelling properly, and my life will be forever changed.
For years people have asked me whether I’ve been to Stratford, and the answer has always been no. Once I knew that I would be going I started wondering how to change my answer, because it’s hardly sufficient to say, “Not yet, but I’m going in August.”
The more time passed, the more I inflated the idea in my head as something I’d likely never do. At times I likened it to a religious pilgrimage, then I decided that was a bit sacrilegious to folks so I stopped saying that. But it doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t expect to ever go there. My wife had been to London shortly before we got married, and it didn’t seem fair, with the big world we live in, to say “Hey, I want you to go back to someplace you’ve already been, just for me.” I don’t really work like that. Worse, all I could think for myself was “I will want to spend every waking moment doing Shakespeare things, and that would be boring for them, so then I would deliberately cut back on the Shakespeare, but then I wouldn’t get out of the trip what I’d built up in my head….” and on and on and on.
Until one day the family got together and said, “We want to take you to see Shakespeare’s birthplace.”
That was probably a year ago. And here we are! Hours to go before I’m on a plane. Last night the kids asked me what I was looking forward to the most. I said, “Checking it off the list.” They said, “Wow, that’s a disappointing answer.”
I said, “Let me put it another way. Up to this point in my life I can say – have to say – No, I’ve never been to Stratford. After this trip? I will be able to say I have. This is a defining moment in my life.”