Oxford to Stratford

On The Road Travel Essays

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Oxford to Stratford

Leaving London  (You'll probably be going along Marylebone Road, so point out the G.P.O. tower, Madame Tussaud's, the London Planetarium, and Baker Street (Sherlock Holmes' fictional residence). The "plum" for this road, however, is the southern edge of Regents Park, with the lovely Nash-designed Regency-style houses.)

Regents Park: You wouldn't believe it, but these colonnaded houses are owned by the University of London, and students live in them at sub-market rates. Tough life!

Regents Park contains both the London Zoo and the famous open-air theater where Shakespeare plays are performed during the summer. On one occasion, the play's director thought he would mix the two in the play, "A Winter's Tale." This play concludes one scene with the stage-direction: "Exit pursued by a bear." They got a small, furry bear from the Zoo, and at the end of the scene it was released on the stage. But the atmosphere panicked it and the audience was treated to the spectacle of the actor rushing up a tree to escape his pursuer. Such is the penalty of too much realism in the theater.

(COURIER: You might use the appropriate portions of "British Roads, Then and Now" at this point.)

White City Stadium: This stadium was built during the 1920's, and serves today as a sports palace and concert hall.

The M. 40 Motorway  (COURIER: Use other portions of "British Roads," and point out vestiges of the Green Belt — more myth than fact.)

The London-Oxford Road  Ever since Roman times, there had been poor roads from London to Oxford. In 1575, the first mail service between London and Oxford was begun. A "carrier" left Oxford on Wednesday, went to London, and was back in Oxford by Saturday. Average speed: 2 mph. After better roads were established in the 18th century, the average speed jumped to 6 mph. In the 1830's, it had reached 10 mph. The present bus average is a dizzying 22 mph!

Better roads were often unpopular with local villages, in spite of the revenues that travelers brought to them. Reason: local people were often obligated to provide lodging and entertainment for traveling courtiers and civil servants. These "guests" helped themselves to everything they could find: food, drink, the innkeeper's daughter, etc. Perhaps something of this resentment accounts for the indifference, even hostility, of local townspeople to highway construction today. Little has changed!

Random Notes  As on all elevated sections of the Motorway, there are TV cameras on top of the high-rise blocks, used to monitor traffic conditions. (Less expensive and more reliable than using helicopters, as in the U.S.!) "Does anyone want to be on TV?"

About 8 miles out, just before the sprawl ends, there is an RAF Northolt on the right (after the Target pub roundabout). Northolt was built in 1938 as part of a defense ring around London. There is a memorial to the Polish squadron as one approaches, and a Spitfire behind the main gates (easily visible.)

The road lights (orange for better penetration) are lower so as not to be confused with landing lights at Heathrow. Underground heating elements melt ice in the winter.

Chiltern Hills  Rolling chalk hills. Chalk land makes for good drainage, and this is important for sheep raising. Sheep have been an important part of the English economy for centuries, and lost dominance only with "King Cotton" from the colonies. The woolsacl, upon which the Speaker in the House of Commons sits, represents the wealth generated by wool in Britain.

The Motorway cuts through the chalk dramatically at one point, showing only a few inches of topsoil. This will be of interest to any of you from the Western states, since it illustrates the "dustbowl" effect of erosion. Without grass or crop roots to bind the soil, it can easily be blown away during dry periods. Local people have always put importance on permanent cropping (keeping crops in the soil at all times), to keep the precious topsoil from blowing away. The patchwork of crops here demonstrate the rotation method of planting: different crops "cycled" through the same patch, each one using up a different nutrient from the soil.

"2001" Tower  Space-age tower about 15 miles before Oxford at the highest point. (Looks like a miniature GPO Tower.) This is a microwave (1-3 cm.) relay station. You've noticed the lack of telephone poles along the highway. Most telecommunications nowadays is transmitted by microwave. E.g. a telephone call to the U.S. would be bounced off one of these to an earth-station, satellite, earth station in the U.S., and then fed into the local telephone system. The natural gas flow on the British national grid is also regulated by microwave.

Introduction to Oxford  (COURIER: Start this well ahead of time, even as you're leaving London.)

How did Oxford University come to be located here? In the Middle Ages, a number of monastery schools grew up around the town. Their fame spread throughout Europe, attracting sons of noblemen who could afford to travel to Oxford. Finally the king granted the schools a royal "charter", which incorporated them into one university. Over the years, different "colleges" evolved, and the expansion continues today.

What is the "college system" at Oxford? Oxford University is really a collection of more-or-less independent colleges. The university as a whole is mainly a degree-granting institution. But the actual study goes on at each separate college. A student applies for admission to one or another college, not to the university as a whole. Each college consists of at least three things: (1) a chapel, (2) a "refectory" (dining hall), and (3) a "quad" (quadrangle, orcentral courtyard). All other buildings are centered around these three. Some "quads" are quite small: e.g. St. Edmund's Hall. Others are large, such as Christchurch College (the largest of all).

Since each college enjoys great independence, well-to-do alumni often donate large sums to them, and several colleges have accumulated large endowments this way, e.g. Magdalen College, which has its own deer park and botanical gardens. Many colleges have their own separate traditions and ceremonies.

The faculties at the colleges are different from one to the other. Some colleges have specialized in the sciences, others in math, others in philosophy, literature, and the other humanities.

Teaching is done differently from in the average American university. Students usually do not attend large "lectures". Instead, each student will team up with a professor on a "tutorial" basis, meeting with the professor once or twice a week, reading a research paper, and have the professor evaluate it for him on the spot. Instruction, thus, is more on a one-to-one basis than in most American colleges; this often makes for lasting friendships between teacher and pupil; or, a professor will gather around him a few "disciples" who will tend to echo the professor's viewpoint when they themselves become teachers.

So the students living in one college all eat in the college refectory; they attend "tutorials" there, share many of the same social activities, and develop an esprit de corps connected with that college's traditions.

The pattern of town/gown rivalry at Oxford. As the university gained greater wealth and prestige in the Middle Ages, the kings granted it special privileges which gave it a dominating position in local politics. This was often resented by the townspeople, and frequent skirmishes broke out between the two groups. In 1354, a real battle occurred between students and townspeople. Bows and arrow were used, and the fighting went on for two days. The town won, and some students were killed. The mayor and 60 citizens had to make reparations to the university every year thereafter (by royal decree), a tradition that lasted all the way up until 1825.

Oxford academic traditions which have influenced American universities. We've already mentioned one: the tradition of town/gown rivalry. But there are others: Commencement gowns and hoods, for instance. Our familiar "mortarboard and tassel" cap is an exact replica of the one used at Oxford. Abbreviations of academic titles and degrees are another example: e.g. "LL.D.", "Dr.", "M.A.". In the Middle Ages, students had to wear academic gowns at all times. At one point, even special boots were required.

Other Oxford customs. For centuries, preaching was an activity that every student was expected to develop to a fine art, even students who did not intend to become pastors. To receive a degree, the student would have to preach an acceptable sermon. Since few fellow students were interested in hearing it — and sometimes even the professors didn't bother to come — these sermons were often preached in an empty (or nearly empty) room. They came to be known as "wall sermons", because the student ended up preaching to a blank wall. But some great preachers came out of this tradition, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps the great Oxford tradition of debating stems from the tradition of the sermon.

Another custom is more down-to-earth: the scout. The scout is usually a middle-age man who serves as a kind of valet to the students in each college. He wakes them up in the morning — barges right in, on schedule — lights the fire, straightens up the room, prepares tea, and in general serves as an all-purpose servant.

Still another custom: the college lawns and flower gardens. The lawns are each college's pride and joy; no attention is spared them. They are clipped close, so close that you can see neat parallel lines formed by the mower — somewhat like a green carpet. Each college has its flower garden: some are elaborate, some smaller; but all are lovingly cared for, even by the most celebrated of professors, who will not disdain to spend hours cultivating the brightest flowers.

Another: the "High Table" at each college refectory. The High Table is often on a raised platform, facing out over the regular tables. At the High Table sits the President of the College, the faculty members attached to that college, and visiting dignitaries. Elaborate rituals are still observed, especially on ceremonial occasions like the anniversary of the founding of the college. Something of English class-consciousness still survives in this most genteel of traditions.

Still another custom: punting. "Punts" are flat-bottom boats, propelled by long poles. Students often go out punting on the rivers of Oxford — the Cherwell and the Thames — to while away a few hours or take their minds off studies. Students who can afford them own their own punts.

Oxford University as a bastion of privilege. It's almost impossible in our day of mass-education to realize how privileged were the students at Oxford in earlier days. Most were from solid families, with large amounts of money to spend. A perfect example of this occurred in the 18th century. Some students at Magdalen College, who lived in a building outside the Quadrangle, were envious at being cut off from the Quad. They wanted to enlarge the Quad to include their own building. The college officials refused, of course. So the students waited until the Christmas recess. Then they paid workers to tear down one whole side of the Quad, and started to have connecting buildings put up which would link their own building with a now greatly enlarged Quad. When the officials returned from the recess, they were aghast. The students were forced to pay for restoring the building they had torn down, and the Quad remained at its original size (which you can see today). Who today can imagine college students paying for college building renovations out of their own pocket!

Oxford Sightseeing  (COURIER: Follow these instructions unless you have been given different instructions by the London campus staff.)

(COURIER: This walking tour is more complicated than it used to be. The coach is no longer allowed to park near Magdalen College, and must enter Oxford by the ring road. This means that you have to park at the Gloucester Green coach park. You will have 1-1/2 to 2 hours in Oxford, depending on luncheon arrangements. For beginners: Your walking tour is at your discretion. It must include at least one college — quad, etc. — so that the group understands your earlier discussion of the "college system." A suggested easy tour is described in what follows. Free time seems to be essential, as groups tend to be just as interested in buying T-shirts and coffee as in doing the tour, so pace yourself to make it half-tour, half free time.)

The Tour: We start at the bus park along George Street. Go across Cornmarket junction to Broad Street. Halt outside Balliol College and Trinity College. Repeat what you have already said about quads, the college systems, etc., and talk about famous pupils (e.g. Darwin), if you feel confident. Groups now are generally unwelcome inside the colleges, but let them have five minutes to walk around in small groups of 2 and 3.

Proceed along Broad Street. Stop near the Sheldonian Theatre, point out Blackwell's (official Oxford University Press bookshop, largest bookstore in England). Bodlein Library, and Sheldonian Theatre.

Walk through Clarendon building. Pause to see the "bridge of sighs" between the two halves of Hertford College (opposite Sheldonian Theatre side view).

Continue through until you reach the Radcliff Camera. Describe it briefly. Arrange then for the group to climb St. Mary's Tower, should it be open. Gives excellent views of the whole college area. (You pay admission; there should be a student rate).

Walk through onto High Street ("The High"), to Carfax Tower, and give group free time. Rendezvous at bus park, or hotel for lunch, as required. Point out entrance to Christchurch, having the largest quad.

At all times, stress the maze-like quality of Oxford, the necessity of asking the way if lost, and that you cannot wait for stragglers.


Balliol College  The college was founded in 1268 by John de Balliol, from an old Norman family. The buildings date from the 15th century, but the front part that we see (including the massive tower) was rebuilt in the 1870's. In the street before the college was set up, the stake was used for the burning of Protestants (including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury) during the reign of Bloody Mary (a plaque in the pavement marks the spot).

Trinity College  Right next to Balliol (lying some way back from the street), was founded in 1555 by Sir Thomas Pope, a well-to-do Oxfordshire landowner. Its Garden Quadrangle was built by Christopher Wren, and is one of Oxford's first classical structures. Some famous members: Lord Baltimore, one of the founders of Maryland (1594). Some violent episodes took place in the college: Landor (1793) was "sent down" for firing a pistol at the door opposite his own, and the explorer Sir Richard Burton (1840) was "sent down" for trying to fight a duel.

Sheldonian Theatre  The central "auditorium" of the university, and considered one of the finest neo-classical buildings at Oxford. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and built (1664-68) under the patronage of Archbishop Sheldon (hence "Sheldonian"). The design imitates the theater of Marcellus in Rome. It holds 1500 people. Here, every June 20th, is held the Commemoration or Encaenia, commemorating benefactors of the University: prize essays and poems are read, and honorary degrees conferred.

Blackwell's Bookstore  The most famous bookshop in England. It's familiar to many generations of U.S. graduate students, who order British and Continental publications direct from the bookstore.

Clarendon Building  It was built in 1713 in pure classical style. The building was funded in part from the profits of Lord Clarendon's "History of the Rebellion". The building housed the Clarendon Press until 1830, and is now used for the University administrative offices. Clarendon Press is still the official publisher of Oxford University Press books.

Bodleian Library  One of the oldest and most distinguished libraries in the world. The main "library" of the University, although most collages have their individual libraries. The library contains 2,500,000 volumes and 50,000 manuscripts, many of them rare. The library was founded in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, who donated his personal library to start the collection. To use the library, one must be a graduate of the University, or else recommended by an Oxford "don". Bodleian Library is one of six in Britain that enjoy a right to a copy of every book published in the U.K.

Radcliffe Camera  Founded in 1509 by William Smyth, the Bishop of Lincoln. The name comes from a brazen knocker shaped like a lion's head, which used to be on the gate, and is now kept in the college Hall. But there's another theory about the name: it comes from "brasenhus," an old English word for "brewery," which once stood on the spot. Famous graduates: John Foxe, author of "Foxe's Book of Martyrs," and Walter Pater, 19th-century aesthete. Brasenose College is famous for sport, especially its rowing and cricket teams.

St. Mary's Church  One of the major University churches, famous for being the center of the "Oxford Movement" in the 1830's: a movement to restore Catholic-style ritual to the Anglican service. Its tower affords an excellent view of the university "quads".

High Street  Called, locally, "The High," this street is the main thoroughfare running among the colleges. It goes from the center of Oxford (Carfax) to Magdalen College, passingOriel College, University College, and Queen's College on the way.

Carfax  This is the name of this central intersection. "Carfax" comes from "quadrifurcus" (four roads). St. Martin's Tower (also called Carfax Tower) is a 14th-century remnant of the old St. Martin's Church, demolished in 1896 to widen the street. You can go up the tower (for a fee), which affords a nice view of the town.

Introduction to Blenheim Palace  This is the ancestral home of Winston Churchill. Situated in the town of Woodstock (the original of the U.S. Woodstock, of 1960's fame). Woodstock used to be a "Royal Borough" with a palace (now destroyed). In this palace was born King Richard II, and here Queen Elizabeth I stayed during a period when she was out of favor with the court, before she became queen. Woodstock is a nice little market town of 2,000 inhabitants, noted for its glove making.

The Grounds: The present grounds of the palace were the deer park of the old palace that stood here, and the park covers 2,700 acres (has a model railway and lake cruises). The gardens are the work of the famous landscape architect, Capability Brown.

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough: Marlborough was a great English general, who led the Allied forces against the French and Austrians in the famous Battle of Blenheim, named for the Austrian village of Blenheim near which the battle took place. It was an English victory, and in grateful recognition, Parliament awarded Marlborough 250,000 pounds with which to build this palace (it actually cost 300,000, which was made up from Marlborough's estate). Marlborough didn't live long enough to see its completion (he died in 1722). The palace was designed in the classical style by the architect Vanbrugh. The building took about 25 years to complete.

Blenheim Palace has been the residence of the Dukes of Marlborough ever since. Winston Churchill (a member of the junior branch of the family) was born here in 1874, and used to follow his hobby of bricklaying in the grounds of the palace. Churchill died in 1965, and lies buried beside his ancestors in the little church of Bladon, a village on the southeast edge of the park.

Paying the Rent: The land on which the palace stands is technically the property of the Crown. When Parliament gave Marlborough the money to build the palace, it also ceded to him the land and the village of Woodstock to go with it; but it was a lease, not a gift, and Marlborough had to pay "rent" for it, and his descendants after him. The rent was a French Royal Flag: a new one to be given to the Crown every year. The "rent" continues to be paid. The flag is hung over the bust of Marlborough in the State Apartments at Windsor Castle, and is changed every year. Nice deal, if you can swing it: a new flag every year in exchange for all this land!

Blenheim Palace: The Bus Tour  This must be done as a double act with the driver, and is entirely optional (depending on how your times is going).

Instructions: You can just drive by the gates. Alternatively, you can drive in the main gate. There is a gateman who will charge L3.20 (or so) for entry. This entitles you to drive in and out. You're required to turn around in the bus park, and leave via the archway to Woodstock village.

It is possible, however, to explain quietly to the gateman that the pound note is for him personally, which will mean that you are free of the usual restrictions. this can also be done by going through the arch first.

Another embellishment is to drive the bus around the side of the palace and do a three-point turn by the road to the lake. This affords magnificent views of the palace. It may be necessary to tip 50p to an attendant if there is one there.

All this requires active cooperation with the driver. Notice the wooden stocks in Woodstock village. Your group will appreciate this little bus tour around Blenheim, if your schedule permits.


Leaving Woodstock: Just outside the town, you'll see the wall to your left which runs around the gardens of Blenheim palace. You may see over the trees the Memorial Column to the original Duke of Marlborough (it's his statue on top). The column is 135 feet high. The trees around the column are planted in groups so as to form a plan of the Battle of Blenheim.

Enstone: This village in fact consists of two communities, "Church Enstone" and "Neat Enstone." We cross over the River Glynne here.

Dry Stone Walling: There's a stretch here that runs for about 2 miles, which consists of this unique sort of walling: lots of very narrow stones set together without concrete or mortar. This is one of the dying rural arts of England (like thatching), but it does create a nice effect, blending the stonework in with the countryside.

Chipping Norton: This town is locally called "Chippy," has a tweed factory, a row of 17th-century almshouses, and an 18th-century guildhall. About the name: many English towns have "chip" or "cheap" in their names. "Chip" comes from an Old English word meaning "market," so whenever you run across such names, you may be sure that the town started out (as most towns in fact did anyway) as a market center. E.g. "Cheapside" and "Eastcheap" in London were market squares in the city. Norton is a slurred form of "North Town." In Shakespeare's day, this town was a wool market — a very important product for England in those times; wool was England's chief export to Continental markets.

Rollright Stones  Beyond Chipping Norton, about 1/4 mile to the west (your left) of the A34. Start the story by the first sign to Rollright. This gives you about 5 minutes. After passing the first sign for Rollright (don't turn off the highway yet), the A34 climbs a long escarpment slope. After the crest, the slope makes the highway turn sharply. This is the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border. Take this turn left, when you see the sign for Rollright. The Rollright Stones are about 1/4 mile along this road. It may cost L1 per coachload if the monument is attended.

The Story of the Rollright Stones  These stones form a circle about 100 feet in diameter, with some 70 stones. The stones are known as the King's Men. On the other side of the road (A436) is a solitary tall stone, surrounded by an iron railing, and known as the King Stone. These stones all date from the early Bronze Age, and are contemporary with the last phase of Stonehenge (2000-1800 B.C.). So if you don't have the chance to visit Stonehenge on your trip to England, this gives you a "miniature version" of the same experience.

Nothing is known for sure of the purpose of these stones, but they were probably used for religious rituals involving the worship of the sun, moon, and stars. The builders used the local oolitic limestone, which over the past 3,500 years has been sculpted by wind and rain into strange shapes.

The Location: The circle of stones is separated from the King Stone by the road. This road is very old, and has probably been here from prehistoric times, when it served as an important east-west route, high above the surrounding marshland. Hence, it was a prime spot for these ancient peoples to place a religious monument. Today, this road marks the border between two counties: Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Thus, the circle of stones is in Oxfordshire, the King Stone in Warwickshire.

King Stone: It is very common in these ancient megaliths for a solitary stone to stand outside the main circle of stones (at Stonehenge, the Heel Stone stands outside). Various theories have been proposed to explain these "outliers": some say it helps the alignment of sight for the purpose of marking the point on the horizon where the sun rises on the longest day. Others say that these outliers form an altar used for special ceremonies taking place outside the circle.

The Legend: The Rollright Stones are first recorded in a 12th-century manuscript, and since then many historians have speculated about them. Almost all accounts mention a popular legend: An ambitious king was marching northwards with his army. At Rollright he met a witch, who challenged him to advance seven strides and:

If then Long Compton thou canst see
King of England shalt thou be.

The king stepped forward confidently, but a slight mound still hid the village of Long Compton from his view. The witch went on:

As Long Compton thou canst not see,
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up, stick, and stand still, stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none.
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,
And I myself an eldern tree.

Thus, the witch turned the king into the King Stone, and his soldiers into the smaller stones in the circle. In addition, the legend claims that five of the king's knights were plotting against him when all this happened. The witch changed these five knights into stones too, and they stand apart from all the others. These "Whispering Knights" stand about 1/4 mile to the southeast of the circle, and are older than any of the others (probably date from late Stone Age, earlier than 2,000 B.C.). Finally, the witch changed herself into an eldern tree ("Rise up, stick...").

Just Try Counting Them: A popular tradition claims that it is impossible to count the stones and come up with the same number twice. There are also stories of misfortune falling on anybody who tries to move the stones, and appearances of fairies and witches at certain times of the year.

Private Property: These stones are privately owned, so please avoid dropping candy wrappers, cigarette butts, etc. when you visit them. Don't force the owner to ban visitors to the stones.

(COURIER: Allow 15 minutes at the monument: enough time for everybody to count the stones. Then continue west on A436, taking your first right, and on into Long Compton.)


Long Compton - a real gem. This village consists of a mass of thatched cottages — one of the most impressive collections in the country. You should prepare the group for the impact of this — tell them to have cameras ready, etc. Well worth pointing out is the church (comes up on the left-hand side), which has a most impressive lynch-gate, above which is an actual thatched cottage.

Shipston-on-Stour - the largest town between Woodstock and Stratford.

This town lies in the area called "Vale of Red Horse" (you might invent some story about how the area got this name).

A very pretty little town, and you will see the first example of a real "wattle-and-daub" construction (i.e., the white-washed walls, with inset wooden beams) that is a hallmark of Tudor dwellings, and the essential style of Stratford houses. The example comes up in front of the bus, and then to the right as you go around a corner — it is, in fact, a pub. "Wattle" refers to the interior lining of the walls of such houses (rushes and twigs), and the "Daub" to the exterior white coating. (COURIER: You may have to interrupt your village-by-village commentary in order to give your introduction to Stratford.)

Also note - Long Compton is the home of the chief "White Witch" of Great Britain.

Alderminster - Milestone just outside village (on Stratford side) carries a little rhyme:

6 miles to Shakespeare's town,
Whose name is known throughout the earth,
To Shipston four, Whose lessor name
Boasts no such Poet's birth.

The milestone is a little thing, about 3 feet high, on the left at a road junction. You might use the inscription to point out the local dominance of Stratford.

Lady Aitken's Garden - on the left of the road you will see a wall. At the end of the wall is a decorated iron gate covered in crests. This is the entrance to Lady Aitken's garden, a particularly beautiful local attraction, and the crests represent the families who have lived in the house here.

Stratford  Stratford is very small, and as soon as you see the sign, you will be about 1 minute away from the River Avon. You cross over the Clopton Bridge (built by Hugh Clopton, a Stratford resident who became Lord Mayor in the 14th century). You will see as you cross the river the famous swans, and the small boats that are to be found here. Also, you will get a nice view of the Royal Shakespeare Theater, and the riverside terrace used by the actors who perform there. Crossing the river, don't forget to point out the coach park (if appropriate), and also the Gower Memorial (the little statue of Shakespeare, with Hamlet, Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Lady MacBeth (representing different aspects of Shakespearian drama) around its base. Turn along Waterside, past the R.S.T. and the little museum in front of it. Past the Theater is a pub on the right called "The Dirty Duck" — much frequented by the stars of the R.S. Company. In fact the pub has two names. On one side the sign reads "The Dirty Duck", and on the other "The Black Swan"!

You then drive past Holy Trinity Church, in which Shakespeare is buried — with the famous 'curse' written on the tombstone, threatening anybody who "moves his bones". (The curse is one reason why they've never dug up Shakespeare — despite the fact that some people think that there may be a lost play manuscript there — or perhaps the corpse may not be there at all.) You then exit the road to Shottery.


Why is it difficult to get accurate information about Shakespeare? In Shakespeare's day, town records were loosely kept. Our main source of information is church records: births, marriages, deaths. Example: John Shakespeare, the poet's father, was a fairly important figure in Stratford. He appears 66 times in the Stratford Council Books, but his name is spelled 16 different ways! One can imagine the accuracy of other information.

What Stratford looked like in Shakespeare's day. Mostly, it was messy. There was no efficient garbage-collection system, hence trash was piled around the town. There were officially permitted "muck hills" at 6 specified sites in Stratford. These were cleared twice ayear. But even other places were littered. Pigs roamed the streets, and sometimes even pigsties were set up in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. The plague broke out almost every year. In the year of Shakespeare's birth, one-seventh of the population was carried off by an unusually severe plague. Inside the houses, there were only clay floors, sometimes strewn with reeds. The floors were rarely swept. Night time illumination in the streets was poor. In Shakespeare's day, an edict was passed requiring a candle-lamp to be hung outside the wealthier houses from 5 to 8 p.m.

The present smallness of Stratford. A rarity in England: a major historic site which has not grown hugely in population. It has taken 50 years for Stratford's population to double — a slow growth by contemporary standards. Thus, we have a unique glimpse of a town not radically changed from the past. During World War II, people settled in Stratford to escape air raids in the larger cities.

Outside of Stratford (especially in the Forest of Arden) are villages with very old names: Piping Pebworth, Dodging Exhall, Hungry Grafton.

Stratford Customs: the "Mop Fair and Ox Roast". This custom goes back beyond Shakespeare to pagan antiquity. "Fairs" like this had to be approved by the king in the Middle Ages. Stratford's right to hold one annually brought people to the town to buy and sell. At the fair, new laws were read (it was the only way they could be communicated to masses of people who could not read). Feasts were held: often whole animals (especially oxen) were roasted. The fair was also an outdoor employment office. Men seeking work would walk around carrying an emblem of their trade — e.g. shepherds wore a piece of wool in their buttonholes; horse grooms would carry straw; blacksmiths would carry horseshoes, etc. Ten days later, a smaller fair would be held, called the "Runaway Mop". At this one, dissatisfied employers and employees would switch, or faulty goods would be returned. Why is the word "mop" used to name the fair? Some say that it comes from maids seeking employment, who would walk around with a mop, the symbol of their occupation. Others say it comes from the need to mop up after the first fair. Even today, it's called simply "The Mop".

There were efforts over the years to abolish the fair, mainly because of the mess it created, and because some people felt disgusted over the pig-roast, the revelry, and the flea-circuses (which, it was felt, would spread disease — carrying fleas to people). Mind-readers and soothsayers were considered charlatans. But the fair survived, and is still held on October 12.

Another custom: Shakespeare Day. If you walk down Bridge Street (the main street of town) today, you'll see little metal caps down the center and sides of the street. These caps cover small holes in the pavement, into which flags of 80 nations are placed every year on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. The celebration lasts a full week, with representatives of the 80 countries. The bells at Holy Trinity Church are rung to mark the day of Shakespeare's birth and death. A procession ends at the church to put a wreath on Shakespeare's tomb. The tradition is 60 years old.

Three continuing disasters in 16th-century Stratford. Three dangers hung over the town like an Angel of Death: plague, fire, and flood. To combat the plague, the people hung boughs of oak and willow in their windows, believing that these would ward off disease. When fire broke out, every citizen was required to assemble with leather buckets. Each citizen of "middle-class" standing was required to own such a bucket. People were urged to put chimneys on their houses, instead of letting smoke collect inside. Annual floods would sometimes damage the bridge, and carry off houses located on the riverbanks. Clopton Bridge, built about 100 years before the birth of Shakespeare (and still used today — it's the one you enter Stratford on), was always being repaired after the flood, and was a major expense of the Town Council. The Council employed one man to sweep the bridge regularly: that was almost the whole of Stratford's sanitation system. We could add a fourth danger to the town: starvation. When harvests were bad, the Town Council had to distribute grain from the town supply. One of the worst famines occurred in 1598, when Shakespeare was living at New Place in Stratford. The Town Council made a survey of available grain supplies in the town, and we have the records today. John Shakespeare, the poet's father, who was still living and working in Stratford, had no grain reserves at all. But Will Shakespeare, now a wealthy resident, had "10 quarters" of grain — a huge amount, which few others had. It shows that Shakespeare was a prudent man, and had the means to protect his household against the danger of famine.

Shakespeare's boyhood life. He was taught middle-class manners, and this meant getting up at 6 every morning, brushing his clothes, setting the table, and waiting on his parents at breakfast. Whey they were done, young Will could then eat his own breakfast. When walking to the Grammar School, all boys had to take off their hats to their elders.

Shakespeare was lucky that his parents were determined to give him a good education. His father could neither read nor write — but his mother had a fairly good education, as she had been born into a prosperous family of farmers. Will's first schooling was by a town "clerk", who taught the boys basic reading and writing; this was necessary for admission to the Grammar School (at about age 7). Shakespeare gives us his own description of the experience of going to school:

The whining schoolboy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.

Fortunately for young Shakespeare, the citizens of Stratford were careful about the schoolmasters they chose. There was only one teacher at the Grammar School, who taught mainly Latin grammar and literature; Greek was available for the advanced students. To enforce discipline, the schoolmaster frequently flogged the pupils for a poor recitation.

After a day at school, the boys would return home to help with dinner. After prayers they went to bed.

What Shakespeare looked like. Our only source of information on this is the bust that is placed above his tomb in the Holy Trinity Church. The bust was made only a few years after Shakespeare's death, and is reputed to have been taken from his death-mask. It used to be painted, giving us invaluable information about his complexion as well as his features. In the 18th century, the bust was whitewashed over, but in the 19th century the whitewash was removed and an attempt made to restore the original colors. All "portraits" of Shakespeare are taken from this one bust, which remains our only clue.


Hathaway's  The bus drives up alongside the garden. Tell the group to stay together. Exit from the bus, and you buy the tickets for admission (with bulk of group getting children's rate). A line of visitors runs through Hathaway's, and the group will exit just near the coach park after about 10 minutes. The bus will then drive out through Shottery Village, where you can point out Agatha Christie's cottage (very pretty thatched).

The drive from and to Stratford takes approximately 10 minutes.

The Group will see the 'Courting Settle' on which Shakespeare is supposed to have wooed Anne Hathaway. It's very narrow, but Shakespeare was a genius!

Birthplace  The procedure is the same as at Hathaway's. You go ahead and get the entrance tickets. (Nearly all the group can go through as children.) The procedure afterwards depends on the dinner place. You should be on hand as the group exits in any case, so as to give directions (suggest a walk down High Street, and a visit to the Holy Trinity Church if there is sufficient time). If the group has to rendezvous at Coach Park, spare no effort to ensure that they know where this is. Maps should be obtained from tourist office if they were not available beforehand.


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