Serene environs

Serene environs


statue of Lady Macbeth, a tribute to Shakespeare. Photos by author

So my uncle and I decided to pull out the bicycles lying in a corner of the garage, dust them down and take them with us to Stratford-upon-Avon, an unremarkable town save for the minor detail of having been the native place of arguably the most celebrated playwright in the world, William Shakespeare.

The town lies on the banks of the Avon, with a network of raised canals that join the Avon through wooden docks. The docks are manually operated and use water pressure to raise or lower a boat. We started our journey at one of these docks, as a river boat raised itself to enter the canal. A network of levers and pulleys on the side of each wooden panel of the dock allows a single person to open or close the dock. From the dock, we moved on to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a recently refurbished glass-fronted behemoth that stands out in a town of brick and thatch.

Across the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, next to the meandering Avon, are the Bancroft Gardens with stalls and moored boats selling food and souvenirs. Attracted by food, the curve of the Avon has a number of ducks and swans that quack and trumpet with glee when someone tosses some bread to them. To one side of the gardens is a little square for performing musicians which, coupled with wide grass lawns, make for an excellent picnic spot on a warm sunny day.  

Within the Bancroft Gardens, across a little bridge, is the Gower Memorial dedicated to Shakespeare. The memorial features a central column topped by a bronze statute of Shakespeare, seated and surveying the crowd before him. At the four corners of the memorial are bronze cast statues of Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, Prince Hal and Falstaff, representing the four pillars of theatre — tragedy, philosophy, history and comedy respectively.

From the park, we got onto our cycles and headed to explore the town. This took us to the Guild Chapel at the corner of Chapel Lane and Church Street. The chapel was initially built in the 13th century and then expanded in the 15th century. This shift is noticeable as the tower and the hall are built of a lighter stone than the entrance. Within the chapel, behind the altar, is a stained glass picturisation of members of the Fraternity of the Holy Cross who erected the chapel.

This chapel also features a number of frescos across its walls, including a massive depiction of Judgment Day immediately above the altar. The fresco itself was whitewashed and defaced in the late 15th century, leaving behind outlines and a few blotches of colour, and thus encapsulates the religious tension that gripped England in the Middle Ages.

Away from the Guild Chapel and a short circle away lies the house of John Shakespeare, where the bard was born. This house has been converted into a museum and features a form of construction prevalent at the time, where a timber frame would be filled in with wet soil and cow dung to make an earthy cement. Most buildings in the town feature this form of construction with thatch roofs. This makes cycling around the town all the more enjoyable as it transports you back in time and lets you visualise Shakespeare as he grew up. Another feature of this form of ‘wattle and daub’ construction is that the houses are never more than two storeys high, and this leaves the cyclist with an open view of the surrounding countryside. So, while cycling around Stratford, you will never feel caged in or trapped by the town.

On the opposite bank of the Avon is an open space with a narrow cycling path that snakes along the Avon. All along this path are mature trees in all their sentinel glory, with gritty oaks standing fast and weeping willows caressing the surface of the Avon. The cycling path weaves along these pillars, all the way to Gray’s Dock.

A little ahead, the path opens up in the shadow of the imposing Church of the Holy Trinity. The beauty of this church lies in its stark contrast to the wooded area beside. Its tower rises unsupported out of a green canopy with a golden spire that glisters in the setting sun. This is where we decided to end our little cycling trip in Stratford.