Tracing literary footsteps

There’s a light chill in the air as our bus pulls up at the Stratford-upon-Avon bus stop.

It’s a sleepy little town that we’re visiting during our two-week Euro trip — one that includes bits of UK, Switzerland and Paris (the standard package for a whirlwind I-too-have-been-there-done-that sort of trip).

We’re actually on a trip around the Cotswolds; and while our final destination is actually Oxford, we stop by to pay homage to Shakespeare, the town’s main draw.

We queue up outside Shakespeare’s Birthplace, waiting for our conducted bus tour guide to iron out the entry details.

He’s a tall thin man who speaks very little during the tour, except to point out the regions we were driving through and that we should hold out on lunch at Stratford because he knew of just the perfect little place overlooking the English countryside aka middle-of-nowhere occupied by lazy grazing goats.

Plump goats and woolly sheep make up most of the Costwolds actually; they dot both sides of the highway that connects London to Stratford. Oh, the quintessential English countryside!

We’re well into spring, yet, the wind penetrates my skin and freezes the bone that lies beneath. Or at least, that’s what it feels like.

I’m unable to understand what possessed Shakespeare to walk it all the way to the Globe Theatre in London’s South Bank — around 146 miles away from his hometown.

There’s even a ‘walk’ — the ‘Shakespeare’s Way’ was established in 2006 — that attempts to retrace the steps he would have taken and the towns/cities he would have crossed while on his journey.

Clearly, this route was designed keeping in mind the fascinated literary tourist who’s forever on the lookout for all things literature and English — from Sherlock’s rickety quarters in Baker’s Street, Jane Austen in Bath to Shakespeare’s presence in Stratford-upon-Avon and more.

It’s not long before we’re herded inside Shakespeare’s Birthplace, much like the sheep we saw along our way to Stratford.

This was where the bard was born and his family lived.

The guides inside, dressed the part in Elizabethan attire, share tidbits of information at regular intervals as streams of visitors browse through the various rooms that shine light on Shakespeare and the life he led back then.

As we enter one such room, which has one too many a white glove — some half stitched, others ready for wear — a short plump woman busily tries to gather the crowd around her, warning those wandering aimlessly about the room that she’ll not be repeating what she has to say until the next group arrives.

Regardless, people prefer to join mid-talk, one where she provides some background information on William’s family — for instance, his father John was a master glover, and once even the town mayor; his mum Mary Arden was a daughter of a wealthy landowner and so on and so forth.

Much of the house is similar: furnished in a manner that reflected Shakespeare’s period and taking note of the various transitions the house itself had gone through since Shakespeare’s time: from being a home to a glover’s workshop and a butcher’s inn to finally a visitor’s attraction as it stands today.

As the clouds clear, I leave my pseudo-Elizabethan guide and her gloves behind and make my way to the benches in the garden outside.

I soak up the warm rays that fall gently on my face and close my eyes to imagine this house as it would have been back when Shakespeare was around.

I’ve done my homework, so I know that John Shakespeare, our beloved playwright’s father, was a master glover.

And so, I picture the area around Shakespeare’s Birthplace being used to store materials required for his business — “animal skins and liming pits,” as my guidebook puts it. The garden could have been their very own source of vegetables and herbs, put to use daily in the kitchen I had a glimpse of inside.

I am startled out of my imagination with voices I hear, not far from the garden.

There’s a crowd building up, circling around people who seem to be putting on some type of show.

I stand on tiptoe to have a peek at what’s going on — two actors, costumed to the T, were enacting scenes from one of Shakespeare’s plays.

My feet begins to feel a bit sore as I struggle to keep my balance, and so, I leave Shakespeare’s Birthplace behind to catch a bite at the café nearby.

As I pay for my milkshake, the cashier tells me of four other Tudor Homes that form part of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust — a must-visit to get the full Shakespearean experience.

It’s been 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth, but I have little time to visit the rest: Anne Hathaway’s (Shakespeare’s wife) cottage, Nash’s house (Shakespeare’s last home, where he lived much after he had amassed quite a bit of wealth, and where he finally died), Mary Arden’s Farm and Hall’s Croft (the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna).

That’s four more on my literary travel bucket list.

For now, I’ll have to make do with memories of this timbered structured that was Shakespeare’s first home — where the curtains first cleared for Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare’s journey through life.

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