A Journey to Shakespeare’s Town

Shakespeare’s House

I arrived at Birmingham New Street Station in the middle of the day. It was in June, but just like many days in the UK, the day was raining and gloomy. Dark clouds hung over Birmingham. I opened my cerise umbrella and stepped outside the station. Avoiding a few puddles and trying to keep my tiny suitcase dry, I looked for a cab to take me to the hotel where I had booked a room.

“I can take you there,” the taxi driver explained, “but actually, the hotel is just round the corner.” He pointed me to a tall building not far from where I stood. I thanked him and continued my walk to the hotel. It took me merely ten minutes to get there. The hotel receptionist gave me a warm welcome and after I had put my suitcase in my room, she gave directions to my destination: Stratford-upon-Avon. 

“You have to go to Snow Hill Station. It’s not far from here, only 15 minutes walking. From here you go left, through a tunnel, cross the road then pass a library. You’ll see the big museum, then Victoria Square. From there just keep walking straight and you’ll find the station.” She handed me a leaflet about Shakespeare’s heritage and wished me a pleasant journey. When I came out of the hotel, the rain had stopped. Slowly, the warm sun appeared from the dark clouds. I was very glad that I could enjoy the journey without the prospect of getting wet and cold. 

I passed a war memorial and walked to the museum. Birmingham was a big city, the second largest city in the UK after London. People were hurrying around me, chatting and laughing. Some others, who I assumed were tourists like myself, were looking around, taking photographs and commenting on the features and the history of the surrounding buildings.

At Victoria Square, I saw a queue for free ice cream. I saw children happily licking their ice creams. Some of them were running around Queen Victoria’s Statue. People sat near a water fountain, enjoying the sound of water and the warm sun. Most of the people I saw had taken off their coats. It was summer, at last. 

I soon arrived at Snow Hill Station. It was a small station compared to New Street. I purchased a return ticket from the counter and with a railway card I had, I paid the small amount of GBP 4,70. The train took me through Warwickshire countryside, leaving the hustle and bustle of big city, passing rows of pine trees, bright yellow rapeseed and green grass fields along the way. Herds of sheep and cows were munching or lying sleepily on the grass. The leaves of London plane swayed gently in the breeze. Birds flew in flocks, high in the cloudless sky. My mind wandered, trying to picture the scene in Shakespeare’s time, more than 400 years ago. 

Less than an hour later, I stood in Stratford-upon-Avon Station. It felt like a dream. When I was a teenager in Indonesia, I fell in love with ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. I had watched ‘Shakespeare in Love’ many times and for my English class, I read Macbeth, some of Shakespeare’s poems and played a tiny drama as Lady Macbeth. 

I never thought I would be here, at the hometown of the great writer himself! 

I took a deep breath, filling my chest with the fresh country air; and then started walking to the station’s gate. It took me ten minutes to walk from the station to the town centre. To my surprise, the town was actually quite big. There were many Tudor houses, restaurants and shops. For those who came to the town to follow Shakespeare’s trail, the chance of getting lost was small: there were plenty signposts indicating the directions to Shakespeare’s heritage sites. 

The house of Shakespeare’s birthplace was in Henley Street. It was a large-detached-two-storey-brown-Tudor-house. Through its windows I saw people standing, walking and waving in medieval clothes. Then I spotted two men wearing black costumes near me, one of them looked like the Shakespeare in ‘Shakespeare in Love’. They were chatting and walking around outside the house. 

There were numerous of people around me. I heard them talking in various languages, some that I recognised were English, Mandarin, Germany, Hindi, Malay, Spanish and Japanese. Some were busy taking photographs. I felt my cheeks warm with excitement! I could not wait to enter the house that once famous authors and poets such as Charles Dickens, John Keats and Thomas Hardy had visited. I was eager to see inside, to touch the walls, the doors and imagine the childhood life of a great author. I started to hum a song in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ movie: Lovefool.

Shakespeare’s House

A green placard in wooden frame was placed on the front wall of the house, the golden letters written on it said: ‘The Birthplace of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)’. It directed visitors to go through The Visitors’ Centre, 40 metres on the right side of the house.

I joined the queue to purchase an entry ticket, Shakespeare’s Five Houses Pass for GBP 22. 50. With the pass I could enter Shakespeare’s birthplace, Anna Hathaway’s Cottage, the home of Shakespeare’s wife; Mary Arden’s Farm, Shakespeare’s mother’s home; Hall’s Croft, where his daughter had lived; Nash’s House and New Place, where his granddaughter had lived and the site of the house where he had died; and finally, Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church. The pass was valid for a year.

Inside the centre, I attached to a small tour group. In one side of the centre there were a miniature of the Globe Theatre and a Shakespeare mannequin, sitting on a wooden chair and writing with his feather pen. We were welcomed by Shakespeare’s documentary films on big screens. The films showed us about his childhood, his works and extract from plays and films inspired by his works. From the film of his childhood I learnt that Shakespeare was one of few infants who survived the plague known as Black Death which descended upon Stratford in the time when he was born. 

From the centre, we went through the rear side to the garden of the house. It was a huge, beautiful, well managed garden, full of red poppies, purple alliums, moon daisies and mushroom and palm-shaped trees. Inside the house, there were four tour guides waiting for us. In the parlour, the first guide gave details about the structure of the house, the rooms and the garden. The second guide, who stood in dining room, explained how meals were prepared and served in Shakespeare’s time.

We met the third guide in a tool room. He told us an interesting story about people’s clothes: in Shakespeare’s time pockets had not yet been invented and people carried bum-bags instead. Next, we climbed some narrow wooden stairs to Shakespeare’s birth room. Here, we heard some interesting fact about the bed: the mattress stuffed with hay and the curtain was a protection from cold weather and insects. The curtain’s colour also had certain meaning, for example, people at that time believed that green and red were for peacefulness and protection from evil.

In the rear wing of the house, there was a small kitchen and a door that led back to the garden. In the middle of a half circle of wooden benches, two young women and an elderly man in medieval costumes performed a play: Hamlet, I thought.

After the tour, I next headed along Chapel Street, to Shakespeare’s school, to Hall’s Croft, to Nash’s House and at last, to Shakespeare’s final resting place: his grave. I gathered information that in Shakespeare’s time it was common to excavate bones of the dead for research, religious purpose or simply to make way for new graves. To prevent this happening to his own remains, Shakespeare had this curse engraved on his tomb:

 "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare, to digg the dust encloased heare. Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, and curst be he that moves my bones."
It was late when I emerged from the church’s old wooden door, but the sun was still shining with its warm gleam, peeking through a canopy of green lime leaves. It was time for tea and I went to a Greek restaurant to end my journey. The journey could not have been better. 

I learnt many things that day. And above all, I learnt that despite the limitations of his time, the technology, the disease and the culture; Shakespeare had proved he could live life to the full and dedicate himself to literature. I remembered one of his monologues, ‘All the World's A Stage’, and I thought he had brilliantly defeating the limit of ‘seven ages’. 

He died hundreds years ago, yet his legacy still alive in people’s minds.

Penulis: Rilda A.Oe Taneko adalah penerima beasiswa internasional IFP dari Lampung yang berhasil kuliah di ISS, Belanda. Saat ini ia tinggal di Lancester, Inggris bersama suami dan puteranya. Kumpulan cerpennya dapat dibaca di buku "Kereta Pagi Menuju Den Hag". Hingga saat ini cerpen-cerpennya yang kental dengan tema 'kangen kampung halaman' masih menghiasi Lampost minggu. Ia menjadi kontributor pertama di blog ini dengan catatan perjalanannya tentang seorang penyair besar Inggris.

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