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Tour de England 2014 – Week 3: Shakespeare Country and The Cotswolds

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“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” ~William Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice, V, i)

At the end of the last post detailing my recent trip to England, I’d overcome several days of unfortunate GI distress just in time to board a train back to the midlands region of the country.  I traveled from York through Birmingham to land in familiar territory and my personal favorite, Stratford-upon-Avon.  I’d visited the birthplace town of the Bard back in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival (just prior to the London Olympics) and really loved it, so I carved out three and half more days on this return trip to relax and enjoy this pretty little town on the river once again.

By the way, do you know why some towns in England have “on” in their name (like Bourton-on-the-Water) while others have “upon,” such as Stratford-upon-Avon?  Those with “on” find the towns built mostly or entirely on one side of the river, while those with “upon” are built on both sides of the river…or so I’m told…and there’s your English geography and name-origin lesson for the day.

For this trip to Stratford I chose to stay at Moss Cottage B&B, which I can highly recommend if you ever find yourself in that corner of the world.  I’d gotten to know the proprietor (hi Bill!) via Twitter over the past year prior to my trip, so it felt a little like meeting an old friend, and the accommodations were very lovely. The B&B was located a healthy 1-mile walk from the center of town, so I got in plenty of exercise during my stay – which simply meant I could indulge in daily cream teas and/or a wonderful sticky toffee pudding at The Opposition, another one of my favorites I discovered on my last time there.

My first afternoon back in Stratford, I strolled up to town via Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.  There is a bench on the church grounds that I like to sit on – it faces the river and is situated on a gravel pathway, with a huge weeping willow overhanging the short stone wall in-between, and the church just behind.  Sitting there, I can watch people strolling along the riverwalk on the opposite side and rowers making their way down the water.  It’s shady and peaceful and feels like “my spot.”  It’s especially nice with a light drizzly rain coming down and dripping off all the trees.

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

After a nice decompression session on that bench, I continued on the walkway up the river, past the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre and into the adjoining gardens, with all the canal boats and swans and Bard-inspired flower features.  It really is the loveliest town I’ve come across so far during my England travels; I know I’m a little biased (I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since the age of 16) but the town council & local businesses really do a good job of keeping everything in beautiful condition.  I stopped by a grocery store to buy a sandwich for dinner and a discounted bag of day-old bread, and found a spot to feed the Queen’s swans.  Then I was able to catch a small theatre production of “Sense & Sensibility” at the Lazy Cow, walking back by moonlight to the B&B later that night.

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Stratford’s Swans

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare's words

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare’s words

Boats on the Avon at dusk (Anyone recognize these??? :)

Boats on the Avon at dusk – Anyone recognize these??? 🙂

Moonlight on the Avon

Moonlight on the Avon

After an immense breakfast the next morning (complete with vegetarian sausage!), I set out on a walk to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the home where Shakespeare’s wife was born & raised.  They have really beautiful sweet pea exhibits there during the summer that I’d seen last time, and so I wanted to return to visit them again.  From there I headed back into town (I did a LOT of walking that day) to visit some of the other Shakespeare houses.  I especially like New Place, which is the site where Shakespeare returned to live at the end of his life, after he’d finished writing and acting in London for many years (the house no longer exists but they know this is where it was, and it was also where he drew his last breath).  When I was here in 2012, there was an interesting and extensive archeological dig happening onsite at New Place, with labyrinths and pits and dirt everywhere; but this time, it had been filled completely in and was covered with a perfectly level green lawn.  I enjoyed standing on the site where his house had once stood and looking out at the exact view across the street that Shakespeare would’ve looked upon: the Guild Chapel, the schoolhouse where he attended classes as a boy, and the timber-framed Falcon Hotel.  I also especially like the gardens at New Place, with the old mulberry trees and the view through the flowers of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre just down the street.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage under brilliant blue skies

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage under brilliant blue skies

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare's Birthplace House

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare’s Birthplace House

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

From there I headed back down a side street to the antiques store where I’d found a special silver charm there two years ago; I lost the charm after coming home, but after sifting through a few trays this time, I was able to find a replacement…not quite the same, but similar, and it felt nice to have it with me again.  I migrated towards Shakespeare’s Birthplace House and decided to go through it again; I’m glad I did, as there were new exhibits to see and new people to meet.  I spent the rest of the day just wandering and relaxing, buying some souvenir gifts, and visiting old haunts.  I admit to looking at more than a few real estate office window postings as I walked along that day, of apartments and businesses and country homes…ah, “perchance to dream.”

ONLY $827,580.00 - a bargain!

ONLY $827,580, a bargain!

The following day was Friday and I’d booked a trip ahead of time with a brand spanking new company called “Go Cotswolds,” for a day tour out southwest of Stratford to see this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  During my trip here two years ago I’d actually mapped out a route to bike from Stratford to the Cotswolds, but it rained so much then and many roads were flooded so I played it safe and didn’t go.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find this new company (again, on Twitter), and as it turned out I was their very first official (paying) customer!  When the owner Tom picked me up at the B&B that morning about 9:45, I learned I was to be the sole client that day, so I felt pretty special getting a personal tour on their first day out.

The Cotswolds are quite famous throughout the UK, and the towns throughout the region, all their houses built of the same honey-colored stone and many with storybook thatched roofs, do get their fair share of tourists.  It’s the region itself that is the draw rather than one specific attraction – the rolling hills dotted with sheep, the tranquil streams flowing through the quaint villages filled with lovely tea rooms, and the untouched-by-time sense of peacefulness that pervades the countryside. We made about 10 stops during our 8-hour day, getting out of the mini-bus to walk around some of the towns and see some of the sights (rookie mistake: I wore new shoes I hadn’t broken in completely, without any socks, so I had a few unwelcome souvenir blisters by the end of the day).  I was surprised at the end by the ring of Rollright Stones, like a worn-down mini-Stonehenge that I’d never heard of but enjoyed seeing.  I’m glad I took the whole day to explore the famous Cotswolds, even if it was a bit of a whirlwind outing.

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds - here, in Chipping Campden

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds – here, in Chipping Campden

The most perfect "chocolate box house"

The most perfect “chocolate box house” – can actual humans really live here?

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

The Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones

Saturday was my last day in Stratford, and I made the most of it with a peaceful river cruise up and down the Avon, which I wasn’t able to do in 2012 due to the flooded waterway.  As I waited for the boat to show up at the mooring, I had a nice conversation with a very elderly German woman, despite the fact she didn’t speak any English at all; she did have an electronic translation device and through gestures and smiles and a lot of typing on her part, I learned she was there with a group from Germany for the whole week.  She was 84 years old and it was her first time to Stratford, but she too had been a Shakespeare fan her whole life – another testimonial to his worldwide reach and influence.  I sat next to a couple from Wales on the boat and treated them to free drinks with some coupons I had.  We even got to witness some boat races on the river that day as we sailed gently past the theatre, church, and butterfly farm.  (If it all sounds incredibly quaint, it is, it’s like a fairytale town in many ways…)

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise down the Avon

River cruise down the Avon

You simply can’t go to Stratford without attending at least one show at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre (or at least I can’t), and I’d purchased my ticket for Two Gentleman of Verona months in advance as the main birthday gift to myself.  I was lucky actually because this was the opening preview night of the play and was my last night in Stratford, the only chance I’d have to see a production this trip.  I’d read the play a few months prior in my weekly Shakespeare reading group in Austin, and was eager to see the RSC version since this was the first time in 45 years that The Two Gentlemen of Verona had been performed in full production on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage.  (It’s not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, has the smallest cast of any of the plays, and is generally recognized by many as perhaps his first-written work.)

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

A light rain began to fall just as I made my way from a pre-show dinner into the theatre and found my seat high up on the first row of the second balcony.  It was really a perfectly-located seat with a prime vantage point, and as I turned around I glanced down at the seat and drew a sharp breath at what I saw:

What?????!!!

What?????!!!

I was sitting in the seat of SIR PATRICK STEWART!!  Yes that Patrick Stewart – the one I share a birthday with, the one who makes it so, the one who is without question one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of all time.  I’ve been an uber-fan of Patrick Stewart for over twenty years now – I’ve seen every movie, TV episode and play he’s ever done, I’m pretty sure.  This random seat selection bestowed upon me by the RSC ticket office was completely unplanned, but it felt like a sign, and I stood there for a good two minutes just staring at it.  Yes it may have just been a tribute seat given to him by the RSC in honor of his magnificentness (and probably generous theatre support on his part), OR – and I choose to believe this option – this is his actual designated seat that he sits in when he takes in a show.  I pointed at it while I gaped at the couple sitting behind me, explaining my awe: “Do you see what seat I’m sitting in??  Do you see that?  I can’t believe this.  Look, his name is right on it!  I can’t believe this.  I didn’t plan this.  Do you see that?” 

It may have been the best single moment of my entire three-week trip.  And after that, how could it not be a great last night in Stratford?  The set decoration of the play was fantastic and the real dog who played the canine character of Crab was a huge hit.  I continued the birthday tradition I set during my first visit two years ago by treating myself after the play to a heavenly sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream, my self-proclaimed birthday cake without the candles.  It was a little bittersweet – both the pudding cake and the fact that I was celebrating alone, but I know how lucky I was to even be there and so I was grateful.

Set of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" inside the RSC

Set of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” inside the RSC

The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The next morning – Sunday and my actual birthday – I set out early to catch the train to London for my last three days in England.  I was sad to leave Stratford-upon-Avon but I will be back again someday, of that I’m sure.  I’d actually really love to be there during Christmas one year, I hear it’s even more beautiful during the holidays, if that’s possible.  London is only a two-hour train ride south of Stratford, but it’s a whole other world unto itself, which is why I’ll save the details of those days for my last Tour de England post.  Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

A Cuppa & A Croissant, Please.

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“There was a star danced, and under that was I born.” – William Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing II, i)

Yup, today’s my birthday, or for my Mom, the anniversary of “you-almost-killed-me-during-labor-with-your-huge-head-day.”  (Sorry Mom.)  I have some great UNunhappy birthday memories from the past few years that I’m reflecting on today.  I’m home this year, but I’ve been establishing a new birthday-abroad tradition that takes place every other year and that has provided me with some of my most joyful moments in recent memory.

As I mentioned in my recent Tour de France post, it was three years ago that I spent my 40th birthday on top of a mountain in the French Alps to be a part of the Tour, and it was breathtaking (figuratively and literally, the altitude made it hard to get adequate air).  Today’s stage of the Tour just happens to finish in Lyon, which is where I began my TdF adventure three years ago today in France, a nice birthday coincidence.

Then last year, I decided (on a whim, really) to pondhop to England during my summer vacation and spend my birthday at the World Shakespeare Festival 2012.  On my birthday I was in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace and hometown of William Shakespeare, and attended ‘The Tempest’ (one of my favorites) at the Royal Shakespeare Company theater.  It was simply brilliant, as the British say.

Shakespeare's Birthplace House Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

Shakespeare’s Birthplace House
Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

It’s difficult to explain how special this was to me – first of all, it was a realized dream born of a lifelong interest in Shakespeare and a desire to visit Stratford-upon-Avon since being inspired by my high school literature teacher Mrs. Clara Sanchez.  Secondly, I’m an admitted Anglophile, so this was another trip-of-a-lifetime for me.  To be walking along the banks of the river Avon, in the place where Shakespeare lived and loved and wrote and died over 400 years ago, and then to watch his iconic words play out on the stage performed by the best Shakespearean actors in the world…it was surreal, and emotional, and almost spiritual for me.

Royal Shakespeare Company theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

Royal Shakespeare Company theatre
Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

I spent four full days in beautiful Stratford-upon-Avon and did not want to leave!  It was an iconic birthday vacation that filled me with happiness and gratitude.  I went by myself, but I don’t mind traveling alone (it feels empowering, actually); I took long walks in the town, ate whatever I wanted, rented a bike to ride along the river and canals, toured all the different Shakespeare houses and historical sites, saw all three “Shipwreck Trilogy” plays at the RSC, and savored every moment of back-in-time tranquility.  (I spent another week in London and a few other areas but more on that in another post.)

The River Avon from view of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

The River Avon from view of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre.
Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

(By the way, the header photo on this blog was also taken by me on one of those riverside walks in Stratford-upon-Avon; those are boats on the River Avon just down the path from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the church where Shakespeare is buried. You can see the names of famous female characters from his plays on the boats.)

It seems that for most of us, as we get older, our birthdays hold less and less importance.  “Birthdays are for kids,” we say, and we don’t want to make a big deal out of it.  After a certain age, we grumpily interpret the yearly event as simply another date on the calendar that tells us we’re getting closer to all the negatives that old age brings.  Why is getting older seen by so many as an embarrassment?

Actually, I think we might need to blame Shakespeare for this one.  In his famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue from ‘As You Like It,’ he outlines the “Seven Ages of Man” that have been quoted throughout time and history when referring to the life cycle of getting older.  Beginning with the “mewling/puking infant” and the whining schoolboy, growing into the sighing lover and the hotheaded soldier, maturing into the wise justice with a formal beard, and finally shifting into the bespectacled “pantaloon” and the last stage, “second childishness,” he ends with the fearful prognosis that all of us will eventually end in “mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Extremely poignant, brilliantly written, but yeesh…incredibly depressing.  I bet you they never celebrated birthdays in Shakespeare’s time (although they should have, especially if one survived the plague!).

View of Shakespearean actors from upstairs window of Shakespeare's Birthplace house. Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

View of Shakespearean actors from upstairs window of Shakespeare’s Birthplace house.
Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012

I get it though, and I guess I also downplay birthdays sometimes to a degree, mostly because I’m still kind of a shy person at heart and a bit of a loner (which is not a bad thing, I’ve accepted).  But I think it’s ok to also make a pretty big deal out of your birthday if you want to.  I have friends who have overcome major illness, trauma, or other difficult challenges – why shouldn’t they celebrate each birthday as a major accomplishment, and we along with them?  Even for those that have been lucky enough to not have to go through extreme hardships, shouldn’t another year of simply surviving the stress and soldiering-on of everyday life deserve some kind of acknowledgement?  (YES.)

My favorite birthday message ever.

My favorite birthday message ever.

So do whatever you want on your birthday.  Do whatever you want every day.  Why the heck not??   I’ve started to look at my birthday as an impetus for organizing and taking the trips to places I’ve always wanted to see and visit, even if it is only every other year or so.  I hope to be back in England on my birthday next year, as the 2014 Tour de France will start in the Yorkshire region of the UK in early July.  It sounds like the perfect reason to get over there again and then stick around to visit some of the other places I didn’t get to see last time around (there’s so many on the list!) – or maybe even jaunt through the Chunnel to finally see Paris. 

My dessert on my birthday last year in Stratford-upon-Avon UK: Sticky Toffee Pudding of course!

My dessert on my birthday last year in Stratford-upon-Avon UK:
Sticky Toffee Pudding of course!

As for this year: I may not be in a quaint European café paying way too much for, well, everything, but I’m enjoying my extended self-imposed staycation on this birthday morning and appreciating what I do have.  I’m watching the Tour de France in all it’s beauty and loving it; I plan to buy myself some flowers and do some design practice later; I’ll be with family later on to eat some good food; and a simple “cuppa” English Breakfast tea and a French croissant with preserves is enough to remind me of amazing birthdays past and make it a pretty darn UNunhappy day. 

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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