Stratford-upon-Avon and Some English Lessons, The Cotswolds Part I

It’s been a while since I’ve written an entry in my Travel Logs. And although we travel frequently, I generally don’t have the time to indulge in doing a proper write-up about many of our trips, which was one of my original intentions with this blog. But a few weekends ago, we made an excursion that deserves a break in my routine so I may share with you a little bit about what we saw, experienced, and most importantly discovered.

For me, one of the most interesting facets about travelling is what I learn, things that I probably would never retain otherwise or would not affect me in the same manner, had I not experienced them first-hand and in person. And since we are living in England, it would be a crime to not visit the Cotswolds or the birthplace of who is considered the most influential and important writer in the history of the English language, Shakespeare.

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William Shakespeare

The weekend had a few highlights for us, aside from the trip and landscape themselves. One, we had a fantastic, well-informed guide at the Anne Hathaway cottage in Straford-upon-Avon, from whom we learned where a few ordinary English language terms originated; two, driving through this beautiful part of the countryside made us experience what is simply quintessentially English – the thatched roofed cottages, the lovely country roads large enough only for one car, the pretty English gardens filled with roses, and tearoom after tearoom; and last, we were once again educated by an extremely entertaining and well-informed guide, Tabitha, at the Roman Baths in the city of Bath.

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Speaking of those narrow English country roads, I kept imagining myself in a vintage British convertible, with a scarf wrapped around my head flowing in the wind, and some romantic music playing in the background, while we slowly but steadily made our way from village to village….sometimes, I could also imagine myself riding in an old Land Rover, my most favourite car, driving up to my Georgian manor surrounded by acres of farm land scattered with sheep, and my adorable Rufus waiting to greet me…

It’s so easy to create dreams when visiting the Cotswolds.

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Rufus was our Saint Bernard, when I was growing up in Spain. He and Fritzy, our crazy German Shepherd, loved to jump into the back of my father’s Land Rover and head to the beach. Rufus was such a big, loving dog (and I was such a little girl), that sometimes I rode him like a horse. The Cotswolds brought back a longing for living on a farm and having animals around me that I had thought was not possible anymore. I’ll have to work on that dream becoming real!

Anyway, back to the reality of the trip…

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Shakespeare’s Birthplace, as seen from the Gardens

The Cotswolds can be done in two days, as we did; however, I would suggest either more days to really linger, or going back frequently, as we intend to do.

We started off our journey in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, home to his family, and later where he died. There are five houses connected to his life and death and they all belong to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which has renovated and preserved them for all of us to be able to experience this exciting part of English (and world) history.

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Views of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language; he was a poet, playwright and dramatist; and stepping into the past and walking “in his footsteps” is somewhat magical.

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The first house we visited was Shakespeare’s birthplace, which is located in the center of town, on Henley Street. His father, John, was a successful businessman and glover, who also served as town mayor. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of an affluent landowning farmer, and her house is part of the Shakespeare’s Houses & Gardens, which we however did not visit and plan to return to see. The tickets allow for re-entry within a year, like many of the National Trust properties do as well. So, if you’re a local or live close enough like us, it’s a great deal of which to take advantage.

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John’s business afforded the family an affluent upbringing and William had a “good life” and later through his line of work, met and befriended very influential people, and expanded his fortune enough to finance several properties, including the second largest house in Stratford during his time, New Place. The birthplace is somewhat of a higgledy-piggledy set of rooms, which shows how the house was expanded upon throughout the life of its occupants into what is visible today and is an attractive timbered house from the outside. On the inside, you can visit the ground and first floors, the kitchen and gardens. It’s a must-see to understand how life was during the Middle Ages in England. It must have been quite dark with only candles creating some light and the windows being so small. Outside in the garden, costumed actors were performing excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s definitely worth taking a seat on one of the benches, enjoying their art and being transported into another era…and maybe start dreaming again.

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Nash’s House

The next house on our tour was Nash’s House & New Place. Shakespeare bought New Place in 1597 and this was the second largest home in Stratford during his time. He lived in it with his family when he was not in London, and this is where he died in 1616. New Place is no longer standing; only the foundations are visible on the grounds, which is now the garden part of   Nash’s House. Nash’s House was named after Thomas Nash, the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, and a wealthy landowner. It’s a well-preserved Tudor building with a beautiful, traditional knot garden in the back. Don’t miss out on visiting the garden and the green expanse behind it, as it’s actually quite impressive to see how large it is for a property in the center of town. Apple trees line part of the knot garden, which must be even lovelier to see during the summer when the flowers are in bloom.

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From Nash’s House, we walked down Church Street towards Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband, Dr. John Hall, the town’s wealthy doctor. The house has features, which show off their wealth, such as stone flooring, large stone fireplaces, and beautiful exposed timber beams facing the street (so people walking by could be witness to their economic status). It’s a grand house by 16th century (and even today’s) standards. The gardens are very pretty and include a variety of herbs that were most likely used by Susanna’s husband in his medicinal potions. (Personally, I would love a garden like this for my culinary needs, as I keep killing off my herbs on the windowsill.)

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Hall’s Croft, house, interior, and gardens

A short walk from Hall’s Croft is Holy Trinity Church, which is where Shakespeare was baptised and later interred. At the feet of the high altar, you can see the graves of William, his wife, and his daughters as well as as that of John Hall, his son-in-law. Shakespeare and Anne had three children. Susanna was born only about six months after they were rapidly married, when Anne was 26 and William only 18! And then they had twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died at age 11 of unknown causes. Back then the cause of death was not recorded unless it was part of a coroner’s report. But as the plague was still rampant, it’s quite possible that could’ve been the cause… but we’ll never know for sure. Shakespeare himself survived the plague as an infant, but his death at the approximate age of 52 was also due to unknown causes, very possibly due to some infection or disease for which medicine back then had no cure. As Shakespeare did not want his body to be examined or exhumed, he supposedly placed a curse, which can be read on the epitaph of his gravestone, on anyone trying to remove his bones from this location. So we will probably never know for sure what caused his death; on the positive side and for tourism in Stratford-upon-Avon, this curse most likely saved us from seeing his grave site transferred to Westminster Abbey in London.

(By the way, we learned that there are no direct descendants of William and Anne alive today. However, Anne Hathaway’s family flourished and one of her brother’s descendants lived in her house until 1899.)

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Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

A walk behind the church takes you to the banks of the River Avon, which is lined with beautifully trimmed weeping willows. A number of locations offer boat rides along the river…something we’ll try to enjoy on our next visit. Again, it was so easy to imagine sitting on a boat, with my husband wearing a stripped jacket and straw hat and rowing away, as I coquettishly hold my parasol to protect me against the rays of the afternoon sun…

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River Avon

Our last stop in Stratford was Anne Hathaway’s cottage. The house and 90-some-acre property were first leased by Anne’s grandfather and later purchased and passed down to family members until the late 1800s, when the property was purchased by the Trust. The cottage started off as a two-room house with very high ceilings and a fireplace in the middle of the main room. It was later expanded by Anne’s eldest brother and is a lovely example of a thatched Tudor cottage, with somewhat messy, but enchanting English grass gardens, an apple orchard and a vegetable plot. It’s truly a romantic sight!

And it was here that we learned a few things about how some English words came into being and how life transpired during Tudor times. In the main room of the house, what today would be considered the sitting/dining room all together, there’s a fine example of a dining table, commissioned by Anne’s grandfather and used until the house was handed over to the Trust in 1899. The table may not seem like much to us today, but it’s a beautifully crafted piece of furniture, which has a table top or board that is “convertible” or which can be flipped around. The practical reason for this feature is that Tudor people were messy and dirty eaters, eating with their hands and allowing things to drop off of their “tranches” or plates, therefore not only getting the floors (and their clothes) dirty, but also scratching and getting the table top dirty and greasy. However, this same table would serve as a place to play card games with the family and guests, so by flipping it over to the “prettier” side for that purpose, it was always kept presentable. The man of the house sat at the head of the table in a chair with arms, whilst the women and children sat on armless chairs or stools. Since the man sat at the head of the table, then called board, he was considered the “chairman of the board”…and this is how this term originated! Isn’t that cool or what? And wait there’s more… when playing cards, it was considered foul play to place your hands below the board/table since that way one could cheat. Hence, the term “above the board” was coined meaning that everything, hands included, and especially morals, were to be kept above the board and visible to all.

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Anne’s cottage may not seem today like it was the home of a well-to-do family, but if you look closely, you will see signs of Anne’s family’s affluence and wealth, such as the stone floors, large stone fireplaces and the bedrooms, which included guest beds. Beds were reserved for the wealthier folk and for guests, and were made of straw “mattresses”, which were not often cleaned or replaced and included the ubiquitous little bed mites. The mattress lay upon a criss-cross stringed bed slate that had to be tightened every so often. So, therefore the other phrase: “sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite” came into being.

We learned a few other intriguing pieces of historical information, which were of particular interest for me, since I obviously love to cook. Food was served on “tranches” or wooden plates. Tranche comes from the French word “piece”, as referred to a piece of wood or even further back in history, a piece of bread, upon which food was served. The tranches were being constantly carved out of wood by the family’s on-staff carpenter and when a tranche got particularly greasy and full of grime, it was simply tossed into the fire and replaced with a new, clean one. The tranche is square in shape, with a small little indentation in the upper corner, where salt was placed to condiment one’s food. The lady of the house was the keeper of the rock salt, as it was a very valuable condiment during those times. The eldest son was mostly likely the child in charge of grinding up some salt every day, which he later gave to his mother, and who in turn shared with the family and guests, allocating an amount of salt that fit in her pinched fingers, called a “pinch of salt,” to each diner.

The stove was literally kept running all day and night with a pot constantly cooking. This dish, if we can call it as such, was called potage, from the French word as well meaning stew, porridge or a thick soup. Remember back then, those who could read and write mostly spoke French, which was the language of the conquering Normans. These words dwindled down into the regular folk as well. The potage could include any type of meat and vegetables and as it was constantly cooking and not often cleaned out, another phrase “piss pot in, piss pot out” was coined meaning “garbage in, garbage out.”

Chicken, by the way, was considered a very special treat and quite expensive. The animals were kept primarily for laying eggs, and therefore eating a chicken was translated into the loss of a valuable source of eggs.

Nothing was wasted in those times, including the ashes from the oven and fireplaces, which was used to make toothpaste and soap. Of course, back then they didn’t clean their teeth, which they did with their fingers as no toothbrushes existed, on a daily basis as we do, nor did they bathe but about once a year. When bathing day came around, usually when Spring arrived and a new set of clothes was freshly put out, a big bathtub was filled with water and the man of the house went in first, followed by the lady of the house and the children, with the youngest one being last. By the time the youngest or the baby was put into the bath, the water was so full of grime from the rest of the family, that is was dark…so, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” takes on a real meaning. 😉

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It sounds kind of yucky if you really envision it! I prefer to keep it on the romantic level, rather than think about how this particular English phrase came about. The thing is Anne’s family was not poor and they did enjoy a number of luxuries, as well as were very well fed and healthy for their time. In fact, since Anne’s family was affluent, they would have given their food scraps to the poor, after scrapping it off their tranches with some bread. The bread and all went to these less lucky souls.

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They had a working farm, which supplied them with all their necessities and land for their sheep, making them successful in the wool trade through which most likely Anne’s father and William’s father met creating a family and business bond. Their farm was planted with all of the seasonal, local vegetables and fruits they required… but there’s one vegetable they would’ve not eaten, and that is the potato! When the potato was introduced into England in the 16th century, it took some time before it was considered an article of food. As it grows underground, it became associated with the Devil. In fact, young men would try to show their virility by wearing a potato on a string around their necks, thereby demonstrating to the world (and especially young women) that they were not afraid of the Devil. However, they rather became the laughing stock of people, and Shakespeare makes reference to this his play, “Merry Wives of Windsor”.

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As you see, our visit to Stratford-upon-Avon was quite fruitful in terms of English terminology, which seems quite fitting given this is the birthplace of Shakespeare, and learning a few things about living and eating during Tudor times.

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Our trip continued on to the lovely, honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds and onto the Unesco World Heritage Site of the city of Bath… but I’ll leave all that for my next travel log.