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Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

PUBLISHED: 16:24 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:25 20 February 2013

Sam the ferryman, in action on Stratford's Original Old Chain Ferry

Sam the ferryman, in action on Stratford's Original Old Chain Ferry

But it's not just Shakespeare bringing people to stratford-upon-Avon. You might even get to have a coffee with The Doctor! Pictures by Kate Brown

IT WOULD be unforgivably misleading to suggest that being a trader in Stratford-upon-Avon makes you more likely to produce a world-famous playwright as son and heir. But John Shakespeare certainly didn't do badly in that department. He started life humbly enough - raised on a farm in a nearby village - before coming to Stratford to make his fortune. He went into business as a glover and a whittawer - a white leather worker - both considered agreeable and respectable trades indeed; and a measure of the respect his fellow citizens accorded him was demonstrated when he was elected to the first of many eminent positions in the town, in 1556: as borough ale taster (a post that sadly no longer exists).


"There's a lot of talk about Shakespeare coming from a poor background, but in fact his father ran a shop in Henley Street and did very well for himself," explains Stratford's Mayor, Joyce Taylor. "John Shakespeare was very prolific and became rather wealthy - before losing a fortune as a money-lender, which was his downfall. He made wonderful leather goods for the upper echelons of society, and William received a free education while his father was on the town council."


There's a rare opportunity this month to see the schoolroom where Shakespeare is thought to have been taught, as part of Heritage Open Days (HODs). Now the King Edward VI School, it's still in Guild Hall, Church Street, where Shakespeare would have had to sit on a hard wooden bench from six in the morning for up to 12 hours a day.


There are other HODs events too - the historic Georgian town hall is open, as well as the old town jail (now a solicitor's) in Sheep Street.


You might not find 'John Shakespeare Whittawer' on the shop signs nowadays, but you will still find traders who show the same level of individuality, skill and dedication. Antiques, luxury and artisan food and drink, clothes and gifts, and more besides - the boutiques are plentiful. As well as the main streets, there's Cox's Yard. Once owned by timber merchant James Cox who supplied materials for many historic buildings, it's now a family entertainment complex - a great place to eat and look at the world going by.


"There are so many excellent shops and so much to see and do," Joyce Taylor says. "It's not a snooty place, and nor is it just for Shakespeare lovers; it's a family town. And you can enjoy yourself without spending a fortune, whether it's window shopping, or brass rubbing at the brass centre, or talking a walking or a bus tour.


"In fact, one of my favourite things to do is to people-watch. There's a lovely little caf area at the Courtyard Theatre where you know you're going to see actors - possibly even David Tennant or Patrick Stewart!"


And there aren't many Cotswold towns where you can get a cup of coffee with the Doctor thrown in for free.


Heritage Open days, where historic and unusual properties are open to the public for free, run from September 11-14. For more information, visit www.heritageopendays.org.uk


For information on shops and other attractions, see www.visitstratforduponavon.co.uk

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