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Stratford Rail Travel, Greater London

PUBLISHED: 10:05 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013

Clopton Bridge, finananced by a silk merchant, from the tramway bridge

Clopton Bridge, finananced by a silk merchant, from the tramway bridge

When the tramway came to Stratford, it heralded a new era of rail travel that would really open up the town to the outside world.<br/><br/>Words and photography by Mark Child

Arguably, the finest views of the river at Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the town in general, are to be had from a bridge that crosses the Avon a short distance downriver of Clopton Bridge. So much so, that there has been fierce debate, in the last few years, over whether a proposed additional nearby footbridge would seriously damage these delightful prospects. Few would argue that this narrow crossing, so conceptually industrial in appearance, and contrasting sharply with its medieval neighbour, is itself an attractive part of the landscape.


River crossings have always been important to Stratford. The town grew up beside one, and, c1480-92, a local boy made good - the celebrated bachelor silk merchant Sir Hugh Clopton, who became Lord Mayor of London - made the crossing safe and thereby seriously improved the movement of traffic in and out of the town. It is essentially his bridge, on fourteen stone arches, over which traffic still passes as it enters Stratford from the south, and which, unsurprisingly, is much photographed from the river.


The bridge downriver of Clopton's is the nine-arch tramway bridge, built of local orange bricks in 1823. It is now a pedestrian walkway, annually conveying countless thousands of visitors into the Bancroft Gardens. Yet probably very few of those who cross it are aware of its origins, or how crucial it was, in its time, in helping to develop the rail communications that were so important to Stratford's economic health in the 19th century. The Stratford & Moreton Railway Company, who built the tramway bridge, were just the first of a series of railway developers who constructed lines in and out of Stratford in the 1800s.


Their number included the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway, which approached the town from the south, operating a branch terminus with Honeybourne between 1859 and 1861. In 1860, the independent Stratford-upon-Avon Railway Company came in from Hatton to the north, on a branch from the Great Western Railway's route between Oxford and Birmingham. In 1873, the East & West Junction Railway ran out of Kineton to the east.


These companies, which serviced Stratford-upon-Avon, hardly survived the 19th century. The Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway became the West Midland Railway in 1860, and was taken over by the Great Western Railway three years later; the GWR took over the Stratford-upon-Avon Railway Company in 1883; and the East & West Junction Railway became part of the Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway - an acquisitive organisation - in 1908. Fifteen years later, this became part of London, Midland & Scottish Railway. The town's present station was opened in 1861.


It all goes to show just how important Stratford-upon-Avon was considered to be in the movement of regional commodities by rail, but not necessarily in the transportation of passengers. These were all minor lines, providing local services. Had Stratford been a mainline station from the outset, it might have been a quite different economic matter. As it was, the railways took away trade from the river and the canals but, for a while, did not replace it with ones built on tourism.


In the National Railway Museum in York, there is a wagon, of c1846, that once ran along the Stratford and Moreton tramway. In retirement, it had been given a corrugated roof and was used as a hut on an allotment near Ilmington, Warwickshire. Only when it was moved to a nearby farm in the 1960s, and cleaned up, were the words 'Thomas James coal merchant, Shipston-on-Stour' revealed. Here was a trader, working in the 1850s, in the very commodity for which the first railway in and out of Stratford-upon-Avon had been set up.


There was another wagon, which stood on a section of the original track, beside the Bancroft Gardens at Stratford-upon-Avon until 2007. The accompanying plaque told how it was discovered being used as a farmyard chicken coop, and was restored in 1971 by engineering students at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education. The faded lettering recalled 'Thomas Hutchings, Newbold Lime Works'. Sadly, the wagon had deteriorated, was vandalised and fire-damaged, and had to be taken away. The intention, subject to funding, is that it should be restored and put back on display. There are also proposals by the World Class Stratford Project, again subject to funding and, in this case, also planning permission, to illustrate and interpret the whole line of the Moreton & Stratford tramway across the tramway bridge at Stratford-upon-Avon.


Both wagons are relicts of an enterprise that was consequent upon the canal age, and which only came about because Parliament passed an Act in 1793 for the canal to be constructed out of Birmingham, and which reached Stratford in 1816. There were wharves where this canal met the River Avon, and it was in order to make use of these that a steam railway was planned to run between Stratford and Moreton-in-Marsh. The aim of the enterprise was to carry coal south from the Midlands, and take building stone and agricultural products northwards from the limestone quarries and fields of Gloucestershire. In the event, it would convey copious amounts of stone from the quarries above Bourton-on-the-Hill, brought to Moreton-in-Marsh for onward transportation on the tramway.


The architect of the scheme was William James (1771-1837), of Henley-in-Arden. James, an engineer and surveyor, was on the management committee of the Stratford Canal during its final stages, and would be briefly employed as Clerk to the Stratford & Moreton Tramway. His original intention was that Stratford-upon-Avon should be part of a rail route between the Midlands and London, via Oxford, along which George Stephenson's steam locomotives would provide the power. Coal was fundamental to James, who had interests in collieries around the Midlands, and was concerned with establishing the transport means by which new markets might be opened for their product.


He surveyed the route of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1822, and, often at his own expense, a good many other potential railway routes around the country. In 1823, he was thrown into prison in London for debt, and became bankrupt, but used his time whilst incarcerated to formulate what was effectively a national network of railways. In fact, his plans for the Stratford and Moreton line was called 'Plan of the lines of the Central Junction Railway or Tram-road' and showed how it was connected to London. William James, pioneer promoter of railways, was an expansive thinker.


Horse tramways had existed as a means of transport since c1780, but James had not wanted this for his line between Stratford and Moreton. Parliament approved the nineteen-mile stretch in 1821, but local landowners were so troubled at the prospect of steam, that it was a horse-drawn route on a 56- inch rail gauge that opened in 1826. This was engineered for the Stratford & Moreton Railway Company by John Urpeth Rastrick, a builder of steam locomotives who had also worked on projects for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. The tramway had trucks for carrying coal and other commodities, and carriages for passengers.


In 1836, a nine-mile tramway branch was added between Moreton-in-Marsh and Shipston-on-Stour. It is said that Isambard Kingdom Brunel was associated with the tramway when he surveyed the line for the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway, which was opened for passengers between Oxford and Moreton in 1853.


Meanwhile, the Stratford & Moreton tramway approached Stratford-upon-Avon, parallel to the Shipston Road, through wooded countryside and fields; it passed the rope walk south of Bridge Town, and crossed the Avon, skirted a timber yard that may have been on the site from the 17th century, and slid along the back of the wharf adjacent to Bridgefoot. The site of the timber yard is now Cox's Yard, and that of the wharf is the location of the greens and flowerbeds of the Bancroft gardens, on the north-east side of the basin.


The obvious omission to the scene as the tramway entered Stratford was the theatre, which is now such a landmark in the town. Where it now sits, together with much of the southerly section of the Bancroft Gardens, became another water basin by the 1830s, joined by a short canal near the end of present-day Sheep Street. Hereabouts, there were no pleasure grounds; the basins were surrounded by warehouses, coal wharves, timber yards, a timber drying shed, and a fertilizer store. The Stratford & Moreton Railway Company, thinking ahead, and of the opinion that its enterprise would greatly facilitate trade in and out of Stratford, bought and developed several acres of ground here for the purpose in the 1820s.


The Stratford & Moreton Railway Company began operations out of Stratford on the cusp of a watershed in the history of transport. The countryside was on the edge of a transport revolution that would effectively finish the coaching era; ironically, this happened at a time when equally momentous developments in road construction and surfacing had raised coach travel to its highest levels of safety, comfort, and, above all, speed. Attendees at the Shakespeare Gala Festival of 1827 - the first themed event after David Garrick's much heralded, but ultimately anaemic washout of a three-day festival at the town in 1769 - came in the coaching era. So did those of the Royal Gala Festival three years later, although the object of the recognition - George IV - apparently sent kind words but not the royal personage. Aspirational though these events were, they were probably much more local in character and support than one might suppose. By the time Stratford-upon-Avon celebrated the 300th anniversary of the playwright's birth in 1864, rail travel had completely taken over. It was at this point that the town acquired its tourist industry.


Once the tramway opened, the company began to experiment with steam. In 1859, the section between Moreton and Shipston became a conventional railway, and a steam-operated passenger service continued from 1889 until 1929, and freight used the line until 1960. When the line was taken up, the railway company presented two lengths of rail and some associated masonry to the town of Henley-in-Arden in recognition of William James's involvement. One piece of wrought-iron track, approximately fifteen feet long, survives mounted and displayed against a pretty tile-topped brick wall in the Guildhall gardens.


There is more information about the man at the Henley-in-Arden Heritage Centre in High Street, where you can also learn about the William James Heritage Trail. The tramway at Stratford is remembered in Tramway Walk, and, beside the former embankment, there is The Old Tramway public house on Shipston Road. However, they will tell you there that this was built as a private house in 1856, whose owner, James Rudge, turned it into a public house called the Railway Inn, nine years later.


Without the attention paid to Stratford-upon-Avon by the early railway companies, the public interest in Shakespeare would have been less pronounced in the 19th century. Matters pertaining to the bard had been left very much in abeyance since Garrick's intercession, notwithstanding a failed attempt by Charles Matthews (1776-1835) in 1820 to raise sufficient interest at Stratford to build a memorial theatre there by public subscription. Matthews - London theatre manager, collector of theatrical paintings, and the most successful comic actor of his day - achieved considerable success with performances of Shakespeare at venues with which he was associated in the capital.


Stratford remained obstinately ambivalent; and it is said that when the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon visited the town in 1830, he found Shakespeare's memory enshrined only in his birthplace and that of his interment. Nor was the former restored until 1858, when sufficient visitors were arriving, now mostly by rail, to awaken Stratford to marketing possibilities in the Shakespeare brand. Then, restoration of the house in Henley Street was carried out in the likeness of a drawing by a Mr Greene of Stratford, published in a 1769 edition of The Gentlemen's Quarterly.


Meanwhile, the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Club had been established in 1824: ironically, by a group of town traders - butchers, bakers, etc - who one might have thought would be the least interested in the playwright. They met at the Falcon Hotel, and, over dinner, formed what is now the oldest Shakespeare club in the world, and the oldest club of any sort extant in Stratford.


For a brief period - from 1827 when George IV granted it, until 1830 when he died - the Club had royal patronage and was styled the Royal Shakespeare Club. In 1827 too, it tried to whip up some local enthusiasm by holding a dinner and a procession to the church. The Club was not without its internal quarrels and financial difficulties, and for a while in the 19th century, it split into two groups, one of which sang the National Anthem at its meetings, whilst the other rendered Rule Britannia. Eventually reconciled, it continues to hold meetings wherein academics or actors make relevant addresses, and is instrumental in the annual birthday celebrations.


At the time of the festival, held there in 1864 to mark the tercentenary of the playwright's birth, the railways conveyed sufficient visitors to make the event a success. People found it to be an attractive town; word got about, and more visitors came by train than had come before. Thus, the railways proved to be a catalyst for subsequent tourism to the town.


So what of Stratford-upon-Avon when the age of the steam railway was first upon it? Sheep Street, for example, is my favourite street in the town. It is effectively, although not intentionally, a 'catalogue' street, presented as if here has been set out almost everything one might otherwise find scattered about Stratford. I am not just speaking of the buildings, but of what they represent in terms of history, atmosphere, and the frankly spooky. But you have to tread with care; it is not only a catalogue of the original, but also - in several of its frontages - a catalogue of later fashions in architecture. For there are rather fewer buildings in Sheep Street that present their original faades for inspection, than have been given either a render of stucco, neo-Tudor frontages, or had their timber-framing surfaced in brick. These were mostly late 19th-century attempts to enhance the town's overall 16th-century appeal. These days, we would call it marketing.


Even so, and notwithstanding that you can visit the past in isolated buildings in almost any of the town's streets, Sheep Street is where it loiters most invitingly in almost every doorway, and most clearly calls after you, as you pass along. Timber-framed Sheep Street suffered, as did High Street, Chapel Street and Henley Street, in a series of fires that broke out in various parts of the town between 1594 and 1641.


In most places, Sheep Street - and the name is common enough - is usually given to a thoroughfare down which flocks of sheep were driven to be penned for sale. Certainly, there was a market for sheep here in medieval times, but until the 18th century, this is where sheep were brought to be slaughtered and butchered. Even in the early 1800s, a handful of butchers still operated here. One can imagine how the street then stood apart, effectively one that was not preferred by the private residents of the old town.


Of course, we do not see Sheep Street as it was when the Stratford and Moreton tramway was built. Stratford in Bloom, designer signs, and the showy objects of our 'must have' society are a modern veneer on its former utilitarianism. It now offers international couture and cuisine, jewellery and antiques, pottery, gifts, clothing, and contemporary visitor attractions made of the buildings, myths and legends of the past. It is easier to assimilate than are the grander Tudor buildings that delight elsewhere in the town, and more than in any other part, has a small town feel of its own.


Sheep Street alone could be the high street of a smaller Cotswold town, for although it appears at first sight to be independent in its commerce and trade, a closer acquaintance also reveals some ubiquitous high street names. They need not concern us. One may go from takeaway fish and chips to fine in-house dining in the space of a few footfalls along what has become the town's eating quarter, and who is to say which is more attractive in the prevailing mood of the moment.


If you look at the demography of Sheep Street just as the tramway got going, you will see that it did not attract Stratford's residential gentry. Doubtless, the clientele of hairdresser William Butcher were mostly the artisans around his premises. These would not have come from just Sheep Street alone, but also from the deliciously named Emms Court, a little passage of hovels packed in at the rear of what is now Lamb's, and doubtless homes to several quite large families. There are several little passageways leading off Sheep Street today, some now truncated by buildings, but all nonetheless indicative of a time when they were lined by labourers' cottages.


Although milliner and dressmaker Catherine Dudley was in Sheep Street in the early years of the 19th century, as were tailors and pelisse makers John Keeley and Charles Paine, one imagines that their business, when it was with the more well-to-do of the town, was conducted through servants, once measurements had been taken in the more affluent residents' homes.


The most prolific trade in Sheep Street in the late 1820s was that of victualler; there were five of them, and four additional maltsters. One of these was in a building next to the town hall, at the top of the street, where a maltster had been in occupation since at least 1683. It was this business that, a couple of decades later, would relocate further down the street and open as a public house that became the Rose & Crown. This was always a street of labourers, and it held a number of beer houses to satisfy their thirsts.


The number of victuallers and maltsters comes as no surprise when you consider how many of the Sheep Street premises are still in the licensed trade today. The street then had three butchers; William Joy made saddles, harnesses and collars for horses; and the creatures were shod by Stephen Adkins, the smith and farrier. William Wallis made guns in Sheep Street; Edward Paine sold timber; and for plumbing, glazing and painting, one might call on William Sheldon. The aspirational John Cranmer, whitesmith, was there; over the years, he would add locksmith, bellhanger, gas fitter, manufacturer of gas and cooking apparatus, maker of iron bedsteads, etc., to his prospectus. The impression is that Sheep Street, on the verge of the railway age, was a reasonably self-contained part of Stratford-upon-Avon.


Over the next thirty years, subtle differences took place in Sheep Street, and also in Stratford itself. The Shakespeare properties portfolio, for example, was increased when a public subscription enabled the site of New Place, where the poet died, and the adjacent grounds to be bought into the custody of the birthplace committee. The public could inspect the purchase, but those who wished to do so had first to apply at the birthplace in Henley Street.


Sheep Street had clearly become more acceptable to a wider public. The beautifully named Sarah Selina Compton had the milliner's business; the equally wonderful Ephraim Pully made baskets; there was a toy dealer now, and a general shopkeeper. Isaac Cory, maltster, was also a tax collector; there was a fire insurance agent in the street; and it had a bakery. Of the traders listed in Sheep Street in 1830, just three remained more than three decades later: William Butcher, hairdresser, John Cranmer the whitesmith, and the blacksmith Stephen Adkins.


So many of the buildings in which these people lived and worked are still there, although now catering predominantly for visitors rather than the resident community. There are a number of small buildings at the waterside end of Sheep Street, now gift shops and dress shops that are said to have been built in the 1400s. They do not necessarily stand out, or overtly invite architectural inspection. There are others, however, that positively clamour for it.


Sheep Street begins at the town end with the town hall of 1768, built largely on the footprint of a combined hall for corporation business, colonnaded market house and gaol that went up 134 years previously and which had been partially blown up during the Civil War. In 1746, it was the site of the earliest recorded Shakespeare production in the town. The present town hall was designed by Robert Newton, and is built of stone.


The Vintner, at 4 & 5 Sheep Street is an atmospheric bundle of historic oak beams and flagstone floor, and the owners like to think that Shakespeare bought wine from here. It was built in the 15th century, and is named after the trade carried on there by John Smith, a wine merchant by the beginning of the 17th century. It was also once The Shakespeare Press, Gerald Jaggar's bookshop.


No. 12 Sheep Street, now Lamb's restaurant, is in the gable end part of a large, early 16th-century town house that probably included what are now numbers 10 and 11. Architects think that it may have been a speculative property, its timberwork made up elsewhere then drilled and pegged on site. The little window on the overhang is a delight, and the cellar, built of Wilmcote stone, keeps a constant temperature all year round.


The property has been dated to 1520, and might have been back-entry lodgings for coachmen attending the Shakespeare Hotel. There was a hayloft above the entrance, and the enduring story is that this had to be raised by a couple of feet to facilitate access by horse-drawn coaches. The hayloft went into business - as a wheelwright's paint shop, and variously as premises for a wood carver, a glazier and a milliner - and No. 12 also became a teashop. Two women who slept in the hayloft were so overcome by the noises of the building and the wind that, following a visit in 1930 to a showing of the film Cobweb of Fear, they renamed their premises the Cobweb Teashop.


Next door, at No. 13, is a building of c1550. It was formerly an alehouse, was a one-time flower shop, and a restaurant 1954-88. It is now The Oppo Restaurant (a contraction of 'The Opposition'). The Rose & Crown, at No. 15, is another historic building, erected late in the 16th century. The business opened there as The Green Dragon in 1850, and within a few years the premises had split into this and the Rose & Crown, with a brewery at the rear.


Sheep Street's most obvious homage to tourism is The Falstaffs Experience, admitted down a narrow, cobbled passageway beside the shrieve's house. At No. 40, ghoulishness is pretty high on the shudder scale; it is pure theatre, an arrangement of cottages and shops in which the ghostly and ghastly of Stratford's darker past play havoc with the senses. It is a thrilling, sometimes funny, mixture of fact and fiction that only the boldest would care to separate. The setting is perfect, the 'guides' in costume are convincing, and your imagination will do the rest.


The Falstaffs Experience was set up in 1998 by Steve Devey, a one-time amateur actor, and Kay Whittaker, in a 17th-century brick and timber barn beside what became one of Stratford's most notorious alleys. Not everything is theatre, however: these premises have been officially certified as 'one of the most haunted buildings in Britain'. Those susceptible to such things have identified up to forty ghosts in the former barn and in the adjacent shrieve's house, including the shades of a cavalier, a little girl, a rapist and murderer, and a prostitute who worked in the alley. The business was taken over in 2007 by Janet and John Ford, who have documentary evidence that a little courtyard theatre was once there, which they hope to recreate.


The timber-framed shrieve's house, which fronts Sheep Street, is thought to be the oldest house in Stratford, and may have originated about 1500. Its name is said to come from that of William Sheryve, an archer, who was there c1542. Oliver Cromwell allegedly stayed there in 1651, and it was once a tavern owned by William Rogers. The Fords live there now, and share it with innumerable spirits.


At its Bridgefoot end, Sheep Street is to become part of the landscaping programme that has recently seen the wholesale dismissal of some forty-four of the mature trees around the perimeter of the Bancroft Gardens, and which is partly intended to provide an improved view of the rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Two public squares are to be laid out at the junction of these thoroughfares, and the Swan Fountain, currently within the gardens, is to be incorporated into the Sheep Street square.


Arguably, the finest views of the river at Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the town in general, are to be had from a bridge that crosses the Avon a short distance downriver of Clopton Bridge. So much so, that there has been fierce debate, in the last few years, over whether a proposed additional nearby footbridge would seriously damage these delightful prospects. Few would argue that this narrow crossing, so conceptually industrial in appearance, and contrasting sharply with its medieval neighbour, is itself an attractive part of the landscape.


River crossings have always been important to Stratford. The town grew up beside one, and, c1480-92, a local boy made good - the celebrated bachelor silk merchant Sir Hugh Clopton, who became Lord Mayor of London - made the crossing safe and thereby seriously improved the movement of traffic in and out of the town. It is essentially his bridge, on fourteen stone arches, over which traffic still passes as it enters Stratford from the south, and which, unsurprisingly, is much photographed from the river.


The bridge downriver of Clopton's is the nine-arch tramway bridge, built of local orange bricks in 1823. It is now a pedestrian walkway, annually conveying countless thousands of visitors into the Bancroft Gardens. Yet probably very few of those who cross it are aware of its origins, or how crucial it was, in its time, in helping to develop the rail communications that were so important to Stratford's economic health in the 19th century. The Stratford & Moreton Railway Company, who built the tramway bridge, were just the first of a series of railway developers who constructed lines in and out of Stratford in the 1800s.


Their number included the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway, which approached the town from the south, operating a branch terminus with Honeybourne between 1859 and 1861. In 1860, the independent Stratford-upon-Avon Railway Company came in from Hatton to the north, on a branch from the Great Western Railway's route between Oxford and Birmingham. In 1873, the East & West Junction Railway ran out of Kineton to the east.


These companies, which serviced Stratford-upon-Avon, hardly survived the 19th century. The Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway became the West Midland Railway in 1860, and was taken over by the Great Western Railway three years later; the GWR took over the Stratford-upon-Avon Railway Company in 1883; and the East & West Junction Railway became part of the Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway - an acquisitive organisation - in 1908. Fifteen years later, this became part of London, Midland & Scottish Railway. The town's present station was opened in 1861.


It all goes to show just how important Stratford-upon-Avon was considered to be in the movement of regional commodities by rail, but not necessarily in the transportation of passengers. These were all minor lines, providing local services. Had Stratford been a mainline station from the outset, it might have been a quite different economic matter. As it was, the railways took away trade from the river and the canals but, for a while, did not replace it with ones built on tourism.


In the National Railway Museum in York, there is a wagon, of c1846, that once ran along the Stratford and Moreton tramway. In retirement, it had been given a corrugated roof and was used as a hut on an allotment near Ilmington, Warwickshire. Only when it was moved to a nearby farm in the 1960s, and cleaned up, were the words 'Thomas James coal merchant, Shipston-on-Stour' revealed. Here was a trader, working in the 1850s, in the very commodity for which the first railway in and out of Stratford-upon-Avon had been set up.


There was another wagon, which stood on a section of the original track, beside the Bancroft Gardens at Stratford-upon-Avon until 2007. The accompanying plaque told how it was discovered being used as a farmyard chicken coop, and was restored in 1971 by engineering students at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education. The faded lettering recalled 'Thomas Hutchings, Newbold Lime Works'. Sadly, the wagon had deteriorated, was vandalised and fire-damaged, and had to be taken away. The intention, subject to funding, is that it should be restored and put back on display. There are also proposals by the World Class Stratford Project, again subject to funding and, in this case, also planning permission, to illustrate and interpret the whole line of the Moreton & Stratford tramway across the tramway bridge at Stratford-upon-Avon.


Both wagons are relicts of an enterprise that was consequent upon the canal age, and which only came about because Parliament passed an Act in 1793 for the canal to be constructed out of Birmingham, and which reached Stratford in 1816. There were wharves where this canal met the River Avon, and it was in order to make use of these that a steam railway was planned to run between Stratford and Moreton-in-Marsh. The aim of the enterprise was to carry coal south from the Midlands, and take building stone and agricultural products northwards from the limestone quarries and fields of Gloucestershire. In the event, it would convey copious amounts of stone from the quarries above Bourton-on-the-Hill, brought to Moreton-in-Marsh for onward transportation on the tramway.


The architect of the scheme was William James (1771-1837), of Henley-in-Arden. James, an engineer and surveyor, was on the management committee of the Stratford Canal during its final stages, and would be briefly employed as Clerk to the Stratford & Moreton Tramway. His original intention was that Stratford-upon-Avon should be part of a rail route between the Midlands and London, via Oxford, along which George Stephenson's steam locomotives would provide the power. Coal was fundamental to James, who had interests in collieries around the Midlands, and was concerned with establishing the transport means by which new markets might be opened for their product.


He surveyed the route of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1822, and, often at his own expense, a good many other potential railway routes around the country. In 1823, he was thrown into prison in London for debt, and became bankrupt, but used his time whilst incarcerated to formulate what was effectively a national network of railways. In fact, his plans for the Stratford and Moreton line was called 'Plan of the lines of the Central Junction Railway or Tram-road' and showed how it was connected to London. William James, pioneer promoter of railways, was an expansive thinker.


Horse tramways had existed as a means of transport since c1780, but James had not wanted this for his line between Stratford and Moreton. Parliament approved the nineteen-mile stretch in 1821, but local landowners were so troubled at the prospect of steam, that it was a horse-drawn route on a 56- inch rail gauge that opened in 1826. This was engineered for the Stratford & Moreton Railway Company by John Urpeth Rastrick, a builder of steam locomotives who had also worked on projects for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. The tramway had trucks for carrying coal and other commodities, and carriages for passengers.


In 1836, a nine-mile tramway branch was added between Moreton-in-Marsh and Shipston-on-Stour. It is said that Isambard Kingdom Brunel was associated with the tramway when he surveyed the line for the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway, which was opened for passengers between Oxford and Moreton in 1853.


Meanwhile, the Stratford & Moreton tramway approached Stratford-upon-Avon, parallel to the Shipston Road, through wooded countryside and fields; it passed the rope walk south of Bridge Town, and crossed the Avon, skirted a timber yard that may have been on the site from the 17th century, and slid along the back of the wharf adjacent to Bridgefoot. The site of the timber yard is now Cox's Yard, and that of the wharf is the location of the greens and flowerbeds of the Bancroft gardens, on the north-east side of the basin.


The obvious omission to the scene as the tramway entered Stratford was the theatre, which is now such a landmark in the town. Where it now sits, together with much of the southerly section of the Bancroft Gardens, became another water basin by the 1830s, joined by a short canal near the end of present-day Sheep Street. Hereabouts, there were no pleasure grounds; the basins were surrounded by warehouses, coal wharves, timber yards, a timber drying shed, and a fertilizer store. The Stratford & Moreton Railway Company, thinking ahead, and of the opinion that its enterprise would greatly facilitate trade in and out of Stratford, bought and developed several acres of ground here for the purpose in the 1820s.


The Stratford & Moreton Railway Company began operations out of Stratford on the cusp of a watershed in the history of transport. The countryside was on the edge of a transport revolution that would effectively finish the coaching era; ironically, this happened at a time when equally momentous developments in road construction and surfacing had raised coach travel to its highest levels of safety, comfort, and, above all, speed. Attendees at the Shakespeare Gala Festival of 1827 - the first themed event after David Garrick's much heralded, but ultimately anaemic washout of a three-day festival at the town in 1769 - came in the coaching era. So did those of the Royal Gala Festival three years later, although the object of the recognition - George IV - apparently sent kind words but not the royal personage. Aspirational though these events were, they were probably much more local in character and support than one might suppose. By the time Stratford-upon-Avon celebrated the 300th anniversary of the playwright's birth in 1864, rail travel had completely taken over. It was at this point that the town acquired its tourist industry.


Once the tramway opened, the company began to experiment with steam. In 1859, the section between Moreton and Shipston became a conventional railway, and a steam-operated passenger service continued from 1889 until 1929, and freight used the line until 1960. When the line was taken up, the railway company presented two lengths of rail and some associated masonry to the town of Henley-in-Arden in recognition of William James's involvement. One piece of wrought-iron track, approximately fifteen feet long, survives mounted and displayed against a pretty tile-topped brick wall in the Guildhall gardens.


There is more information about the man at the Henley-in-Arden Heritage Centre in High Street, where you can also learn about the William James Heritage Trail. The tramway at Stratford is remembered in Tramway Walk, and, beside the former embankment, there is The Old Tramway public house on Shipston Road. However, they will tell you there that this was built as a private house in 1856, whose owner, James Rudge, turned it into a public house called the Railway Inn, nine years later.


Without the attention paid to Stratford-upon-Avon by the early railway companies, the public interest in Shakespeare would have been less pronounced in the 19th century. Matters pertaining to the bard had been left very much in abeyance since Garrick's intercession, notwithstanding a failed attempt by Charles Matthews (1776-1835) in 1820 to raise sufficient interest at Stratford to build a memorial theatre there by public subscription. Matthews - London theatre manager, collector of theatrical paintings, and the most successful comic actor of his day - achieved considerable success with performances of Shakespeare at venues with which he was associated in the capital.


Stratford remained obstinately ambivalent; and it is said that when the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon visited the town in 1830, he found Shakespeare's memory enshrined only in his birthplace and that of his interment. Nor was the former restored until 1858, when sufficient visitors were arriving, now mostly by rail, to awaken Stratford to marketing possibilities in the Shakespeare brand. Then, restoration of the house in Henley Street was carried out in the likeness of a drawing by a Mr Greene of Stratford, published in a 1769 edition of The Gentlemen's Quarterly.


Meanwhile, the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Club had been established in 1824: ironically, by a group of town traders - butchers, bakers, etc - who one might have thought would be the least interested in the playwright. They met at the Falcon Hotel, and, over dinner, formed what is now the oldest Shakespeare club in the world, and the oldest club of any sort extant in Stratford.


For a brief period - from 1827 when George IV granted it, until 1830 when he died - the Club had royal patronage and was styled the Royal Shakespeare Club. In 1827 too, it tried to whip up some local enthusiasm by holding a dinner and a procession to the church. The Club was not without its internal quarrels and financial difficulties, and for a while in the 19th century, it split into two groups, one of which sang the National Anthem at its meetings, whilst the other rendered Rule Britannia. Eventually reconciled, it continues to hold meetings wherein academics or actors make relevant addresses, and is instrumental in the annual birthday celebrations.


At the time of the festival, held there in 1864 to mark the tercentenary of the playwright's birth, the railways conveyed sufficient visitors to make the event a success. People found it to be an attractive town; word got about, and more visitors came by train than had come before. Thus, the railways proved to be a catalyst for subsequent tourism to the town.


So what of Stratford-upon-Avon when the age of the steam railway was first upon it? Sheep Street, for example, is my favourite street in the town. It is effectively, although not intentionally, a 'catalogue' street, presented as if here has been set out almost everything one might otherwise find scattered about Stratford. I am not just speaking of the buildings, but of what they represent in terms of history, atmosphere, and the frankly spooky. But you have to tread with care; it is not only a catalogue of the original, but also - in several of its frontages - a catalogue of later fashions in architecture. For there are rather fewer buildings in Sheep Street that present their original faades for inspection, than have been given either a render of stucco, neo-Tudor frontages, or had their timber-framing surfaced in brick. These were mostly late 19th-century attempts to enhance the town's overall 16th-century appeal. These days, we would call it marketing.


Even so, and notwithstanding that you can visit the past in isolated buildings in almost any of the town's streets, Sheep Street is where it loiters most invitingly in almost every doorway, and most clearly calls after you, as you pass along. Timber-framed Sheep Street suffered, as did High Street, Chapel Street and Henley Street, in a series of fires that broke out in various parts of the town between 1594 and 1641.


In most places, Sheep Street - and the name is common enough - is usually given to a thoroughfare down which flocks of sheep were driven to be penned for sale. Certainly, there was a market for sheep here in medieval times, but until the 18th century, this is where sheep were brought to be slaughtered and butchered. Even in the early 1800s, a handful of butchers still operated here. One can imagine how the street then stood apart, effectively one that was not preferred by the private residents of the old town.


Of course, we do not see Sheep Street as it was when the Stratford and Moreton tramway was built. Stratford in Bloom, designer signs, and the showy objects of our 'must have' society are a modern veneer on its former utilitarianism. It now offers international couture and cuisine, jewellery and antiques, pottery, gifts, clothing, and contemporary visitor attractions made of the buildings, myths and legends of the past. It is easier to assimilate than are the grander Tudor buildings that delight elsewhere in the town, and more than in any other part, has a small town feel of its own.


Sheep Street alone could be the high street of a smaller Cotswold town, for although it appears at first sight to be independent in its commerce and trade, a closer acquaintance also reveals some ubiquitous high street names. They need not concern us. One may go from takeaway fish and chips to fine in-house dining in the space of a few footfalls along what has become the town's eating quarter, and who is to say which is more attractive in the prevailing mood of the moment.


If you look at the demography of Sheep Street just as the tramway got going, you will see that it did not attract Stratford's residential gentry. Doubtless, the clientele of hairdresser William Butcher were mostly the artisans around his premises. These would not have come from just Sheep Street alone, but also from the deliciously named Emms Court, a little passage of hovels packed in at the rear of what is now Lamb's, and doubtless homes to several quite large families. There are several little passageways leading off Sheep Street today, some now truncated by buildings, but all nonetheless indicative of a time when they were lined by labourers' cottages.


Although milliner and dressmaker Catherine Dudley was in Sheep Street in the early years of the 19th century, as were tailors and pelisse makers John Keeley and Charles Paine, one imagines that their business, when it was with the more well-to-do of the town, was conducted through servants, once measurements had been taken in the more affluent residents' homes.


The most prolific trade in Sheep Street in the late 1820s was that of victualler; there were five of them, and four additional maltsters. One of these was in a building next to the town hall, at the top of the street, where a maltster had been in occupation since at least 1683. It was this business that, a couple of decades later, would relocate further down the street and open as a public house that became the Rose & Crown. This was always a street of labourers, and it held a number of beer houses to satisfy their thirsts.


The number of victuallers and maltsters comes as no surprise when you consider how many of the Sheep Street premises are still in the licensed trade today. The street then had three butchers; William Joy made saddles, harnesses and collars for horses; and the creatures were shod by Stephen Adkins, the smith and farrier. William Wallis made guns in Sheep Street; Edward Paine sold timber; and for plumbing, glazing and painting, one might call on William Sheldon. The aspirational John Cranmer, whitesmith, was there; over the years, he would add locksmith, bellhanger, gas fitter, manufacturer of gas and cooking apparatus, maker of iron bedsteads, etc., to his prospectus. The impression is that Sheep Street, on the verge of the railway age, was a reasonably self-contained part of Stratford-upon-Avon.


Over the next thirty years, subtle differences took place in Sheep Street, and also in Stratford itself. The Shakespeare properties portfolio, for example, was increased when a public subscription enabled the site of New Place, where the poet died, and the adjacent grounds to be bought into the custody of the birthplace committee. The public could inspect the purchase, but those who wished to do so had first to apply at the birthplace in Henley Street.


Sheep Street had clearly become more acceptable to a wider public. The beautifully named Sarah Selina Compton had the milliner's business; the equally wonderful Ephraim Pully made baskets; there was a toy dealer now, and a general shopkeeper. Isaac Cory, maltster, was also a tax collector; there was a fire insurance agent in the street; and it had a bakery. Of the traders listed in Sheep Street in 1830, just three remained more than three decades later: William Butcher, hairdresser, John Cranmer the whitesmith, and the blacksmith Stephen Adkins.


So many of the buildings in which these people lived and worked are still there, although now catering predominantly for visitors rather than the resident community. There are a number of small buildings at the waterside end of Sheep Street, now gift shops and dress shops that are said to have been built in the 1400s. They do not necessarily stand out, or overtly invite architectural inspection. There are others, however, that positively clamour for it.


Sheep Street begins at the town end with the town hall of 1768, built largely on the footprint of a combined hall for corporation business, colonnaded market house and gaol that went up 134 years previously and which had been partially blown up during the Civil War. In 1746, it was the site of the earliest recorded Shakespeare production in the town. The present town hall was designed by Robert Newton, and is built of stone.


The Vintner, at 4 & 5 Sheep Street is an atmospheric bundle of historic oak beams and flagstone floor, and the owners like to think that Shakespeare bought wine from here. It was built in the 15th century, and is named after the trade carried on there by John Smith, a wine merchant by the beginning of the 17th century. It was also once The Shakespeare Press, Gerald Jaggar's bookshop.


No. 12 Sheep Street, now Lamb's restaurant, is in the gable end part of a large, early 16th-century town house that probably included what are now numbers 10 and 11. Architects think that it may have been a speculative property, its timberwork made up elsewhere then drilled and pegged on site. The little window on the overhang is a delight, and the cellar, built of Wilmcote stone, keeps a constant temperature all year round.


The property has been dated to 1520, and might have been back-entry lodgings for coachmen attending the Shakespeare Hotel. There was a hayloft above the entrance, and the enduring story is that this had to be raised by a couple of feet to facilitate access by horse-drawn coaches. The hayloft went into business - as a wheelwright's paint shop, and variously as premises for a wood carver, a glazier and a milliner - and No. 12 also became a teashop. Two women who slept in the hayloft were so overcome by the noises of the building and the wind that, following a visit in 1930 to a showing of the film Cobweb of Fear, they renamed their premises the Cobweb Teashop.


Next door, at No. 13, is a building of c1550. It was formerly an alehouse, was a one-time flower shop, and a restaurant 1954-88. It is now The Oppo Restaurant (a contraction of 'The Opposition'). The Rose & Crown, at No. 15, is another historic building, erected late in the 16th century. The business opened there as The Green Dragon in 1850, and within a few years the premises had split into this and the Rose & Crown, with a brewery at the rear.


Sheep Street's most obvious homage to tourism is The Falstaffs Experience, admitted down a narrow, cobbled passageway beside the shrieve's house. At No. 40, ghoulishness is pretty high on the shudder scale; it is pure theatre, an arrangement of cottages and shops in which the ghostly and ghastly of Stratford's darker past play havoc with the senses. It is a thrilling, sometimes funny, mixture of fact and fiction that only the boldest would care to separate. The setting is perfect, the 'guides' in costume are convincing, and your imagination will do the rest.


The Falstaffs Experience was set up in 1998 by Steve Devey, a one-time amateur actor, and Kay Whittaker, in a 17th-century brick and timber barn beside what became one of Stratford's most notorious alleys. Not everything is theatre, however: these premises have been officially certified as 'one of the most haunted buildings in Britain'. Those susceptible to such things have identified up to forty ghosts in the former barn and in the adjacent shrieve's house, including the shades of a cavalier, a little girl, a rapist and murderer, and a prostitute who worked in the alley. The business was taken over in 2007 by Janet and John Ford, who have documentary evidence that a little courtyard theatre was once there, which they hope to recreate.


The timber-framed shrieve's house, which fronts Sheep Street, is thought to be the oldest house in Stratford, and may have originated about 1500. Its name is said to come from that of William Sheryve, an archer, who was there c1542. Oliver Cromwell allegedly stayed there in 1651, and it was once a tavern owned by William Rogers. The Fords live there now, and share it with innumerable spirits.


At its Bridgefoot end, Sheep Street is to become part of the landscaping programme that has recently seen the wholesale dismissal of some forty-four of the mature trees around the perimeter of the Bancroft Gardens, and which is partly intended to provide an improved view of the rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Two public squares are to be laid out at the junction of these thoroughfares, and the Swan Fountain, currently within the gardens, is to be incorporated into the Sheep Street square.


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