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Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

PUBLISHED: 17:10 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

Narrow boats in the canal basin

Narrow boats in the canal basin

From the Bard to boating, this often eccentric town is unsuprisingly top of the list for overseas visitors. words and photography by Mark child

Stratford-upon-Avon is one of those places that instinctively spring to the minds of foreigners when they think of England. It is packed with the stuff of visitor potential. The town flourishes because of William Shakespeare, and it shamelessly markets the bard's life, work, and memory in every possible way. It is his shrine in several acts; it is where one comes to research Shakespeare, and to enjoy his works performed by the best actors and actresses on stages set in the cradle of his being.


History oozes from its ancient fabric. Stratford-upon-Avon is timber-framed and tipsy with age. Its old buildings, oak-beamed and marinated in the centuries, reach beyond Elizabethan England. The past washes around its walls, hides in its cellars, and climbs narrow stairways into rooms where it reveals itself in spectacular ways. The fabric of Stratford, frequently dark and brooding, often eccentric, occasionally impossible, is never dull.


There are succulent views along its tree-lined riverscape, across its bobbing punts, and of its river bridges and historic waterside buildings. Boating and boat trips can be enjoyed, and there can be little more satisfying than the gaily-coloured narrow boats that occupy its canal basin. There is the canal itself: a pleasant enough linear walk with some of the nicest canal-side architecture on the network. There are the Bancroft Gardens, always so alive with inspirational street entertainers and their appreciative audiences. There are the theatres: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, The Swan, the Other Place, the Shakespearience, and the Attic Theatre.


Just a few footfalls away is the town proper, where high street chains are embedded, in modest premises, amidst a jostling cacophony of independent traders. It is a town of irresistible retail blandishments: part kiss-me-quick and stentorian; part steady and reserved; but in its various shopping aspects, always voluptuous and voluble. You will find it bursting with choice, even if the alternatives are not what you might first have thought of, and full of retail quality. You will find a good sprinkling of those rather special traders whom one only occasionally comes across, but wishes would set up in one's own town. Of course, they were attracted to Stratford by its tourist potential, but are, nonetheless, themselves now part of the reason why people visit.


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A PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE


The Orchestra of the Swan - also known as OOTS - has a strong national reputation for the accessibility and high quality of its performances. It is particularly well regarded in Birmingham, where the orchestra is an associate ensemble at the newly refurbished Town Hall. In Stratford, its base is the Civic Hall, where it performs its concerts on home ground, and from where it tours. From here too, it undertakes work in schools and community groups, and will be embarking this autumn on a two-year project in collaboration with the town's Wellcombe Hills School. Despite more than a decade of inspirational concerts in the town, and giving everyone an informal opportunity to watch the orchestra prepare for performance for an hour at midday on all Stratford concert days, many people in Stratford are still unaware that there is a full professional chamber orchestra in their midst. It was formed in 1995 at the Stratford-upon-Avon Music Festival, and currently comprises about thirty-five highly talented musicians. The orchestra regards the commissioning of new work to be an important part of its programming, and is this year showcasing new work from Birmingham-based John Joubert - who is celebrating his 80th birthday - and Joanne Lee, a recent graduate from the Birmingham Conservatoire. Other such works being performed are by Alexander Goehr, and by Errollyn Wallen, its Composer-in-Association who received an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. The orchestra's 2007-8 season begins in October, and details of all its concerts and venues can be found at www.orchestraoftheswan.org


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In the words of the Mayor of Stratford DONNA BARKER



What makes Stratford special for you?


Stratford is a gentle town to live in with very little crime. In the summer, it looks beautiful with flowers from Stratford-in-Bloom. In the winter, it is a blaze of light with the best Christmas lights in the country.



What are the biggest changes in the town over the last five years?


The biggest changes in the town - too much housing and a tremendous increase in traffic.



What would you recommend a visitor to Stratford to do?


Visit the Shakespeare Houses. If they have children, the Butterfly Farm is wonderful, and Mary Arden's House at Wilmcote is very child friendly. During December we have the Christmas Festival, with foreign markets, entertainment and Santa Claus.



Is there an 'alternative' Stratford - perhaps known to the locals but less frequently experienced by visitors?


Yes, the Welcombe Hills about one mile north of the town, acres of unspoilt country. Also the towpaths by the canal.



What makes Stratford a great place in which to live?


Again, very little crime. There is a lot to do in Stratford, a lot of drama etc. and, of course, the RSC with their wonderful Shakespeare productions.



Where is your favourite part of the town, and when?


By the river, any time of the year.


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LARRY THE LAUGH-MAKER


Terence Parkes (1927-2003), better known as the great cartoonist Larry, moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1984, and lived and worked there for the rest of his life. He was given the nickname that stuck by schoolchildren to whom he was art master in the 1950s, following a showing of the 1946 film The Jolson Story starring Larry Parks. Larry the cartoonist was a large man, and cut an obvious figure as he rode about Stratford on his small, fold-up bicycle. He was a great theatre-goer, particularly fond of the RST; and he was very convivial company, spending much time imbibing at The Sportsman and eating at Sir Toby's restaurant. But he was a workaholic who was always mentally thinking up his famously wordless visual jokes. His wife Pauline says that they would often pass in the street, he so deep in thought that he would not recognise her until she tapped him on the shoulder. He was also an incredible hoarder who never discarded anything, and after his death Pauline discovered numerous items she thought had been sold years before!


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BIT OF A BASH


If you are in Stratford-upon-Avon on the weekend in August that the Bulldog Bash hits town, you are in for a real visual feast. The event is organised by the Hell's Angels, and is billed as the UK's biggest biker rock party; it is also self-policed, and is said to be the safest rock festival in the country. The Bulldog Bash has been held annually since 1987. It actually takes place at Long Marston, just outside the town, but that doesn't stop Stratford's main streets from being lined, throughout the day, by some of the most spectacular pieces of serious firepower on two - and sometimes custom-built three - supercharged wheels. This is colour enough to rival the most spectacular celebratory pyrotechnics; an orgy of throbbing and deep-throated roaring; and a fantastic parade of the seriously leather-clad. Nobody mentions double yellow lines and inappropriate parking to thousands of bikers; nor should they, for this parade of gleaming motorbikes is one of the greatest free shows on earth. Then, almost like a migrating flock of birds taking off en masse, they will be gone. Back to Long Marston for some of the fastest jet propelled dragstrip in the world, and personal motorbike racing, against a backdrop of heavy metal and rock music. There's a dance tent, a tattoo parlour, commodity stalls and a biker market. Nobody mentions sleep!


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In the words of Stratford resident, and town Regenerations Project Engineer


JULIE CRAWSHAW



What are the key regeneration projects taking place in Stratford?


Apart from the huge redevelopment of the RSC's theatres, we are also proposing other large schemes to rejuvenate the town. The Bancroft Gardens


are set for a significant face lift, ensuring that the new theatre sits in a setting becoming of its cultural importance. We have also reached the detailed design stage of a new footbridge over the river which we anticipate will be of international architectural importance. Many of the roads in Stratford are being closely examined to see if they can be pedestrianised, and big development opportunities are coming online for new visitor attractions, hotels etc over the coming decade. All very exciting stuff!



Where are the best parts of Stratford for family fun days out?


The river is such a key asset to the town, and it always features in the days out that I spend with my family. Whether it's just a gentle stroll along the river bank with an ice-cream, hiring a boat, or even taking a quick ferry trip; its just such a lovely place to be.



What makes Stratford a good regional shopping centre?


Stratford is one of those towns that has plenty of small independent shops that are worthy of a good mooch around. Some of my own family live near Hull, and they come all the way to Stratford twice a year just to shop for gifts at Vinegar Hill because it is unique. But Stratford also has the usual big names you expect in a regional high street, so we are doubly fortunate.



What is Stratford like for eating out?


There's plenty of variety. Sheep Street is great for lots of English and French bistros. The restaurants have stacks of old beams and crackling open fires. I generally opt for Lambs for birthday treats, and if we fancy a bustling gastro pub we go to The One Elm for the great atmosphere.



Is there any aspect of Stratford you would suggest visitors seek out?


Not everyone finds the gardens at New Place, which, although in the middle of town, are surrounded by tall yew hedges. These have helped to create a marvellous spot for quiet contemplation.


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A NUMBER OF THINGS


Stratford-upon-Avon has a resident population of only about 20,000 people.


Some 13,500 jobs locally are now dependent on the Stratford tourist trade.


There are estimated to be more than 100 hotels, guest houses and self-catering establishments in the town.


Every year, Stratford receives about three million visitors.


Throughout the summer, City Sightseeing buses carry some 2,500 people each week on the Stratford tour.


In the 2006-2007 season, 527,186 tickets were sold for RSC productions in Stratford.


In 2006 there were 748,040 visitors across all five Shakespeare properties.


Holy Trinity Church estimates that it has about 200,000 visitors each year, of which about 80,000 go specifically to see Shakespeare's tomb in the chancel.


It is claimed that 2.5 million people visit the Bancroft Gardens annually.


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SOMEWHERE TO CHILL


The Bancroft Gardens are at the centre of one of Stratford's most attractive areas. Here was once grazing land, bound on one side by the river and on the other by the town; it was known as the bank-croft. A temporary wooden theatre was built here for a three-day Shakespeare festival in 1769, and now the gardens are the setting for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. They are also the setting for much else: not the least a regular programme of street entertainers, most of whom are highly talented and usually very funny. They deservedly command big audiences, very largely because there are always so many visitors about this municipal park that offers so much. Countless thousands of people go there every year just to relax and watch everybody else doing the same. The riot of summer bedding is a seasonal floral spectacle not to be missed. The huge array of waterfowl that will follow your every riverside footstep in voluble hope of being fed are always a delight and sometimes a nuisance. The artists at work in the gardens offer a free show of immeasurable talent.


The centrepiece of the gardens, ever since it was given to the town in 1888, is Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower's Shakespeare Memorial, depicting the bard flanked by Falstaff representing comedy, Hamlet representing philosophy, Prince Henry representing history, and Lady Macbeth representing tragedy. Gower was also a Trustee of the Shakespeare Memorial Building and the Shakespeare Birthplace. Since the memorial was unveiled by the Queen, in the company of Prince Philip, in 1996, the gardens have also been decorated by local sculptor Christine Lee's superb 18-foot high swans made of steel and brass. This work was created to commemorate the 800th anniversary of 1196 when Richard I granted a market charter to Stratford.


The great visitor attraction of the Bancroft Gardens is the Lower Town Basin of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, the associated canal-side architecture, and in particular the double-width or barge lock into the river. The canal, approved by parliament as the Birmingham & Stratford Canal in 1793, reached Stratford in 1816. Parts of the gardens are on the sites of former warehouses and wharves - the adjacent Cox's Yard complex has former timber-drying sheds that are all that remains of these - and of a second canal basin that was built in 1826 and filled in seventy-six years later. The Lower Town Basin is usually full of brightly painted narrow boats and various craft belonging to semi-permanent floating traders - such as ice-cream seller, restaurant, and art gallery - who all help to make it such an enjoyable experience.


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ON THE BUSES


The City Sightseeing buses are a convenient way of seeing all the Shakespeare properties in and around Stratford, stopping off and getting on at will. There are fourteen stops along the route. These buses have long been a familiar site about the town; Guide Friday merged with City Sightseeing in 2001, and, since early in 2007, the tours have been operated under franchise by Stagecoach. The tours start from outside the Pen & Parchment public house in Bridge Foot, an old hostelry close to the Bancroft Gardens, the river and the canal, whose cellars were submerged in the floods of 2007, and whose public rooms were also under three feet of water. City Sightseeing buses do the round trip of some twelve miles in about an hour; buses leaving on the hour and the half-hour have personal tour guides on board; those leaving at quarter to and quarter past include a recorded commentary in seven languages.


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SHADES OF STRATFORD


In 2002, John and Helen Hogg, who formerly worked on the open top Guide Friday buses, set up regular walking tours around Stratford in the company of a small group of guides. These operate every day of the year, including Christmas Day, whatever the weather. John, who is a member of The Magic Circle and a member of Equity, has always been interested in magic and matters ethereal. In no time at all the couple began to uncover the grisly, ghastly and ghostly of Stratford's past, and the incredibly successful ghost walk began. This takes place each Monday, Thursday and Friday evening; there is a special Halloween ghost walk on 31 October; and, between April and October, there is a twice-monthly ghost cruise in partnership with Bancroft Cruisers. The walks, which include ghosts, witches and mayhem - with a sprinkling of magic - have featured on radio and television, and have won the Best Visitor Attraction Godiva Award.


According to John, 'Witches were believed to gain their power from entities beyond this earth, whereas ghosts do so from more earthly things like old buildings and traumatic events, and their presence is frequently accompanied by intense cold. Ghosts, and a belief in the hereafter, have been a source of interest from the earliest times. Most people would accept that there are things in this world that defy explanation.'


Stratford is packed with the stuff of melodrama, and it all comes alive on the ghost walk. You will hear about Jane Ward, the alleged witch of Emms Court, whose neighbour believed she was sending evil spirits down his chimney to terrify his sickly daughter, and attacked her with a knife. You will hear of the ghosts at The Falcon Hotel and the Shakespeare Hotel; of a colourless woman who sits in one bedroom, and a cowering girl in another. You will be transfixed by the tale of foul murder at the Old Thatch Tavern, where aspects of the attack on Joseph Pinfold by soldiers of the 5th Dragoons on Christmas Day 1795 seem to have steeped into the building's ancient fabric - and how they manifest themselves still. Then there is the Garrick Inn, built in 1595 on the site of a merchant's house wherein was staying the first recorded victim of plague in 1564. It has its own hauntings, and a medium has detected the 'presence' of bodies in the cellar area - plague victims, perhaps?


These are just a handful of the many ghostly doings that Stratford has to offer, and, of course, John and his guides have much more to tell about these and all the others. If you fancy getting spooked in Stratford, you can arrange it by calling 01789 292478 or 07855 760377. For more information visit www.stratfordtownwalk.co.uk


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SHOPPING, EATING AND LOOKING ABOUT


If you have migrated first to the river and the adjacent gardens, your introduction to retail Stratford will begin at Waterside, where the attractions also include the theatres, other Shakespeare-linked entertainments, and a number of places to eat and drink. Thereafter, you can progress into the retail hinterland along either Sheep Street or Bridge Street. Sheep Street, arguably at the heart of the town's most cosmopolitan area, is lined with pubs, restaurants, bars, clothing retailers and gift shops. The Tudor, timber-framed houses of Sheep Street are smaller than those of High Street, into which it extends and where are the town's larger shops, and most of them are older inside. It is one of thirteen main shopping streets in the town, and there are several linking shopping precincts and retail alleys running off. Bridge Street and High Street are where you will find the greatest concentration of national retail shopping chains. The latter continues into Chapel Street to the west, where there are independent traders, some of Stratford's best timber-framed buildings, and properties associated with Shakespeare. The birthplace is in Henley Street - a wide, pedestrianised plaza where there are bookshops, gift shops and independent traders, as well as The Shakespeare Centre.


The Town Square is an open, modern shopping development between High Street, Ely Street and Wood Street. The latter is famed for its retail diversity. Ely Street is Stratford's antiques quarter, leading eventually to Rother Street, at whose northern end are held the weekly commodity markets, twice-monthly farmers' market and equally spaced retail and craft markets. Greenhill Street, beyond the market square, is very much in the thick of food; here you will find ethnic cuisine, healthy eating, and fish and chips all cheek by jowl. Running off the main thoroughfares are courts, alleys and precincts, some of which specialise in particular commodities, and fashion is prevalent. Amongst these are Bard's Walk between Wood Street and Henley Street; the Minories is another modern development close to the market square and lined with galleries, and retailers of fashion and accessories; Cook's Alley, Bell Court and Shrieve's Walk all add to the retail and culinary diversity of Stratford-upon-Avon.


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WHAT A PERFORMANCE


After just about a year in operation, the Courtyard Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon is now firmly established as the principal home of the Royal Shakespeare Company until 2010, when the alterations are expected to be complete at the riverside Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The RST closed in March 2007, in preparations for nearly 113 million worth of remodelling, and the Swan Theatre next door closed in August of the same year. The main aim of the building work is to create, with 1000-seats, the largest thrust stage with tiered auditorium in the world, in which seating on three sides will give a considerable feeling of intimacy with the actors. The money, which includes 50 million of Arts Council funding, will also be spent on an enhanced rooftop restaurant, a new theatre tower, a well-designed theatre square, restored foyer and circle bar, improved backstage facilities, a shared front of house with The Swan, and a restoration of the riverside faade. When the building programme is complete, The Courtyard Theatre will be dismantled and The Other Place will be reinstated as the RSC's third Stratford theatre.


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AT CLOPTON'S PLACE


Coincidentally tied in with the Shakespeare story is Sir Hugh Clopton, who receives less notice than he deserves. He is responsible for the site of what is now Stratford's most beautiful town centre garden, and for a house that - if it were still in existence - would rank every bit as important as Shakespeare's birthplace. Clopton was a silk merchant who, c1492, when he was appointed Lord Mayor of London, financed the building of the fourteen-arch town bridge that spans the River Avon. He is also the supposed re-builder of the nave in the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Cloptons abound in Holy Trinity church, where some family members have effigies, and it is thought that a table tomb there was built by Sir Hugh for his eventual interment which, in the event, took place at St Margaret's, Lothbury in London.


Sir Hugh also built a town house for himself in Chapel Lane at Stratford, possibly in the 1480s, which was called the Great House. In 1597, Shakespeare found this property in a ruinous state, bought and repaired it, and renamed it New Place, although he is said not to have lived there before the marriage of his elder daughter Susanna to Dr John Hall in 1607. Shakespeare bequeathed the property to Mrs Hall, who passed it to her daughter at her death in 1649. When the latter died in 1692, New Place once again became the property of the Clopton family.


Sixty-one years later, it was bought by Rev Francis Gastrell. In the gardens was a mulberry tree, said to have been planted by the poet and thereby commanding sufficient visitor attention to so anger Mr Gastrell that he had it chopped down. Just six years after he bought New Place, then being in dispute with the parish authorities over the continued levying of poor rate tax whilst he was not in occupancy, he had the whole place pulled down, and left the town. Trustees bought the site in 1861, and created a public garden around the foundations - the forerunner of the fine gardens that can be enjoyed today. At the same time, the property next door was bought and incorporated into the New Place estate. This is Nash's House, the one-time property of Thomas Nash, the first husband of Elizabeth Hall who was Shakespeare's granddaughter.


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A HIDDEN RESOURCE


Stratford-upon-Avon has the most important Shakespeare Library in the UK. Its collections are held at The Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street, and are of international significance. They include the combined printed books collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and of the Royal Shakespeare Company whose entire archive is also deposited there. It also stores Shakespeare-related ephemera from all periods beginning in the early 1600s. Here are well over 50,000 books, more than 300,000 images of RHS productions and other performance material, a collection of 8,000 printed playbills of Shakespeare's plays performed across the UK from the mid 18th century, and about 5,500 non-RSC theatre programmes from the early 1800s onwards. It is all available to readers and researchers. The library is an essential resource, not only for all students of Shakespeare, but of the other areas covered by the collections in pursuit of information about the poet's life and times. These include early herbals and medical books, the RSC's collection of pre-1700 play texts, periodicals from early in the 19th century, biographies, etc. Happily, its school visits are increasing, but although there was an increase in reader visits last year, there has been a downwards trend in these since the start of the millennium.


Stratford-upon-Avon is one of those places that instinctively spring to the minds of foreigners when they think of England. It is packed with the stuff of visitor potential. The town flourishes because of William Shakespeare, and it shamelessly markets the bard's life, work, and memory in every possible way. It is his shrine in several acts; it is where one comes to research Shakespeare, and to enjoy his works performed by the best actors and actresses on stages set in the cradle of his being.


History oozes from its ancient fabric. Stratford-upon-Avon is timber-framed and tipsy with age. Its old buildings, oak-beamed and marinated in the centuries, reach beyond Elizabethan England. The past washes around its walls, hides in its cellars, and climbs narrow stairways into rooms where it reveals itself in spectacular ways. The fabric of Stratford, frequently dark and brooding, often eccentric, occasionally impossible, is never dull.


There are succulent views along its tree-lined riverscape, across its bobbing punts, and of its river bridges and historic waterside buildings. Boating and boat trips can be enjoyed, and there can be little more satisfying than the gaily-coloured narrow boats that occupy its canal basin. There is the canal itself: a pleasant enough linear walk with some of the nicest canal-side architecture on the network. There are the Bancroft Gardens, always so alive with inspirational street entertainers and their appreciative audiences. There are the theatres: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, The Swan, the Other Place, the Shakespearience, and the Attic Theatre.


Just a few footfalls away is the town proper, where high street chains are embedded, in modest premises, amidst a jostling cacophony of independent traders. It is a town of irresistible retail blandishments: part kiss-me-quick and stentorian; part steady and reserved; but in its various shopping aspects, always voluptuous and voluble. You will find it bursting with choice, even if the alternatives are not what you might first have thought of, and full of retail quality. You will find a good sprinkling of those rather special traders whom one only occasionally comes across, but wishes would set up in one's own town. Of course, they were attracted to Stratford by its tourist potential, but are, nonetheless, themselves now part of the reason why people visit.


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A PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE


The Orchestra of the Swan - also known as OOTS - has a strong national reputation for the accessibility and high quality of its performances. It is particularly well regarded in Birmingham, where the orchestra is an associate ensemble at the newly refurbished Town Hall. In Stratford, its base is the Civic Hall, where it performs its concerts on home ground, and from where it tours. From here too, it undertakes work in schools and community groups, and will be embarking this autumn on a two-year project in collaboration with the town's Wellcombe Hills School. Despite more than a decade of inspirational concerts in the town, and giving everyone an informal opportunity to watch the orchestra prepare for performance for an hour at midday on all Stratford concert days, many people in Stratford are still unaware that there is a full professional chamber orchestra in their midst. It was formed in 1995 at the Stratford-upon-Avon Music Festival, and currently comprises about thirty-five highly talented musicians. The orchestra regards the commissioning of new work to be an important part of its programming, and is this year showcasing new work from Birmingham-based John Joubert - who is celebrating his 80th birthday - and Joanne Lee, a recent graduate from the Birmingham Conservatoire. Other such works being performed are by Alexander Goehr, and by Errollyn Wallen, its Composer-in-Association who received an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. The orchestra's 2007-8 season begins in October, and details of all its concerts and venues can be found at www.orchestraoftheswan.org


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In the words of the Mayor of Stratford DONNA BARKER



What makes Stratford special for you?


Stratford is a gentle town to live in with very little crime. In the summer, it looks beautiful with flowers from Stratford-in-Bloom. In the winter, it is a blaze of light with the best Christmas lights in the country.



What are the biggest changes in the town over the last five years?


The biggest changes in the town - too much housing and a tremendous increase in traffic.



What would you recommend a visitor to Stratford to do?


Visit the Shakespeare Houses. If they have children, the Butterfly Farm is wonderful, and Mary Arden's House at Wilmcote is very child friendly. During December we have the Christmas Festival, with foreign markets, entertainment and Santa Claus.



Is there an 'alternative' Stratford - perhaps known to the locals but less frequently experienced by visitors?


Yes, the Welcombe Hills about one mile north of the town, acres of unspoilt country. Also the towpaths by the canal.



What makes Stratford a great place in which to live?


Again, very little crime. There is a lot to do in Stratford, a lot of drama etc. and, of course, the RSC with their wonderful Shakespeare productions.



Where is your favourite part of the town, and when?


By the river, any time of the year.


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LARRY THE LAUGH-MAKER


Terence Parkes (1927-2003), better known as the great cartoonist Larry, moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1984, and lived and worked there for the rest of his life. He was given the nickname that stuck by schoolchildren to whom he was art master in the 1950s, following a showing of the 1946 film The Jolson Story starring Larry Parks. Larry the cartoonist was a large man, and cut an obvious figure as he rode about Stratford on his small, fold-up bicycle. He was a great theatre-goer, particularly fond of the RST; and he was very convivial company, spending much time imbibing at The Sportsman and eating at Sir Toby's restaurant. But he was a workaholic who was always mentally thinking up his famously wordless visual jokes. His wife Pauline says that they would often pass in the street, he so deep in thought that he would not recognise her until she tapped him on the shoulder. He was also an incredible hoarder who never discarded anything, and after his death Pauline discovered numerous items she thought had been sold years before!


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BIT OF A BASH


If you are in Stratford-upon-Avon on the weekend in August that the Bulldog Bash hits town, you are in for a real visual feast. The event is organised by the Hell's Angels, and is billed as the UK's biggest biker rock party; it is also self-policed, and is said to be the safest rock festival in the country. The Bulldog Bash has been held annually since 1987. It actually takes place at Long Marston, just outside the town, but that doesn't stop Stratford's main streets from being lined, throughout the day, by some of the most spectacular pieces of serious firepower on two - and sometimes custom-built three - supercharged wheels. This is colour enough to rival the most spectacular celebratory pyrotechnics; an orgy of throbbing and deep-throated roaring; and a fantastic parade of the seriously leather-clad. Nobody mentions double yellow lines and inappropriate parking to thousands of bikers; nor should they, for this parade of gleaming motorbikes is one of the greatest free shows on earth. Then, almost like a migrating flock of birds taking off en masse, they will be gone. Back to Long Marston for some of the fastest jet propelled dragstrip in the world, and personal motorbike racing, against a backdrop of heavy metal and rock music. There's a dance tent, a tattoo parlour, commodity stalls and a biker market. Nobody mentions sleep!


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In the words of Stratford resident, and town Regenerations Project Engineer


JULIE CRAWSHAW



What are the key regeneration projects taking place in Stratford?


Apart from the huge redevelopment of the RSC's theatres, we are also proposing other large schemes to rejuvenate the town. The Bancroft Gardens


are set for a significant face lift, ensuring that the new theatre sits in a setting becoming of its cultural importance. We have also reached the detailed design stage of a new footbridge over the river which we anticipate will be of international architectural importance. Many of the roads in Stratford are being closely examined to see if they can be pedestrianised, and big development opportunities are coming online for new visitor attractions, hotels etc over the coming decade. All very exciting stuff!



Where are the best parts of Stratford for family fun days out?


The river is such a key asset to the town, and it always features in the days out that I spend with my family. Whether it's just a gentle stroll along the river bank with an ice-cream, hiring a boat, or even taking a quick ferry trip; its just such a lovely place to be.



What makes Stratford a good regional shopping centre?


Stratford is one of those towns that has plenty of small independent shops that are worthy of a good mooch around. Some of my own family live near Hull, and they come all the way to Stratford twice a year just to shop for gifts at Vinegar Hill because it is unique. But Stratford also has the usual big names you expect in a regional high street, so we are doubly fortunate.



What is Stratford like for eating out?


There's plenty of variety. Sheep Street is great for lots of English and French bistros. The restaurants have stacks of old beams and crackling open fires. I generally opt for Lambs for birthday treats, and if we fancy a bustling gastro pub we go to The One Elm for the great atmosphere.



Is there any aspect of Stratford you would suggest visitors seek out?


Not everyone finds the gardens at New Place, which, although in the middle of town, are surrounded by tall yew hedges. These have helped to create a marvellous spot for quiet contemplation.


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A NUMBER OF THINGS


Stratford-upon-Avon has a resident population of only about 20,000 people.


Some 13,500 jobs locally are now dependent on the Stratford tourist trade.


There are estimated to be more than 100 hotels, guest houses and self-catering establishments in the town.


Every year, Stratford receives about three million visitors.


Throughout the summer, City Sightseeing buses carry some 2,500 people each week on the Stratford tour.


In the 2006-2007 season, 527,186 tickets were sold for RSC productions in Stratford.


In 2006 there were 748,040 visitors across all five Shakespeare properties.


Holy Trinity Church estimates that it has about 200,000 visitors each year, of which about 80,000 go specifically to see Shakespeare's tomb in the chancel.


It is claimed that 2.5 million people visit the Bancroft Gardens annually.


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SOMEWHERE TO CHILL


The Bancroft Gardens are at the centre of one of Stratford's most attractive areas. Here was once grazing land, bound on one side by the river and on the other by the town; it was known as the bank-croft. A temporary wooden theatre was built here for a three-day Shakespeare festival in 1769, and now the gardens are the setting for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. They are also the setting for much else: not the least a regular programme of street entertainers, most of whom are highly talented and usually very funny. They deservedly command big audiences, very largely because there are always so many visitors about this municipal park that offers so much. Countless thousands of people go there every year just to relax and watch everybody else doing the same. The riot of summer bedding is a seasonal floral spectacle not to be missed. The huge array of waterfowl that will follow your every riverside footstep in voluble hope of being fed are always a delight and sometimes a nuisance. The artists at work in the gardens offer a free show of immeasurable talent.


The centrepiece of the gardens, ever since it was given to the town in 1888, is Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower's Shakespeare Memorial, depicting the bard flanked by Falstaff representing comedy, Hamlet representing philosophy, Prince Henry representing history, and Lady Macbeth representing tragedy. Gower was also a Trustee of the Shakespeare Memorial Building and the Shakespeare Birthplace. Since the memorial was unveiled by the Queen, in the company of Prince Philip, in 1996, the gardens have also been decorated by local sculptor Christine Lee's superb 18-foot high swans made of steel and brass. This work was created to commemorate the 800th anniversary of 1196 when Richard I granted a market charter to Stratford.


The great visitor attraction of the Bancroft Gardens is the Lower Town Basin of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, the associated canal-side architecture, and in particular the double-width or barge lock into the river. The canal, approved by parliament as the Birmingham & Stratford Canal in 1793, reached Stratford in 1816. Parts of the gardens are on the sites of former warehouses and wharves - the adjacent Cox's Yard complex has former timber-drying sheds that are all that remains of these - and of a second canal basin that was built in 1826 and filled in seventy-six years later. The Lower Town Basin is usually full of brightly painted narrow boats and various craft belonging to semi-permanent floating traders - such as ice-cream seller, restaurant, and art gallery - who all help to make it such an enjoyable experience.


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ON THE BUSES


The City Sightseeing buses are a convenient way of seeing all the Shakespeare properties in and around Stratford, stopping off and getting on at will. There are fourteen stops along the route. These buses have long been a familiar site about the town; Guide Friday merged with City Sightseeing in 2001, and, since early in 2007, the tours have been operated under franchise by Stagecoach. The tours start from outside the Pen & Parchment public house in Bridge Foot, an old hostelry close to the Bancroft Gardens, the river and the canal, whose cellars were submerged in the floods of 2007, and whose public rooms were also under three feet of water. City Sightseeing buses do the round trip of some twelve miles in about an hour; buses leaving on the hour and the half-hour have personal tour guides on board; those leaving at quarter to and quarter past include a recorded commentary in seven languages.


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SHADES OF STRATFORD


In 2002, John and Helen Hogg, who formerly worked on the open top Guide Friday buses, set up regular walking tours around Stratford in the company of a small group of guides. These operate every day of the year, including Christmas Day, whatever the weather. John, who is a member of The Magic Circle and a member of Equity, has always been interested in magic and matters ethereal. In no time at all the couple began to uncover the grisly, ghastly and ghostly of Stratford's past, and the incredibly successful ghost walk began. This takes place each Monday, Thursday and Friday evening; there is a special Halloween ghost walk on 31 October; and, between April and October, there is a twice-monthly ghost cruise in partnership with Bancroft Cruisers. The walks, which include ghosts, witches and mayhem - with a sprinkling of magic - have featured on radio and television, and have won the Best Visitor Attraction Godiva Award.


According to John, 'Witches were believed to gain their power from entities beyond this earth, whereas ghosts do so from more earthly things like old buildings and traumatic events, and their presence is frequently accompanied by intense cold. Ghosts, and a belief in the hereafter, have been a source of interest from the earliest times. Most people would accept that there are things in this world that defy explanation.'


Stratford is packed with the stuff of melodrama, and it all comes alive on the ghost walk. You will hear about Jane Ward, the alleged witch of Emms Court, whose neighbour believed she was sending evil spirits down his chimney to terrify his sickly daughter, and attacked her with a knife. You will hear of the ghosts at The Falcon Hotel and the Shakespeare Hotel; of a colourless woman who sits in one bedroom, and a cowering girl in another. You will be transfixed by the tale of foul murder at the Old Thatch Tavern, where aspects of the attack on Joseph Pinfold by soldiers of the 5th Dragoons on Christmas Day 1795 seem to have steeped into the building's ancient fabric - and how they manifest themselves still. Then there is the Garrick Inn, built in 1595 on the site of a merchant's house wherein was staying the first recorded victim of plague in 1564. It has its own hauntings, and a medium has detected the 'presence' of bodies in the cellar area - plague victims, perhaps?


These are just a handful of the many ghostly doings that Stratford has to offer, and, of course, John and his guides have much more to tell about these and all the others. If you fancy getting spooked in Stratford, you can arrange it by calling 01789 292478 or 07855 760377. For more information visit www.stratfordtownwalk.co.uk


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SHOPPING, EATING AND LOOKING ABOUT


If you have migrated first to the river and the adjacent gardens, your introduction to retail Stratford will begin at Waterside, where the attractions also include the theatres, other Shakespeare-linked entertainments, and a number of places to eat and drink. Thereafter, you can progress into the retail hinterland along either Sheep Street or Bridge Street. Sheep Street, arguably at the heart of the town's most cosmopolitan area, is lined with pubs, restaurants, bars, clothing retailers and gift shops. The Tudor, timber-framed houses of Sheep Street are smaller than those of High Street, into which it extends and where are the town's larger shops, and most of them are older inside. It is one of thirteen main shopping streets in the town, and there are several linking shopping precincts and retail alleys running off. Bridge Street and High Street are where you will find the greatest concentration of national retail shopping chains. The latter continues into Chapel Street to the west, where there are independent traders, some of Stratford's best timber-framed buildings, and properties associated with Shakespeare. The birthplace is in Henley Street - a wide, pedestrianised plaza where there are bookshops, gift shops and independent traders, as well as The Shakespeare Centre.


The Town Square is an open, modern shopping development between High Street, Ely Street and Wood Street. The latter is famed for its retail diversity. Ely Street is Stratford's antiques quarter, leading eventually to Rother Street, at whose northern end are held the weekly commodity markets, twice-monthly farmers' market and equally spaced retail and craft markets. Greenhill Street, beyond the market square, is very much in the thick of food; here you will find ethnic cuisine, healthy eating, and fish and chips all cheek by jowl. Running off the main thoroughfares are courts, alleys and precincts, some of which specialise in particular commodities, and fashion is prevalent. Amongst these are Bard's Walk between Wood Street and Henley Street; the Minories is another modern development close to the market square and lined with galleries, and retailers of fashion and accessories; Cook's Alley, Bell Court and Shrieve's Walk all add to the retail and culinary diversity of Stratford-upon-Avon.


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WHAT A PERFORMANCE


After just about a year in operation, the Courtyard Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon is now firmly established as the principal home of the Royal Shakespeare Company until 2010, when the alterations are expected to be complete at the riverside Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The RST closed in March 2007, in preparations for nearly 113 million worth of remodelling, and the Swan Theatre next door closed in August of the same year. The main aim of the building work is to create, with 1000-seats, the largest thrust stage with tiered auditorium in the world, in which seating on three sides will give a considerable feeling of intimacy with the actors. The money, which includes 50 million of Arts Council funding, will also be spent on an enhanced rooftop restaurant, a new theatre tower, a well-designed theatre square, restored foyer and circle bar, improved backstage facilities, a shared front of house with The Swan, and a restoration of the riverside faade. When the building programme is complete, The Courtyard Theatre will be dismantled and The Other Place will be reinstated as the RSC's third Stratford theatre.


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AT CLOPTON'S PLACE


Coincidentally tied in with the Shakespeare story is Sir Hugh Clopton, who receives less notice than he deserves. He is responsible for the site of what is now Stratford's most beautiful town centre garden, and for a house that - if it were still in existence - would rank every bit as important as Shakespeare's birthplace. Clopton was a silk merchant who, c1492, when he was appointed Lord Mayor of London, financed the building of the fourteen-arch town bridge that spans the River Avon. He is also the supposed re-builder of the nave in the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Cloptons abound in Holy Trinity church, where some family members have effigies, and it is thought that a table tomb there was built by Sir Hugh for his eventual interment which, in the event, took place at St Margaret's, Lothbury in London.


Sir Hugh also built a town house for himself in Chapel Lane at Stratford, possibly in the 1480s, which was called the Great House. In 1597, Shakespeare found this property in a ruinous state, bought and repaired it, and renamed it New Place, although he is said not to have lived there before the marriage of his elder daughter Susanna to Dr John Hall in 1607. Shakespeare bequeathed the property to Mrs Hall, who passed it to her daughter at her death in 1649. When the latter died in 1692, New Place once again became the property of the Clopton family.


Sixty-one years later, it was bought by Rev Francis Gastrell. In the gardens was a mulberry tree, said to have been planted by the poet and thereby commanding sufficient visitor attention to so anger Mr Gastrell that he had it chopped down. Just six years after he bought New Place, then being in dispute with the parish authorities over the continued levying of poor rate tax whilst he was not in occupancy, he had the whole place pulled down, and left the town. Trustees bought the site in 1861, and created a public garden around the foundations - the forerunner of the fine gardens that can be enjoyed today. At the same time, the property next door was bought and incorporated into the New Place estate. This is Nash's House, the one-time property of Thomas Nash, the first husband of Elizabeth Hall who was Shakespeare's granddaughter.


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A HIDDEN RESOURCE


Stratford-upon-Avon has the most important Shakespeare Library in the UK. Its collections are held at The Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street, and are of international significance. They include the combined printed books collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and of the Royal Shakespeare Company whose entire archive is also deposited there. It also stores Shakespeare-related ephemera from all periods beginning in the early 1600s. Here are well over 50,000 books, more than 300,000 images of RHS productions and other performance material, a collection of 8,000 printed playbills of Shakespeare's plays performed across the UK from the mid 18th century, and about 5,500 non-RSC theatre programmes from the early 1800s onwards. It is all available to readers and researchers. The library is an essential resource, not only for all students of Shakespeare, but of the other areas covered by the collections in pursuit of information about the poet's life and times. These include early herbals and medical books, the RSC's collection of pre-1700 play texts, periodicals from early in the 19th century, biographies, etc. Happily, its school visits are increasing, but although there was an increase in reader visits last year, there has been a downwards trend in these since the start of the millennium.


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