Following in the Bard’s footsteps – literally
When he wasn’t writing, William Shakespeare was walking. In particular, he was often found trekking from his home in Stratford-Upon-Avon to the theatres of London's South Bank, an epic 146 miles in total. Who knows which legendary characters, killer lines or key scenes the playwright might have dreamt up as he traversed the West Midlands countryside.
Now, on the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birthday (23 April, 2014), admirers – or those looking for their own inspiration – can follow in his footsteps. Literally.
In 2005, Stratford local and Shakespeare enthusiast Peter Titchmarsh finished piecing together what has become known as “Shakespeare's Way”. By connecting existing footpaths, bridleways (paths formerly used by horses) and a few minor roads, Titchmarsh recreated the route the writer might have taken on his trips back and forth to London.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare first travelled to London between 1585 and 1588, when he was around 21 years old. At first, he likely travelled with other theatre performers – on foot. “It was a lot cheaper,” said Jenny Davidson, Secretary of the Shakespeare's Way Association, which was set up to protect and promote the route. “The luxury of horseback probably came later, when he could afford to pay stabling costs.”
Although the path was created with reference to as many historical resources as possible, Davidson acknowledged there are inevitably some differences. “Clearly the M40 motorway or the Grand Union Canal in London didn't exist in William's day!” she said.
Regardless of its precise historical accuracy, the pathway is a real beauty. It winds through the cottages of the Cotswolds toward the gleaming spires of Oxford, and continues along a surprisingly serene route into central London and the Globe Theatre.
The route starts out at Shakespeare's Birthplace – a particularly appropriate place to begin during this anniversary year. The well preserved 16th-century house in the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon belonged to William’s father John, a glover and a wool dealer. In honour of the birthday celebrations, the Birthplace visitor centre will open a new exhibition, Famous Beyond Words, in March, retelling the story of Shakespeare's development from Stratford local to world famous playwright, using artefacts from the museum's collection (such as the 1623 First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare's plays and the only reliable source for more than 20 of his works).
The route continues through town past the foundation of New Place, the house that Shakespeare bought in 1597 and where he died in 1616; it sadly was demolished in 1759 by the owner, who had become too annoyed with the tourists. The route also passes by the original Tudor buildings, built in 1417, of King Edward VI's school, where young Shakespeare was educated.
After heading down to the River Avon and past the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare's grave lies next to his wife Anne Hathaway’s, the route leaves the town behind and sets out alongside the River Stour. The rolling farmland here is dotted with tiny villages – most little more than a handful of thatched cottages and a church spire, with the occasional country mansion grand and aloof on the outskirts. Shakespeare referenced this part of the Cotswolds in his play, Richard II, when his character the Earl of Northumberland spoke of “these high wild hills and rough uneven ways” during his army's march through the Cotswolds. The pathway then passes near the Rollright Stones, an eerie rock formation resembling a king and a witch, overlooking the plains. It doesn't take much imagination to see where Macbeth's Three Witches of Eastwick, casting toil and trouble from their hill, might have come from.
From there, the route heads deeper into Oxfordshire, where the surroundings are so green and pleasant that Prime Minister David Cameron made them his home, moving to the swanky country town of Chipping Norton in 2001. A few miles on, the pathway weaves through the expansive Blenheim Park estate, past the spectacular 18th-century Blenheim Palace – a World Heritage site and the birthplace of Winston Churchill – before heading into Oxford.