Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Day in Stratford-Upon-Avon

There were a few different classes going on a daytrip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, to include our Library class, a theater class, and a class studying Shakespeare. That meant that there were enough of us that it was simpler to book a bus ("coach," sorry I keep forgetting) or two instead of buying a lot of train tickets. So it was that we were allowed to have an easy morning, congregating in the courtyard at 10:00 to load the coach and leave at 10:30. It's about a three-hour drive to Stratford-Upon-Avon, and I spent it chatting with friends--who managed to get the song "Dance Magic Dance" from "Labyrinth" stuck in my head for the rest of the day after a discussion of various random films like "Avatar," "Fern Gully," and "Labyrinth"-- reading a book ("Gaudy Night," by Dorothy Sayers), and then taking a short nap.
It was about time to eat lunch when we arrived and parked the bus by the Visitors and Recreation Centre. Some were desperately keen on eating tea at the appropriate hour and so simply emptied a snack machine of half of its contents for the time being, but I and a few friends thought it would be nice to go ahead and have some lunch. We found a pleasant little place called The Red Lion, which offered the great deal of 2 meals from a certain portion of the menu for £10. They were decently portioned meals too; one friend had a chicken burger and some sides, I had a lasagna (and promptly learned how to use my Shout pen), and there were some other good options as well. I was rather amused to spot fajitas on their regular menu, which were described as being made with "Cajun spices."
We proceeded from the Red Lion to wander around town for a bit to get our bearings. We found our way to the center of town, and the Stratford-Upon-Avon Library, just down the street from Shakespeare's birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre. The library is a simple Carnegie public library tucked in one of the main streets of Stratford-Upon-Avon. It is standard for public libraries in the UK to charge a small fee for checking out DVDs and similar media, and the Stratford-Upon-Avon library is no exception. An examination of the fee chart prompted discussion in our group over the differences between UK and USA public libraries, in that while USA libraries don't charge for the initial checking out of such an item, their late fees for any item tend to be higher than those of a UK public library. The first floor housed the circulation area, 16 computer desktops connected to the internet and free to use (I saw someone from our class using one to check email), and the media collections. There was also a general fiction area, in which we noted that there was nothing on the spine to show where books went, as tends to be the practice in the USA. However, books were still perfectly alphabetized, at least in the section I examined. A bookcase of books interesting to teens and young adults was placed near the doorway between the adult collections and the childrens' room. Upstairs was the nonfiction collections, dubbed "The Information Centre." A quick glance over titles showed everything from a book of crafty fashion how-tos called "Lovely Things to Make for Girls of Slender Means," with a quote on the inside from the Muriel Sparks book "Girls of Slender Means," to a book on surviving the urban jungle that held the catchy title "How to Predict the Weather with a Cup of Coffee." There was also a small bookcase of self-improvement books and books on weathering emotional and psychological problems.
After examining and analyzing the Stratford-Upon-Avon Library, we wandered for a while longer about the area, popping in and out of a few shops, while we discussed What We Should Do Next. We wanted to see as much as we could, but preferred to not have to pay to go inside every single Shakespeare house to see the same basic setup. Then we spotted the City Sightseeing coach, which had been mentioned both by our professor and by my guidebook, so we decided to do that. How it works is you find one of the buses on its stops, hop on and buy a ticket (a student costs £9.50), and then in return you get not only a ticket but also a map of the sites and a pair of earphones. It's an open-top double-decker bus, so of course we had to go up top. It's a lovely view, and a great way to see everything without paying for every little thing. The only things you want to make sure of are that you are not on the side of the bus that's close to the trees--as we were, and were joking about almost getting hit by tree branches for the rest of the day-- and that you keep a hand on a railing because otherwise you can get dumped out of your seat by the bus turning left or right. And, as I found out, never wear bright yellow on a sunny day, because it attracts small insects like crazy. Most of them were something like gnats, and easily dislodged from my person, but I did have one small scare with a large yellow-jacket  who took some persuading to let loose of my shirt. Oh, and make sure you hold on to your belongings (I can't tell you how many maps were sliding around by the end of the trip) and that you don't mind some wind if you're going to sit up top.
After that, we looked around on our own for a bit longer, found a marvelous store called Poundland that's like Dollar Tree but with pounds and arguably more stuff and name brands (Toblerone!). Then we looked around the river and enjoyed watching the swimming swans, geese and ducks. By then most of our time was gone, and we were getting hungry and wanted to eat before the show, so we popped in to a little place by the river called Barnaby's Fish. Another word to the wise: only order fish and chips if you are very hungry or have a friend willing to eat some of your chips. Every time I've had fish and chips (which taste like cafeteria french fries, by the by) the portions have always been very generous.
Then we met up with others of our group for a quick preview of the context in which "The Winter's Tale" was first presented (they didn't want to spoil any of the plot, so they didn't tell us any), and we marched over to the Courtyard Theatre through what began as a slight drizzle and ended in a bit of a downpour by the time we were heading down the street.
I can't begin to tell you much about the production of "The Winter's Tale" by the Royal Shakespeare Company, except to say it was marvelous! Amazing actors, who made the whole thing a mix of poignant and emotional moments spun between occasional bits of merriment. A word to those who would think to bring children or younger scholars: don't. The play is long and involves psychological and emotional trauma, suspected adultery, death, child abandonment, someone getting eaten by a bear, and lewd comedy (in this particular case, inflatible items made to look like male private parts featured prominently in a comical dance). However, I must say that I doubt any other theater I could go to could be quite as great as this one was, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Image from Microsoft ClipArt

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