Monday, January 30, 2012

England - Shakespeare, Back Roads, and a Birthday Tart

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Canal boats.
Monday, July 25

After saying goodbye to the community of cyclists in the campground we set off on foot for downtown Stratford-Upon-Avon. There, a lovely park with fuchsias and roses amid statues of Shakespeare and Lady Macbeth lined both sides of a canal. It’s common to rent a 60-foot boat for a holiday and cruise the Avon River or any of England’s numerous waterways. Part of the charm is operating the hand-cranked locks. We watched two teenage girls hop off their boat, turn the lever letting the water rush out before their parents moved the boat into the lock. Because of the difficulty and strength required to push against the foot braces, spectators jumped in to help. It’s an intriguing way to spend a vacation, much like what we do, maneuvering and keeping your wits about you. I thought about how much my father would enjoy this simple pleasure on water, his fishing pole dangling overboard during quiet times.

Boaters operate the hand crank locks.

We stopped at two bakeries for pastry then bought a few other items along with a miniature clothesline. I looked forward to drying the bulk of laundry at a campsite rather than strung on our panniers like a rolling dryer, with undies on public display.

Stratford was very crowded, especially the properties associated with Shakespeare. The famous playwright was born, lived, and also died in the city in 1616. Unfortunately theaters were closed with no current plays in progress. We took a train 3 miles to Wilmcote where his mother, Mary Arden, grew up. It was another sultry day but from the train station we only walked a short distance to the property.

Downtown Stratford-Upon-Avon, Henley Street. Photo credit: Panaramio
It was a delightful tour of a 400 year-old house; the age itself is astounding to anyone from the U.S. We ducked inside the dark and short roofed home. Our guides were captivating, describing how it was to live in a house with dirt floors. I especially enjoyed the clichés born of the time period. A wife was often beaten, but never after sundown when the neighbors would hear. She was thrashed with something not larger than the man’s thumb, thus the “rule of thumb” or “under one’s thumb” was derived. The thick slab of plank used for a kitchen table was removable; the rough side used for meals then turned over so crumbs fell to the dirt. Dogs cleaned up the mess, often licking the underside of the wood. The smooth tabletop was reserved for guests and for playing games, thus keeping one’s hands “above board”. A household kept a single armchair, usually by the fire, where the husband sat because he was the only one who had the leisure to rest his hands. Local meetings were held at the table, the man pulled his chair near the wood, originating “chairman of the board”. Also, the smooth side of plank was placed on the dirt floor for guests to sleep on, “room and board” being a literal derivation. I never would have guessed how important the table was in those times and that the phrases we use today came from hundreds of years ago.

A man in the 16th century commonly consumed sixteen pints of ale a day while a boy and a mother could each drink eight. The pottery measuring jugs sitting upon a nearby chest were carefully measured, doling out the proper amounts. It was hard to imagine that a boy then became a man at age 12.

Since the 1500s a second story was added to Mary Arden’s home. We carefully climbed the stairs where the wide planked oak flooring waved like an ocean, rising and falling 12 inches. Calming fears, the guide assured us the building was perfectly safe – it had only settled in some places and not others.

Mary Arden property buildings and museum. Photo credit: Visual Poet
Outside, the walk continued through the rest of the grounds. A “glebe” house and outbuildings was once owned by the church then leased to tenants, now a museum of 1800 - early 1900s, complete with a stable full of bicycles. A falconry was set up in a corner where a woman was training an owl who squawked and screeched. Falcons and owls perched on 6 inch stumps tethered by leather anklets and leashes. I wanted to set them all free.

Later in the center of Stratford-Upon-Avon, we meandered by Tudor style buildings, enjoying the beautiful village. Tomorrow would be my 32nd birthday. Andy bought me a tiny book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, upon my request; it was small enough to carry in our bags and read while on the road.

50 miles, Tuesday, July 26

I woke too early once again because of doves cooing in the trees above our tent. It never bothers Andy, who is an early riser, but it annoys me and I’ve come to dread that incessant call even though I normally love birds. Even with that I felt a small book in my hands, remembering the book of sonnets. I opened the blue cover and read my love’s personal message. I would cherish those words forever.

As we pushed off that morning it was without a larger scale map that we’d hoped to locate. Fellow travelers Frith and Jens had suggested we follow the “single track” or one lane roads. Andy and I had never considered the prospect, figuring narrow lanes might lead to dead ends, but it isn’t so in England. Using the southerly headwind as a compass we went southeast then south and it was much more pleasant. We passed through some towns that weren’t even on our map, rolling on the quiet streets between buildings that nearly sat upon the sidewalk. In this delightful manner we picked our way through the lower Cotswolds, traveling the likes of Hook Norton, Enstone, Charlbury, Witney, and Ducklington past open wheat fields, skirting to the west of Oxford.

Gypsy camp. Photo credit:
We passed a few gypsy camps in turnouts beside the road. Mounds of trash littered the site. Clothes dried on bushes while nearby a pen full of chickens clucked. A lawn chair held a cracked and wrinkled faced woman. A Doberman Pincher strained at its leash and we kept our distance, swerving clear of its mouth. The gypsies took us by surprise, appearing around a bend or over a slight rise. Andy and I thought we’d encounter them in Eastern Europe, but not in England.

Blackcurrent tart. Photo credit: okaycheckitout
Another fighter jet screamed low over us today. We do not know where the RAF’s air bases are located and we are often surprised by their low flying aircraft. It’s a good thing we are mostly by ourselves on these lanes as we couldn’t possibly hear an automobile.

Just before arriving at the campground we picked up a 6 inch blackcurrant tart to devour for dessert. Happy Birthday to me.


  1. Nicely written; I enjoyed this one.

  2. Oooo . . . that tart looks absolutely gorgeous (I'm sat at the dining table with a black coffee pre-brekky and my tummy is now rumbling).

    Eight pints a day! Hmm . . . I think I'm a gal that could have appreciated Shakespearean England.

    I so know what you mean about the doves. I'm constantly woken by the racous laughter of kookaburras. I love birds and birdwatching (shelf in bookshelf groaning with field-guides and the like), but, my dislike of Kookaburras knows no bounds!

  3. I remember being in this part of England when I was in college and learning those same origins to those quirky sayings.

    This has been such a good guide for me who wants to do a trip very much like this one.


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