William Shakespeare, the bard of Avon, was born in the Warwickshire market town of Stratford in 1564, and died there 400 years ago, in 1616.
Shakespeare’s Way, 235 km or 146 miles long, inaugurated in 2006, runs from his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire to Shakespeare’s Globe (close to where the original Globe Theatre stood), alongside the Thames in London .
It replicates a possible route the Bard might have taken between London where he acted and wrote, and his family and house in Stratford.
This is an account of a visit I made to Shakespeare’s Way, although I confess I did not walk the entire length.
I like to think of him setting off one bright spring morning just like this, his lunch on a stick over his shoulder, a rhyme on his lips, and the world at his feet.
There’s a line from Romeo and Juliet that fits here, more or less.
“Jocund day…” – well, he’s got the fine weather bang on. Even if the next bit – “…Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops” – slightly over-elevates the Cotswold hills, shaping well-wooded and lusciously green, if not quite Alp-height, up ahead.
People found their own way then, or asked the route of a passing yokel driving geese or pigs. I have no such difficulty. From here, almost to London, my way will be clearly marked with little yellow arrows carrying the smiling face of the greatest playwright the world has known. Join me on Shakespeare’s Way.
Nobody knows for sure when – some guess at 1585 – Shakespeare left his wife and young family, and Stratford, to seek his fortune in London. Or which route he took.
But it is highly likely that, like me, he headed up the tranquil valley of the river Stour to the village of Halford, five miles south of Stratford. Then on past Long Compton, Chipping Norton and Woodstock, to his first target Oxford, where he he had friends who kept an inn.
Trailblazing members of the Shakespeare’s Way Association devised a 146-mile path following the shortest practical route between Stratford and the Globe Theatre in London, where he spent most of his productive years.
It opened in 2006, using existing footpaths, bridleways and a few minor lanes. It pulls well away from busy roads, cuts across several areas of outstanding natural beauty and steals up on showcase views in a still remarkably uncluttered and little developed segment of southern England.
If ever was a man deserved to have a footpath named after him, it is the bard. He worked in London, but his plays say he belongs here. They are packed with nature and countryside details. The bird watching starts in Shipston- on-Stour, where the first of the season’s housemartins zip around in carefree, early season mode. To Shakespeare they were clean air indicators on wings. “This guest of summer doth approve, that heaven’s breath smells wooingly here” (Macbeth).
There is evidence that the Warwickshire countryside he knew so well, though unrecognisable from his day, still clings to its botanical birthright. It’s a bit early for “luscious woodbine, and sweet musk-roses” but I spot plenty of “daisies pied and violets blue” and “pale primroses that die unmarried”.
Somebody has counted 180 species of birds and animals – both real and imagined – in the plays. It will be an enjoyable challenge to keen-eyed walkers on this path to tick them off – bats, hedgehogs, insects, foxes (36 mentions), hare (23 times) and deer (44). But, not yet, wild boar. And if you start to see unicorn, phoenix, and dragon you are probably “too full of supper and distemp’ring draughts” (Othello) from one of the many splendid village pubs you will encounter en route.
This path is littered with cameos. I pass Blenheim Palace, surely Britain’s stateliest home after Buckingham Palace, pausing to admire the countryside’s answer to Nelson’s Column, the 134 feet high Column of Victory. Up near the clouds is the likeness of Winston Churchill’s illustrious forebear the first Duke of Marlborough in triumphal Romanesque pose, eagles at his feet.
The stonemason Gibbons had an uncomplicated brief. He was told to elevate the champion, and stuff the enemy. Two lions pull off a memorable away victory, in the ultimate mismatch over a couple of token French cockerels.
Beyond Oxford, Shakespeare’s Way ambles through low and quiet countryside, past my choice of the most exotically named village in the south, Britwell Salome. Above me, a direct link with Elizabethan England. You simply can’t miss the red kite, very successfully reintroduced on the Oxfordshire-Bucks border in 1989. It describes great lazy loops above my head.
The bard and the groundlings at the Globe knew it well. Shakespeare called the capital “The city of kites and crows.” The bird would steal washing off the line to make its nest. “When the kite builds, look to lesser linen,” warns Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale.
I follow the Thames National Trail between Marlow and Cookham. Perhaps Will stayed on the River, hitching a lift of a passing boat. But it was quicker to take the heroic route, straight and high over the Chilterns. The path joins the Beeches Way, another of those beautiful sections you might treat as a day out in itself, through Burnham Beeches, Iver and Fulmer villages, and Black Park.
From West Drayton the path runs in a green corridor parallel to a feature built 200 years after William’s time, the Grand Union Canal. “The quiet approach to London. We feel he would approve,” notes the website, www.shakespearesway.org.
Next stop Brentford, not as grand as Windsor, but with a place at the heart of Shakespeare’s comedy writing. Any book or film featuring a man dressed as a plump female, from Wind in the Willows to Big Momma’s House 2, takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s rotund Falstaff disguised as the “Fat Woman of Brentford” in the Merry Wives of Windsor. He was dumped in the Thames (in a washing basket) just about here. “My belly’s as cold as if I had swallowed snowballs,” he laments in the pub afterwards. The rest of my route is a pleasant saunter alongside the banks of the Grand Old River, on the Thames National Trail. So much history, so many fine pubs. (Keep me a place in the Dove on the riverfront at Hammersmith, where the cares of the world ebb away for a few hours.)
Gradually, through Chelsea and on into Westminster the river grounds grander, and London turns into the world’s stage. Past the Houses of Parliament, past the London Eye and the National Theatre, where they stage so many of his works. The path ends, appropriately, at the Globe Theatre, built on the site of the Elizabethan original.
Historians think Shakespeare’s first job was holding patrons’ horses at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch. The first reference to aspiring playwright came from a spiteful rival: “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” In a few years the Bard of Stratford soared above them all.
Shakespeare returned many times to his family in Warwickshire, probably more or less on the route I took, even when he was rich enough to ride a horse home.
He went back for the last time in 1610, through the beeches and meadows and high Cotswolds views to live permanently in Stratford. He wrote his last plays before retiring as a well-off country gentleman.
As for me, “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history.” What shall it be? I whiz through the bard’s drinks list: Bordeaux, canary, claret, madeira, malmsey, sack and sherry. Nothing there to slake a 146 mile thirst. I’m off to his old stamping ground in the Borough for a well earned pint.