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We're sitting back and enjoying a pint at the Queen's Head Inn in Stow-on-the-Wold, which is a small town at the intersection of six roads at the north end of the Cotswolds. M. is having an Appletiser, while I'm trying the lighter choice of two Cotswolds ales they had on tap here. It's a dark amber colour, but still transparent, unlike the Brains Dark I had at Rhymney. I have to say the lighter one is a bit nicer.
A nice lady by the name of Jenny recommended this place to us for dinner. We're staying at her B&B on the edge of town (about five minutes walk from here) after another very nice lady named Pat at the Tourist Information Centre arranged the accommodation for us. When we arrived in town just before 17:00, we were firstly amazed to find a large free car park right slap-bang in the middle of the town square, and not only that, there were plenty of parking spots!
We pulled in and looked around at the touristy array of antique shops, tea houses, pubs, and hotels. We needed to find a place to stay and tried the nearest prospect, the Old Stocks Hotel. A posh looking man who resembled Hercule Poirot asked what we wanted at reception. A double room was going for £90. We said we'd walk around and perhaps return.
Down the street we spotted a Tourist Information Office and decided to walk in there and ask if there was any place in town in the range of £70-80. The elderly woman in there was just helping another couple with something, but turned to help us as they left. She was smiling and cheerful but informed us that we'd be lucky to find a place with all the B&Bs fully booked out. She said we could try the hotels in town (several of which we had seen clustered around the square already), since they tended to fill up last and on a Thursday we could probably bargain them down a bit if we tried. But then she said that the last people she told that to came back and reported that they'd haggled one of the hotels down to £120! I think Poirot had already dropped his price a bit for us at £90.
Then she got a sneaky gleam in her eye and said, "Wait a minute, I might be able to do something for you." She went behind the desk and checked a folder full of B&B info for phone numbers. She phoned one and spoke to someone who she obviously knew as she began with, "Hi, it's Pat, do you have a room free?" The first attempt didn't succeed, but she tried again after confessing to us, "I'm not supposed to be doing this - they'd have my head if they found out." We're not quite sure what she was talking about, but assumed she wasn't supposed to be farming accommodation out to friends or something like that. On the second attempt she located a free room at a nearby B&B for us. She gave us directions to Tall Trees Bed & Breakfast just down the street and on the edge of the village, and again confessed how naughty she was being and how she wasn't supposed to be doing this for us. It was actually a little odd, since I thought the tourist offices here were supposed to help tourists find accommodation.
Anyway, we arrived at Tall Trees to be greeted by Jenny and shown a very nice and large room in a beautiful old farm cottage, with a view overlooking a small paddock on which two horses were grazing, and beyond that to hills of patchwork farmland and hedgerows in the distance. It was lovely all round and what's more it only cost £60 for the night! Score!
So we're now enjoying a bowl of chips here in the Queen's Head Inn and will order some dinner soon. M. likes the look of the soup of the day, which is tomato and basil, while I like the idea of the home-made chicken and mushroom pie with veg and mash.
Earlier in the day, we'd risen again for breakfast at 08:00. We both eschewed any cooked food beyond toast and I had two bowls of muesli instead. M. used the Vegemite we'd brought with us for breakfast for the first time rather than the jams and marmalade we were supplied. We settled up and packed the car, then went for a last walk back into Shrewsbury so M. could buy a bangle that had caught her eye yesterday at a shop on Wyle Cop. It was a chunky silver-plated design with a large ring almost like a blank watch face on it.
That procured, we returned to the car and headed out of Shrewsbury, heading south towards Stratford-upon-Avon for some culture. We stopped briefly to stretch our legs and use some toilets at Kidderminster. Amazingly we got a parking spot on the street right next to the central shopping area and it was easy to get into and it was free! Score×2!
We walked around the shops a bit and found some loos, but we didn't manage to find a single coffee shop anywhere where M. could get a takeaway cup so we had to be content and leave again.
We've just finished dinner here at the Queen's Head. M. says the tomato soup was excellent and it came with some very nice bread. My chicken and mushroom pie was wonderful, with carrots, broad beans, and mash on the side. The pie came in a small baking dish with pastry on top - a thick layer that was golden and crispy on top but doughy and delicious in the middle when mixed in with the richly herbed chicken and mushroom sauce (lots of rosemary). Now for the dessert...
But back to the drive. We took a fairly direct route to Stratford along the A442. Partway there we hit wet roads where it had obviously rained very recently. We were on a dual carriageway at the time and the traffic was doing 60 mph and throwing up vast quantities of spray from the wet road. What's more, there were great standing puddles of water on the road - causing swathes of water to be thrown up as cars ploughed through them. It was amazing and really quite weird. You'd think in a country renowned for rain they would design their roads so they drained properly after a brief shower - particularly high speed motorways. I still can't believe it.
Soon thereafter it began to rain, gently at first, but building up over a few minutes until it was quite torrential and I had to put the wipers on double speed. The conditions were really appalling and it didn't look good for our day's outing in Stratford.
The rain eased a little by the time we reached Stratford and found the Park and Ride, which was signposted just adequately enough for us to find it. The Park and Ride was enormous, with parking for around 1000 cars or more by my estimate, and about half full. A bus pulled in just before us and we were fortunate enough to find a park, get our umbrellas out in the quite heavy rain, and organise ourselves for the day in town quick enough to make it on board.
We were prepared for a wet day with our brollies and I only took a single lens for my camera rather than the whole bag. But on the ten minute journey on the bus into the centre of Stratford the rain stopped and we stepped out into glorious sunshine!
It was lunchtime, so we sought out some food. M. had noticed a health food shop on the bus in and we walked back half a block to check it out. She picked out a slice of lentil pie which was cut into a large portion and heated up for her. I found a nearby kebab shop and got a "small" doner kebab. I thought about getting a "large" but was glad I didn't when I saw the size of the meal I'd acquired. It was on a small pita bread but the amount of meat and chili and lettuce stuffed into it meant it was impossible to actually pick up and eat without spilling the contents everywhere. Fortunately it came in a styrofoam box which caught the dropping and allowed eventual complete consumption. From there, I was in serious need of a handwash and ducked into a nearby hotel to use the bathroom facilities.
Cleaned up after lunch, we walked over to Henley Street, which is where Shakespeare's birthplace and the house he grew up in is, as well as the adjacent Shakespeare Centre, which contains displays about the great playwright. This street was about as touristy as could be expected, converted into a quite pleasant pedestrian mall full of cafes, ice cream shops, and bookshops, all trading off the Shakespeare name. A bronze statue of a jester sits at one end of the mall - a magnet for the groups of Japanese tourists who roamed the area. But all told there were no great crowds of tourists, just small clumps here and there. We managed to get some good photos of Shakespeare's home with nobody else standing near it without too much hassle or waiting.
We paid £12 each for admission to the three Shakespeare-related sites within the town centre and entered the Shakespeare Centre. The displays were arranged in a paced audiovisual tour through several rooms. You had to wait in each room for about three minutes as the display went through its paces, providing audio commentary synchronised with selective lighting of various artefacts of Shakespeare's life and video of supporting material. One of the audio commentators was Patrick Stewart. We were lucky enough to enter between groups of other tourists and had each room of the tour to ourselves. Once each room had completed its presentation (and only then), doors opened to the next room on the tour.
After four or five rooms, the tour led out into the garden behind Shakespeare's house - the original house he is suspected to have been born in. The evidence for his birthplace is circumstantial, but there is good historical evidence showing his father owned the house and that William Shakespeare inherited it when his father died. The garden was lovely, with numerous flowers in bloom. A guy in costume was carrying a skull and waving a sword and reciting soliloquies to groups of people sitting on benches amidst the flowers.
We entered Shakespeare's house and were greeted by a friendly-seeming woman who told us a bit about the house and how it was attached to a house belonging to Shakespeare's aunt or someone. We walked into the next room which was decked out as an Elizabethan-era kitchen. I took a photo, not having seen any indication anywhere that photography was disallowed. The woman came running in saying that I wasn't allowed to take photos. I said I was happy to comply, it was just that I hadn't seen any restrictions posted anywhere. She looked at us funny, as if we were stupid, and said, "No, it's just that nobody takes photos inside house like this!"
We learnt from other guides inside the house that Shakespeare's father was a glovemaker, with examples of kid and ox-hide gloves to be handled and felt by visitors. An apprentice glovemaker would also have lived with the family in the attic loft. We saw the room where Shakespeare would presumably have been born (if indeed he had been born in this house) and where he must have slept as a boy. In all, it was very slick, but not quite as detailed or in-depth as one might expect from an attraction charging £12 a ticket. I guess that's the price of fame.
The second stop on our tour of Shakespeare houses was the New House - one which Shakespeare bought once he had started to see some success. It was a little confusing and I think the house we went into may not have been the actual one, but one next door or something, because a voluble older man who gave a lengthy talk about the history of the house seemed to say that a later owner tore it down in protest over land taxes or some such. But the gardens behind the house were apparently genuine or of similar vintage anyway and they were even more outstanding than the garden at the first house, consisting of immaculately laid out geometrical regions of differently coloured flowers of different heights, demarcated by tidily clipped miniature hedges only 20 cm or so high. The whole was sectioned into four square quarters by paths, at the centre of which was a fountain, and all surrounded by concentric squares of path, hedge, covered path with trellises, and another taller hedge to keep the outside world at bay. It was quite amazing.
From there, we walked over towards the Avon River to see the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, only to find it a construction site where the theatre building is apparently in the middle of a major renovation.
Heading back to the centre of town, we found the Harvard House, home of the benefactor who founded Harvard University in Boston, and one of the places out £12 ticket also got us entry into. But oddly the house was closed and we didn't get to do any more than admire the exterior. It felt like a bit of a gyp - if the house was closed for the day, they could at least have given us some sort of discount on our expensive multi-attraction ticket.
M. got a coffee and drank it as we walked the streets back to the Park and Ride bus stop. As we got there, a bus had just pulled up and so we raced across the street and got on board straight away - a double dose of fortune since this happened with both bus pickups today - so Score×3!
Back at the Park and Ride car park, we headed out again under bright blue sunny skies to cover the remainder of the distance to Stow-on-the-Wold, where we are now turning in after securing our bed for the night and enjoying a good meal out at one of the local pubs.
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