Old Dogs New Trips: Visiting Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford – English Lit, from Shakespeare to Hobbits and Harry Potter

A Tale Of Two Cities




The Radcliffe Camera (“room” in Latin) at Oxford University, designed by James Gibbs and built in 1737–49. Independent/John Laudando

We’ve reserved tickets for “As You Like It” at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I once scored the last rush seat in the house, third row center, to see Alan Bates as Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew.” We’ve charted our course to the Stratford Park and Ride, where a bus awaits to take us to the center of Stratford, just a short walk from RSC’s three-theater complex.

But first we stop for lunch at a bustling spot that looks like Shakespeare himself could have eaten there. In fact, much of the main section of town has maintained a distinct Elizabethan air. This medieval market town has garnered much of its fame from being the site of William Shakespeare’s birthplace and the site of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, where Will and Anne courted. Signs up and down the two main streets of town speak to his life and times, and many claim him as their friend, colleague, or customer in long-bygone days. We stroll along the River Avon and through the park-like surroundings of the theater complex itself.

The Daily Mail has promised us a “big, bright, and loud Shakespearean comedy,” and we arrive early to find our seats. We’ve opted for seats described as “slightly narrower and taller than other seats” to save a few pounds. Turns out the narrower part is no problem, but the slightly higher part means a shorter person (I qualify) must clamber up to a perch that almost requires assistance. But the view is good, and the seat is comfortable despite feeling a bit precarious. And “As You Like It” is pretty likeable, though I find it a little disconcerting to have a woman playing Jacques and delivering the “All the world’s a stage” speech, perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous words. And the play’s program cover points out just how much of Shakespeare’s language peppers our own — to name but a few examples: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” “It’s all Greek to me,” “Fair play,” “All that glitters is not gold,” “Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve,” and, from “As You Like It,” “Too much of a good thing.”

Our next day trip is to Oxford, where we again opt for Park and Ride, unwilling to maneuver traffic from what to us is the wrong side of the road. Both Stratford and Oxford make it easy-peasy to avoid dealing with traffic and parking, and the view into both cities is from high up on a double-decker bus, which we consider great seats. When the bus drops us in Oxford, the first thing we encounter is Slack Mallard, a smashing quartet of street musicians, singing politically charged, rapid-fire witty songs. (Slack Mallard at Oxford postings on YouTube may well have been videoed while we listened!)

The group is performing right on the corner where we have signed up to meet our student guide for a tour of the world-famous Oxford University. Before the tour, we take in one of three churches we’ll visit that day. This one, the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, is actually where the university itself began. Afterward, we enjoy lunch at yet one more English pub — the Three Goats Heads, chosen for its resemblance to our favorite Welsh pub, The Goat Major. It’s a good choice, and well fed, we go to meet our Oxford guide.

Turns out he’s a graduate rather than a student, but his tour is well-informed and good-humored, and he takes us to buildings that are many of Oxford’s most famous places. He speaks of some of the university’s most renowned students — Oscar Wilde, Stephen Hawking, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Albert Einstein — a truly impressive list. We see the Bodelian Library, some of the film sites for the “Inspector Morse” series, the pub where Bill Clinton supposedly tried marijuana but didn’t inhale, and the soaring space at the School of Divinity where some scenes for the “Harry Potter” movies were filmed. Our guide even whisks out robes, scarves, and a wand, for anyone who would like to have their photo taken as a Hogwarts student.

Oxford is pretty impressive, but we are also again mightily impressed by the beauty of the English countryside we travel though on our way back to our Airbnb in Cirencester, ready to plan our trip into London for three days before we head home.

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