Despite its worldwide fame, STRATFORD-UPON-AVON is at heart an unassuming market town with an unexceptional pedigree. A charter for Stratford’s weekly market was granted in the twelfth century and the town later became an important stopping-off point for stagecoaches between London, Oxford and the north. Like all such places, Stratford had its clearly defined class system and within this typical milieu John and Mary Shakespeare occupied the middle rank, and would have been forgotten long ago had their first son, William, not turned out to be the greatest writer ever to use the English language. Nowadays this ordinary little town is all but smothered by package-tourist hype and, in the summer at least, its central streets groan under the weight of thousands of tourists. Don’t let that deter you: the Royal Shakespeare Company offers superb theatre and if you are willing to forego the busiest attractions – principally Shakespeare’s Birthplace – you can avoid the crush. All Stratford’s key attractions – many of them owned and run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – are dotted around the centre, a flat and compact slice of land spreading back from the River Avon.
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Passing through a narrow breach in the wall of Holy Trinity Church graveyard brings you onto a footpath; this runs along the riverbank, with the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre to the left on Southern Lane and the dinky little chain ferry across the Avon to the right. After a short walk you emerge beside the Royal Shakespeare Company’s two main theatres, the Swan and the Royal Shakespeare. There was no theatre in Stratford in Shakespeare’s day and indeed the first home-town festival in his honour was only held in 1769 at the behest of London-based David Garrick. Thereafter, the idea of building a permanent home in which to perform Shakespeare’s works slowly gained momentum, and finally, in 1879, the first Memorial Theatre was opened on land donated by local beer baron Charles Flower. A fire in 1926 necessitated the construction of a new theatre, and the ensuing architectural competition, won by Elisabeth Scott, produced the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a red-brick edifice that has recently been remodelled and extended, its proscenium stage replaced by a thrust stage – to the horror of many and the delight of some. Attached to the main theatre is the Swan Theatre, a replica “in-the-round” Elizabethan stage that has also been refurbished.