It was a romantic idea. We’d pack our rucksacks and walk through the heart of England, dallying through the picturesque Warwickshire and Oxfordshire countryside that William Shakespeare would have passed on his commute from Stratford-on-Avon to the London playhouses.
A couple of things got in the way of this idyll. Firstly, I’m now unable to think about that journey without picturing David Mitchell complaining about carts being derailed and replacement donkey services, in the peerless BBC comedy Upstart Crow. Secondly, we set off three days after the Brexit vote, and I wasn’t feeling that fondly towards the heart of rural Britain. It felt like entering the belly of the beast.
So it was with trepidation that I boarded the train from Marylebone. By the time we arrived, the train was 90% foreign students heading for Shakespeare’s home town (51% leave voters). In fact, about 90% of Stratford seems to live off overseas pilgrims to its literary shrine. You don’t mind taking foreigners’ money, I muttered to myself, eyeing the locals with suspicion.
Naturally, everyone we met was lovely, from our briskly friendly B&B owner, to the volunteers in Shakespeare’s family home, to the staff in Hathaway Tea Shoppe (yes, really). The town is preserved in aspic, its black and white Elizabethan houses sleepy in the afternoon sun. Perversely, we chose to see a Ben Jonson play at the Swan Theatre, which was excellent.
After paying our respects at Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church, we set out along the path beside the river. (If you visit, check out the eye-popping scenes of medieval debauchery on the misericords). The path wound through ridiculously picturesque villages, taunting us with mill ponds and watermills, wildflowers and skimming dragonflies. Our first lunch stop was on a village green complete with maypole. That was when it started to rain.
I should have known better than to book a UK holiday for the first week of Wimbledon. The next couple of days can best be summed up as rain, mud, fields, cows, wheat, fields, mud, rain. It’s not the most exciting countryside – if I didn’t know where all our wheat and barley came from, I sure do now. There were lots of ancient churches to visit, though, and the hedgerows were full of poppies.
After a hard day wading through mud, a comfortable bedroom and decent dinner become particularly important. We stayed at a couple of funereal pubs, where rooms came equipped with carpet moths, silverfish and the world’s smallest bathroom. We found a few nice places to eat, the more ambitious marked by stuff served on slates and chips in little metal baskets. (Guys, plates are fine.) We also ate some of the nastiest food I’ve tasted since the 1980s, served with a mixture of indifference and outright hostility. Not enough cheerful migrants around to raise standards, clearly.
So yes, I’m a spoiled Londoner who’s fussy about my food. But what about the politics in these pubs? Were they shaking their pitchforks and celebrating their victory over the metropolitan elite? The main difference was that no-one was talking about Brexit. Unlike London, where we’d been unable to talk about anything else, people were getting on with their lives and ignoring the seismic change in our political landscape. Rants about humiliating exits from Europe turned out to be about football. I heard one political conversation – a red-faced Tory endorsing Theresa May with the observation: “Better than Gove. He’s not just a shit, he’s an unprincipled shit.”
That was in Woodstock, just up the road from Churchill’s grave, which I’d visited earlier in the day. What would he have thought of the shenanigans, I wondered, getting the uneasy feeling he’d probably have backed Boris. The day before we’d been in Chipping Norton, fabled home of the Cameroons, although they were not in evidence. The Cotswolds mostly voted remain – indeed, I had the one Brexit conversation of the week there, with the owner of the lovely Jaffe and Neale bookshop, who said book purchasing in the town had been down since the vote.
We made it into Oxford (a strong 70% remain vote) on Saturday afternoon, shocked by the plunge from hazy water meadows into its noisy, crowded streets. We sought out the site of a pub where Shakespeare had supposedly stayed. It’s now a Betfred, which wasn’t very romantic. It took a while to acclimatise to the roar of a big city, but Sunday morning found me ensconced in the terrace cafe of the Ashmolean Museum, sipping perfect coffee, planning the day’s cultural tour. I’d gone rural for a week, and survived.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford on Avon. I was cynical about this at first, assuming I already knew everything there was to know about Shakespeare. I was an idiot. It’s fascinating, especially John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop, which would probably have stunk the entire house out.
The George Townhouse and White Bear in Shipston-on-Stour. We liked a lot about this charming village, and dinner at the nicely-refurbished George was a highlight. Breakfast at the White Bear was jolly good too, and they were very kind about the amount of mud we brought in from a wet day’s walking.
Jaffe and Neale bookshop, Chipping Norton. Friendly bookshop with a good selection of books and gifts, and a nice cafe. A great pitstop in this pretty but rather pleased with itself little town.
Turl Street Kitchen, Turl Street, Oxford. Great, local food in a relaxed and friendly bar/restaurant. Good selection of wine and beer. An excellent place to recover from a taxing week’s holiday.