Well, our first stop has been great for so many reasons (and not so great for a few others!). Our campsite – Riverside – is good. It is near the river (obviously!) and has very clean facilities, but we are all lined up in one gigantic field, which feels a bit regimented. Thankfully we have our fish that flies high on a pole above our caravan so that the girls can find their way back to us from the toilet block, as one row of caravans looks pretty much like the next.
Riverside campsite: 8 out of 10
Liked: location (near river and only 1 mile from Stratford), clean toilets/showers, good facilities, excellent shop nearby
Didn’t like: regimented lines of caravans
Stratford upon Avon
Highlight: Mary Arden’s Farm
Other places we visited: Shakespeare’s birthplace, Hall’s Croft and the church where he is buried
There are lots of things to do in Stratford upon Avon, the vast majority of them connected in some way with Shakespeare (although some of those links are pretty tenuous!). You can visit about 5 different properties where Shakespeare or his family lived, the schoolroom where he studied as a boy and see his grave in the local church. We opted for a mid-priced ticket that allows you to visit any 3 of the main properties (still expensive at £43.10 for the four of us!). We could choose from Shakespeare’s birthplace, Hall’s Croft (the house he bought for his daughter Susanna), Mary Arden’s Farm (where his mother was brought up), Anne Hathaway’s cottage (where he courted his bride-to-be) and Harvard House, an Elizabethan town house that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare.
To be honest, our first two choices – Shakespeare’s birthplace and Hall’s Croft – were very underwhelming. They are both located in the centre of Stratford upon Avon and so must receive millions of visitors every year just by being there. But the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who have owned the birthplace on Henley Street since 1847 and Hall’s Croft since 1949, have done very little with them and as a result they are well preserved but fairly uninspiring Tudor/Jacobean houses. There were costumed guides in some of the rooms, who explained some history to us, but it was so busy that often you couldn’t hear what they were saying or didn’t get a chance to ask any questions. We did learn a few facts about Tudor life though. Did you know that beds were very expensive in Tudor times and only the rich could afford them. They slept on mattresses made of sacks of hay (hence you would ‘hit the sack’ when you went to bed) suspended on ropes across the bed frame that would have to be tightened using a special ‘key’. They also had trundle beds that pulled out from under the parents’ bed where children would sleep until they were five (for warmth and protection from the devil) and their beds were short because they slept sitting up – they believed that if you lay down the devil would think you were dead and would come and take your soul away!
There were actors out in the garden reciting sonnets and speeches from Shakespeare plays, who were impressive by the number of different ones that they could remember, but that went straight over the girls’ heads and we could see them starting to switch off so we moved on!
Mary Arden’s farm
So you can imagine it was with very low expectations that we decided to drive out to Woolton to see Mary Arden’s Farm. This was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother and they don’t really make anything of the Shakespeare connection here. Instead, they run it as a proper Tudor farm and it is like stepping back in time and becoming immersed in all of the details of Tudor life, as played out by the costumed staff and volunteers.
Our first experience was to try goose herding. The girls were a bit shy to have a go, so it was up to Andy and I to get stuck in. It was relatively straightforward, manoeuvring them in and out of some little fences, but you really had to be quick as they had quite a turn of speed when they got going! The guides told the children that at their age one of their jobs would’ve been to look after the geese and take them to and from the fields during the day.
Next we sat and watched a bird of prey display where the handler flew a beautiful eagle owl called Talia. She was huge and yet managed to fly down and onto the picnic tables or benches that we were all sitting on without making a sound and without touching or hurting anyone. We felt the breeze from her wings as she passed but that was all. In Tudor times there were laws about which birds of prey people from different classes could fly and hunt with. Only an Earl or above could fly a peregrine falcon for example. Peasants often used owls such as this one because they weren’t included in the laws.
The highlight of the day had to be the Tudor dinner. This was not being told how and what people ate during Tudor times, this was actually watching dinner take place! At 1pm the bell was rung and all of the costumed guides made their way over to the farmhouse to have their lunch. As they did so, they explained all that was happening and why, and it brought the whole thing to life so magically that we stood for nearly an hour asking questions and watching and listening to all that they had to say.
***(I should say at this point that I do rather go on about this event because it was so interesting! Keep reading if you love history, but if not, you might want to skip the rest of this post!)***
It started off with everyone lining up and waiting for the master of the house as he was the most important person and therefore went first in everything. The first thing they did was wash their hands in some clean water with flowers and herbs added (the herbs had antibacterial properties and the flowers gave it a nice fragrance). The master went first, followed by the rest of the household, in order of importance. Then they took their places around the ‘board’ (not a table but literally a board on trestles that could be easily moved out of the way if needed) but didn’t sit until the master sat down and didn’t eat until the master started eating.
Lunch was a simple pottage (like a chunky vegetable soup) which they ate from wooden bowls using their own spoons! Nobody in Tudor times ever used a spoon that someone else had had in their mouth (and they thought we were all disgusting because we did so!). They carried their own spoon with them at all times, along with a sharp knife in a sheath (which doubled as a working knife). There were no forks, but they each had a long spikey stick called a picket which could be used to spear food and bring it to their bowl but wasn’t used to eat with. This explained the importance of being given a spoon when you were born as this is what you would use for the rest of your life.
As they finished the pottage, they used their bread to wipe out their bowls so that they could use them again for the next course. Dinner was the most important meal of the day (and the only meal for some), so it had several courses and was fairly substantial.
The next course was fish. They explained that the King had passed a law that everyone in the country must eat fish three times a week. This was to support the fishermen of the time and ensured that the King had plenty of able seamen if he needed them. Of course Stratford upon Avon is right in the centre of England, almost as far from the coast as it is possible to be and so their fish was not succulent and fresh but dried, salty and tough. They explained that it had to be soaked for days to make it even close to being palatable and even then they added lots of vegetables and herbs to basically disguise the flavour! Today they had made something like a Cornish pasty with it and they accompanied these with salad leaves and beetroot. As they ate, they wiped their fingers on a napkin that they had tossed over their left shoulder (literally tossing it over there to knock the devil off their shoulder). They ate the pasties and salad using their right hand. Their left hand was used for passing food to others at the table and this never went in their mouth. They also had their napkins over their shoulder rather than on their lap because it was considered very bad manners to have your hands under the table – the board – hence the saying ‘above board’. The master also sat in the only chair at the table (everyone else was on benches) and that is where we get the term ‘chairman of the board’. Having a board instead of a table is where we get some of our table manners from too. You couldn’t rest your elbows on the table otherwise you would tip the whole thing over.
Interestingly, they didn’t finish everything that had been brought to the table. This would mean that the master hadn’t provided enough food and was therefore a mark of disrespect. Leftovers would be used the following day, or were often given to labourers to take home so that they would have something to eat for supper. If they had worked hard, they didn’t earn more money, but this was a nice perk instead.
They finished off with some cheese, which was very popular in Tudor times. Milk wasn’t used for drinking, but only for cream and for making cheese and butter. Milk was only given to infants and the elderly or infirm – a healthy adult who drank milk would be called a ‘milk sop’. At the end of the meal, no-one got up from the table until the master had finished, and at that point they all went off to get on with their work.
The women always had their head covered, with a coif or other cloth. They never had their hair cut and it was considered to be only for their husband’s eyes. So, for modesty, hygiene and to prevent it from getting burnt in the fire, they always had it covered. The only days that it was uncovered would be feast days like midsummers day, when they would literally ‘let their hair down’ and go wild. There were different styles and fashions in headgear as it was one of the only ways to show your individuality. But the ears were always covered – apparently to prevent the devil from whispering in a woman’s ear as the serpent had done in the garden of Eden.
The whole experience was fabulous – so enjoyable and we learnt so much! Other things we did included watching and talking to someone cutting wood for the fire using a hammer and wedge to split the logs; to the blacksmith, who spoke about the kinds of things they would’ve made in those days (arrow heads, horses hooves, nails and other domestic tools and implements) and watched some Tudor dancing. We also watched the falconer fly a Lanner falcon and then a barn owl. The Lanner falcon flew off and caught its own dinner rather than taking the meat offered to it by the falconer. He had to get his tracking device out to go and find it later on!
After all this we were starting to tire a bit and thought we might head off home but then Me found a room full of dressing up costumes and that was it – E was in heaven! She tried in virtually every costume in her size, including dressing up as a Tudor boy. It was great fun and she looked very convincing in all of them.
We left as they were shutting up for the day, feeling tired but happy that we had had such a lot of fun and learnt so much. Tomorrow we leave for Holmsley in the New Forest.
I know this has been a long post and congratulations if you made it to the end! Please leave any comments in the reply section below – we would love to hear from you.