Stratford: Boating with the Bard

Tracy and Jan have cream tea on The Rita Ellen

Tracy and Jan have cream tea on The Rita Ellen - Credit: Archant

Tracy Spiers experiences Stratford-upon-Avon from a different perspective, as she takes to the water

The Clocktower, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Clocktower, Stratford-upon-Avon - Credit: Archant

Whether we are wordsmiths or not, most of us have been brought up with the name William Shakespeare – the great Bard who contributed richly to our English language and heritage. One place where his words and presence are celebrated loud and clear is of course his birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon, where the Royal Shakespeare Company leads the way in keeping his plethora of plays alive. Its aim is to stage each of Shakespeare’s plays just once in the next six years so that a whole generation of students and theatregoers can journey through Shakespeare’s Complete Works. This year marks his 450th birthday, with many exciting events taking place, including a new permanent exhibition Famous Beyond Words showcasing a range of items from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collection including the Bard’s First Folio. But whilst Shakespeare’s name dominates this market town, characterised by tremendous Tudor fronted buildings around in the day he penned his famous works; it isn’t just Shakespeare that makes Stratford such a tourist hot spot. It is the combination of history, culture, great community spirit, eclectic shopping experience and culinary treasures found in its feast of restaurants, eateries and teashops, each set against a backdrop of Olde Worlde architecture that makes it so special. It is like walking through a film set: one foot in the past, another in the present.

Stratford River Festival

Stratford River Festival - Credit: Mark Williamson

'William Shakespeare Enjoys Tea on a Boat', by Tracy Spiers

'William Shakespeare Enjoys Tea on a Boat', by Tracy Spiers - Credit: Archant

But there is something else. The latter part of Stratford’s name is equally as important. The ‘upon-Avon’, is a key ingredient which must not be forgotten. And it is this part of Stratford’s life that is celebrated this month at what is now one of the region’s leading free festivals, notably The River Festival on Saturday, July 5 and Sunday, July 6. In preparation of the fifth annual event on my latest visit to Stratford, I decided to experience it from a different perspective – on the river.

Stratford River Festival

Stratford River Festival - Credit: Mark Williamson

Stratford River Festival

Stratford River Festival - Credit: Mark Williamson

On the day I visit, it is more Tempest weather than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as far as water travel goes, it makes no odds. As we approach the water’s edge, my mum Jan and I are greeted with such warm welcome by Fiona Rae, a director of Bancroft Cruisers, a 20-year-old family business owned by John Macartney-Filgate, offering its own on-board guides renowned for their encyclopaedic knowledge and entertaining style.

Departing from its Holiday Inn landing stage, we hop on to The Rita Ellen; an elegant 40-passenger cruiser which is offers a warm haven and perfect place to enjoy a traditional cream tea with freshly baked scones from Blueberry Hill bakery in Leamington Spa. It’s only a 45-minute cruise, but it is so relaxing and is a brilliant way to see Stratford at a swan’s eye view. Incidentally there are many of these majestic birds enjoying the River Avon and today, we encounter a mother with her family of cygnets. Cruises run every hour from 11am-3pm – Wednesday to Sunday in winter months and seven days a week from mid-April to October. Sister boat, The Princess Marina, a covered 56-seater cruiser, is a great option for warmer days and is often used for corporate cruises and wedding functions.

“Experiencing Stratford from a boat enables people to see the town from a different perspective and at a more leisurely pace. It’s a just a very relaxing thing to do,” admits Fiona.

“We take them through the town and out into the countryside so that they see both ends of Stratford, whilst enjoying a quintessential cream tea.”

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Like many of the area’s water-related industries, Bancroft Cruises takes an active part in the River Festival. This year’s event also helps celebrate two major historic landmarks - the 50th Anniversary of the restoration of the Stratford Canal and the 40th Anniversary of the opening of the Upper Avon Navigation. Following a tradition of artists and creative actively involved with and inspired by the canal including the late Sir John Betjeman, Canal Laureate Jo Bell, appointed by the Canal & River Trust and the Poetry Society to create poems that share new perspectives on Britain’s historic waterways, will be releasing her poem to mark the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the Stratford Canal.

For those visiting Stratford in early July, they will be in for a treat. Held within the recreation ground on the banks of the River Avon, opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the River Festival, organised by Stratforward Business Improvement Trust, brings together boaters and the local community to share a feast of river and land-based entertainment.

“Seeing over 100 brightly decorated narrow boats moored up along the banks and a plethora of kayaks, pleasure cruisers, rowing boats and even the occasional windsurfer and gondola out on the water brings the river alive,” exclaims Ruth Wood, event manager.

Live music, street entertainment, delicious food and drink outlets, market stalls and perhaps the highlight of the weekend - an illuminated boat display followed by a spectacular firework on the Saturday night – makes it a winner for all concerned.

“With over 45,000 visitors and the atmosphere is fantastic. Everybody seems incredibly happy and it is a wonderful free event which brings the whole community together,” adds Ruth.

As well as promoting the River Avon and recognising its importance, an important aim of the festival is to maintain the profile of Stratford as a premier destination and to encourage visitors to visit more frequently and stay longer.

Judging by the town’s fun-packed events diary of 2014, many people have been working hard behind the scenes to also fulfil the same vision. One can’t get bored in Stratford. As well as the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations, Stratford Festival of Motoring, Literary Festival, Arts Festival, Music Festival, Mop Fair, Orchestra of the Swan, numerous events at the Artshouse, RSC, and function rooms from professional to amateur; there is the MAD Museum on Henley Street, numerous voluntary events and sports clubs - one of the newest being Men in Sheds to engage older men! (Having just moved out of my shed to the warmth of the children’s playroom, I wonder how many women have a shed too?!)

I have been looking at Stratford from a river point of view. But there are other perspectives to take into account – that on foot or on bus. One way to visit some of the town’s key attractions such as Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Nash’s House, Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s House and Countryside Museum is to hop and off a familiar red CitySightseeing bus. There is also the option of going on an award-winning entertaining daily guided walk (including Christmas Day) or evening ghost walk, organised by Stratford Town Walk, founded in 2002 and run by a team of enthusiastic and dedicated local guides.

Enthusiasm and dedication are also the traits of newly appointed mayor Ian Fradgley, who has lived in Stratford for over 40 years. He follows in the footsteps of his wife Jenny, who was mayor in 2009.

“I just think it’s a lovely town to live in, most people are exceedingly friendly and willing to have a chat,” says Ian. “I delight in being able to walk or cycle down the street, proud to be Mayor of Stratford.”

Stratford is certainly an inspiring place with plenty to see and do. But I do recommend experiencing it cruising on a boat with a Pimm’s or cream tea in hand!

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This article by Tracy Spiers is from the July 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.

For more from Tracy, follow her on Twitter: @spiers_tracy