Monday, 7 June 2010

A Farewell to Stratford-upon-Avon

Former technical college, Stratford-upon-Avon
Source: MJA Smith

I was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon and I called it home until I was nineteen, though I didn’t realise until three years later that I’d actually moved away forever. I left the quaint market town in Warwickshire for the concrete topography of the University of Essex in Colchester, not fully aware that I wouldn’t be moving back to the town of my birth once my degree had finished.

But that’s exactly what happened. I met a girl, got a job on a bank's management trainee scheme that needed me to based somewhere that wasn’t either Stratford or Colchester and quietly, almost without me realising, I moved out of the family home. It’s probably only in the last few years, with the introduction of children and the putting down of definite roots, that I’ve finally stopped calling Stratford ‘home‘. It’s only taken 14 years.

A home, of sorts, it remained until recently, upon the occasion of my parents selling up the house they moved into in 1983, the house where I lived out my pre-teens and teenage years and all the essential experiences and rites of passage that coming of age brings. I know for them it was an emotional departure, as it would have been for me also were it not for the fact that they have moved to Milton Keynes and are consequently just a few minutes’ drive away from us (as is pretty much everyone and everything in Milton Keynes come to think of it).

We went to Stratford last at the end of their residency, toward the end of September last year, and it was a predictably moving experience. Wandering slowly round the town, all of a sudden I grasped how little detail I had actually taken in over the years. All of a sudden the buildings I thought I knew had features I'd never before recognised and buildings that I'd never even taken any notice of before jumped out at me for the first time and seemed to scream for my attention. The feeling was dismaying, almost as if the town itself was telling me that I'd neglected its nuances my entire life.

I came away from the town perplexed at how I could have been so blind to Stratford's subtleties all those years. I'd never visited any of the principal tourist haunts, with the notable exception of Holy Trinity Church, out of principle. Like many residents, I'd elected to ignore the things so obviously important to the town's fabric but so crassly touristy, if not forever then certainly until an unspecified point in the future. Now I have no idea when I might visit those places. It's now, at nine months, the longest I've ever gone without visiting the town of my birth.

Like most towns, Stratford is undergoing changes, some of which remove some of the things I remember from childhood, forcing those memories to become like a sepia-tinted dream. The most significant of these is the remodelling of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Waterside, a building which seemed unassailable, far too precious and historic – despite being, at less than one hundred years' old, one of the town's more modern structures – to be tampered with. The new design, retaining features from Elizabeth Scott's original Art Deco design with new elements was intended to appease actors who find the theatre's backstage area cramped and dated, but also to offer a more appealing vision to tourists. One can only imagine how divisive the 1930s design was at the time. Improved it may well come to be, but it's not the theatre I will remember.

Bernadette's Restaurant, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of the Island Cafe
Source: MJA Smith

Another change which caught me off-guard in September was the conversion of the Island Café at the junction of the Birmingham Road, Henley Street and Windsor Street. The café was empty for the entire time I lived in Stratford, falling slowly into a greater and greater sense of disrepair. Its prime location at the main entry point for coaches of tourists entering the town should have made it opportune premises for any business looking to cream foreign visitor spending, but in spite of this, one day the owners locked the doors and it stayed closed, with movement occasionally visible behind the grime-encrusted windows with their crumbling frames and moth-eaten curtains. (In one of the short stories I began writing for a creative writing class, I imagined the interior of the café from the perspective of a dusty old glass left behind on one of the cafe's shelves; perhaps I'll get around to completing that some time.)

The last time we were there I was amazed to see that the café was no longer in a dilapidated state but that it had been renovated and converted into a smart restaurant called Bernadette's. All my life I'd wanted to see inside that building; I'd even had a teenage daydream where I tried to buy it with my sister and converted it into a swish vegetarian eatery where I'd also DJ an eclectic mix into the small hours. And yet here, on my last trip to Stratford was a completed altered Island Café. I was gob-smacked. I went inside, ostensibly to collect a business card, but also just to say I'd been inside. I think a small part of me rather preferred the ruined state it was in before having seen such a seismic change in a relatively short space of time. I just hope Bernadette's stays open long enough in these straitened times for me to get to visit properly, whenever that might turn out to be.

I did finally get to the bottom of one Stratford puzzle that had bothered me for years – the purpose of the building, pictured at the start of this post, sandwiched between the library and what is now the abomination on Henley Street that is Subway. For years I've walked past this building, a slender Victorian construction done out, in keeping with much of restored Stratford, in a mock-Tudor, half-timbered style. The solid, imposing wooden door to this building was perpetually closed and the diagonally-leaded windows were cloudy and revealed nothing of what secrets might be behind.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'd spent a long time imagining what this building might be, but suffice to say that thanks to a childhood diet of reading wizard-and-goblin fantasy books I became convinced it must be a shady meeting place for a secret Masonic guild in the town, possibly dating back to Shakespearian times or even further still. Something about the antiquated door and lack of signage or numbering seemed to lend itself to the remote, and slightly sinister, possibility. The air of dark mystery I'd afforded this reasonably inconsequential, comparatively hidden building over the years has made it my favourite building in the entire town.

Sadly, as is often the case with the truth, the reality was far more mundane. Thanks to the support of the Stratford Society (of which I am a paid-up member), I was put in touch with town historian Robert Bearman, whose book Stratford-upon-Avon: A History Of Its Streets And Buildings had sat, unread, on my shelves for about two years. The answer was squirrelled away in his text all along. It transpires that the building was designed by Arthur Flowers – of the local Flowers' Brewery family – as a technical college with the very laudable aim of providing Stratford boys with vocational skills to help their employment prospects. The college later moved premises, finally settling on the Alcester Road, adjacent to what used to be my High School, itself having since been demolished and replaced. I'm just glad I finally found out what it was originally for. The building is now nothing more than part of the library next door, but in my imagination still the place of illicit guild meetings.

Stratford's historic nature means that it is considerably better preserved than other towns in this country, and the scope for needless and excessive modernisation can thus, hopefully, be avoided. That said, in a town not renowned for changing – because of its historical heart – any small change is therefore likely to feel much larger than it might otherwise be elsewhere. I only hope I recognise the place when I go back, whenever that might be.

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