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Shakespeare’s Way, UK

Bill Orme

In a country with hundreds of named walking paths, it is surprising that it has taken so long for someone to design a path named after one of Britain’s most famous sons—William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Way, a walk of 146 miles, opened in April 2008. It runs from Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, to the Globe Theatre in London, where he worked, and where many of his plays were performed. The original Globe Theatre, which was owned by Shakespeare and his friends, burned to the ground in 1613, when a cannon shot during a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatched roof of the gallery. The foundations of the Globe were rediscovered in 1989, and led by the vision of the late Sam Wanamaker, a new Globe Theatre was completed in 1996.

Shakespeare worked in London while his wife Ann Hathaway and his children lived in Stratford, and it is reasonable to suppose that he journeyed between the towns many times, probably covering much of the distance on foot. Sadly, there is little to indicate the routes that he took, although it is thought he did stay in the Crown Inn in Oxford, owned by his friend John Davenant.We may ask ourselves, however, if the stone circle of the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds was in his mind as the backdrop for Macbeth, and was the beech wood that inspired the setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream somewhere on the route?

Shakespeare’s Way was devised and first walked by Peter Titchmarsh, a well known British author, who has written many books about the British countryside. His full colour guide book to the route is entitled Shakespeare’s Way: a journey of imagination. Given no specific historical route to follow, Peter Titchmarsh has chosen to take the walker through some of the most beautiful countryside and villages of England. We followed close in his inaugural footsteps, (literally at times, where he had trodden out the way across newly planted crops), with the countryside blossoming at the height of  spring.

We were considerably impressed by the Way. At Stratford we visited the Bard’s tomb in Holy Trinity Church to find it swamped with hundreds of bunches of flowers, as the date of his birthday had just passed. We visited the Shakespeare Centre, the exhibition at his birthplace, where there was just one bold statement about his walking, stating that he would have walked to London, 100 miles away, in four days. The route set by Peter was nearly 150 miles, and since our intention was to take time to smell the flowers along the way, we decided on a leisurely twelve days. The first part of the walk down to Oxford took us through a string of villages and small towns that all had their notable features identified in the carefully written instructions of the guidebook, such as a fine bell tower, an outstanding tomb, an impressive mansion or a mature beech forest. These highlights were matched by notes of such practical items as welcome bench, useful shop and hospitable inn,  along the way. We used them all!

The guidebook follows the format of each self-contained double page showing a sketch map with a detailed description of the route. There are also abundant excellent photographs. Good use is made of established paths such as the Chiltern Way, the Beeches Way and the Thames Path and on lesser known routes walkers are taken from stile to stile in fields, along rights of way and bridle paths as well as occasional sections of minor roads. It is important to pay attention to the directions. The identifying roundel Waymark depicting Shakespeare’s head is discretely added to existing Waymarks in many cases, and efforts have been taken to keep the marking low-key.

Four days of walking brought us to Woodstock, where we were lucky enough to have a friend who showed us around Blenheim Palace. After following the valley of the Stour, we entered the Cotswold country near Oxford, and the walk along the Oxford Canal led us to our first encounter with the Thames. Some of the best walking came when we crossed the hills and valleys of the Chiltern Hills with their marvellous beech woods of budding lettuce-green leaves, such a treat for those used to the grey-greens of the Australian bush. In Marlow we enjoyed another stretch along the Thames before going back into beech woods and the heath land of Stoke Common. Eventually we hit the Grand Union Canal at Iver and the final stretch into London along the Thames. We were treated to the sight of coots, moorhens and swans busy with their spring nesting and we were specially impressed by ability of the coots to recycle plastic and foam for nests. An example to us all?

Finally, from Kew to the Globe itself, we can only extol the unfolding, bridge by bridge, of London’s history and architectural heritage. We book-ended our journey with performances of Hamlet in Stratford-on-Avon, and Coriolanus at the Globe.

So what does this path offer that makes it special?

We were conscious that by walking we were joining not only Shakespeare, but all the people over time who have used walking as a way of travelling—before the advent of train, car and plane.  It gave us the opportunity to experience the character of the English countryside, villages and towns as well as a chance to encounter people along the way in a fashion not possible using fast modes of transport.

We used the Shakespeare’s Way Planner, a listing of accommodation and meal facilities along the path to good effect. Huge thanks go to Peter Titchmarsh and his many helpers who designed and checked the route.  Meander it as we did, or walk it at 25 miles a day, we are sure this is a path that will give great enjoyment to many walkers.