In the vein of not being so churlish about Stratford tourism, today’s trip to Charlcote house and grounds was eye-opening and again I met some very warm and interesting folk, as I have in other travels this week. Oh the lovely scale and proportion of Tudor houses, not to mention the colour of the stone, but the place is especially interesting because of that legend about Shakespeare stealing deer from Sir Thomas Lucy and having to flee Stratford for his fairly successful London career! Potential references to Lucy are all over The Merry Wives of Windsor, in the figure of Justice Shallow, so why do we doubt the word of mouth legends so much? The counter argument is it would have been too dangerous to expose such a thing, but are we not capable of imagining that by the time Shakespeare was a successful playwright, composing a work for Hunsdon’s inaugeration into The Garter, the Tudors too were not capable of forgiving the transgressions of youth? The spot was also two miles from the house itself, so Germaine Greer is wrong to knock it down on terms of it not being possible, having to bleed the meat and so on. It doesn’t matter, the legends are part of the fun, and Charlcote is fascinating, not least for the Lucy family themselves, with that Coat of Arms sporting three Luce, sometimes called Lice, a kind of Pike. Appropriate for fishy Shakespearean tales, although if it’s true and Shakespeare had been caught, at the time he could well have been hanged. Of course, being on the side of players, it begs the question what kind of landlord Lucy was, who died in 1600.
I suddenly had an idea to do a kind of Tudor Downton Abbey there, only to learn the Lucys married into the family that owned the home where it was shot, Highclare. They gave their home to the National Trust in 1946, just after the war. My version of Upstairs Downstairs would of course be a lot smellier, filled with plague, Pox and the battles of the Reformation. When Queen Elizabeth visited Charlcote though she liked the place so much she stayed an extra day, which must have worried Sir Thomas a bit, because her train of retainers stretched back down the Stratford road for something like eleven miles. The bill was over £10, a sixth of the price of Shakespeare’s purchase of New Place in 1597, but the Lucys got to put that carved Royal Crest over the doorway, with Honi Soit Qui Mali Pense and ER patterned in red stone. Still, it could be expensive being a Gent, because when the Lucys backed the wrong side in the Civil War, and Charles and Prince Rupert camped in the fields beyond, they kept their estates by paying Cromwell the equivalent of Six million.
The ‘modern’ family were just as interesting, because in the nineteenth century Grand Tour style the Lucys, children and a devoted footman suddenly set off around Europe, with a new-born infant in tow, who died on their two year travels. Another baby was conceived and born en route though and they finally returned, replete with foreign knickknacks and European influences to deck the rebuild on their home, creating a library and dinning room at the back. The great hall, complete with decayed Minstrel’s gallery, was completely remodelled, since Lady Lucy found it so dank and depressing. Back in the day the grounds were first rather oddly redesigned by Capability Brown, absurdly destroying the Tudor Water feature, and straightening the Avon too, right at the back, but they give a lovely sense of the open Warwickshire countryside and all sorts of ideas are underway to bring new things to the house. We learnt this on a very funny little walk with a charming ex mounted policeman, Bob, who had saddled up during the Miner’s Strike and was on his very first day as volunteer and highly enthusiastic tour guide. As we joked about what we did and didn’t know he took us past the Victorian Church, a bit unforgivably built on top of a Norman one, courtesy of Lucy droit de seigneur, where the actor Michael Williams, husband of Dame Judy Dench is buried. I met him when I was working at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre but apparently the great actress, and M in the Bond films, has a home nearby.
It was actually very moving too to see how the volunteer system works, not only there, but in places like the YHA, and Stratford’s is one of the most relaxed, and had given Bob for one a new purpose and lease of life. His house is on a distant hill opposite and we almost had a tour of that too! Bob also works at the RSC, and a good many of the houses and events in Stratford, including The Birthplace, both draw on people’s talents and help create living communities. At Charlcote they are raising the number of volunteers from 300 to 500, apparently, or perhaps that’s around the Trust, so I hope an exploitation culture is not too much underway in strapped times, a kind of 21st Century feudalism – The National Trust were not nearly as generous about letting me in as The Birthplace Trust – but down the Stratford Youth Hostal they were also handing out prizes and plaudits for long-standing volunteers. It reminded me of a trip to the Grand Canyon, and learning about how Roosevelt engaged regeneration with a national works programmes. Is there such a thing as National imagination these days?
Bob’s first little group of precisely three parted ways warmly, just by the bee hives and Tamworth pig enclosure, beyond the old eel trap that once-upon-a-time let through the elvas for their journey to the wide Sargasso sea, but caught the fatted parents for a bit of Tudor eel pie. To prove how the drama is as important as history though we agreed it was more fun making half of it up, and Bob promised to read the play Lettice and Loveage, that really thrills the crowds when the guides introduce a bit of Elizabethan flanneur, or just sheer romantic lies. Like the doubty spinsters of the piece perhaps we should all meet up again one day in London and plot to blow up Renzo Piano’s Shard in Southwark, to get back to Shakespearean basics on Bankside too. (Only joking, officer!)
The piture shows the Wikepedia image, which is NOT the original Stratford road. On Google Earth you can see that that avenue also runs beyond the Avon on the other side. Entry to Charlcote costs £10.50 for an adult, but a year’s membership will return the cost of entry