‘And to thee and thy company I bid a hearty welcome’ reads the inscription on the bronze gates to New Place, William Shakespeare’s final residence in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Bard’s words from Act 5 Scene 1 of The Tempest seem almost wistful now in a town longing to welcome people from far and wide.
Only 25 miles south from where I live in Birmingham, Shakespeare’s hometown has welcomed me countless times over the years and it’s never been anything other than a lively, jovial place. And while the crowds of tourists can swell at times (2.7 million visitors in 2019), it’s an understandable side effect of being the town most associated with arguably the most famous export these isles have ever produced.
In 2020 however, Stratford-upon-Avon more closely resembles a sleepy market town. The glacial pace of life along the usually humming Henley Street was as stark as the meagre, socially-distanced queue dripping from the entrance to Shakespeare’s Birthplace. A street performer dressed as King Richard the Lionheart in full chainmail armour cut a forlorn figure.
But as I headed toward the Recreation Ground along the banks of the River Avon, the stillness made the town’s handsome landscape ever more evocative. The rust-orange autumnal hues giving added colour to a bucolic scene of trundling riverboats, gently swaying willows and a few meandering geese. Yet for all of Stratford’s pretty panoramas, the lack of visitors doesn’t help the businesses that make the town what it is.
“From March we lost 86 per cemt of our income overnight,” said Erica Whyman, deputy artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the theatre company that’s been a cultural hub and bastion of the town’s economy for years.
Like so many other performing arts venues up and down the country, the RSC has been largely closed since the beginning of the pandemic. While putting some performances online and running socially-distanced outdoor shows in late summer has kept them visible, 2020 has been a catastrophic year with staff consultations taking place earlier in the month.
“I think it’ll take us – and all theatres – several years to get to a place of financial resilience,” Whyman continued. “But at the same time, we’re creative as an industry so I think we will find ways to get open next year. I know that we will.”
Over the street from the RSC at the stylish boutique hotel The Arden, the pain has also been felt. “It’s devastating for us in Stratford because the RSC is the epicentre of everything. The night-time economy has been lost” said Tara Robinson, sales and marketing director for the Eden Hotel Collection.
And as if to prove how important the arts are to this town, of audiences visiting the RSC for a show, around 65 per cent will also typically visit a restaurant or café with a further 39 per cent going shopping during their time in Stratford. The loss of the international market has been crippling too (30 per cent of visitors are from abroad) and is a situation out of the hands of Stratford’s attractions and businesses.
But Robinson also shares Whyman’s sense for creativity and a belief that things will improve. “We’ve managed to get on our feet somewhat,” she told me. “As a boutique hotel we’d normally lead with the experience and the luxury but now we’re leading with our safety measures to make people feel secure to book. I am optimistic in that we changed, and we’re in a good position because we took some quick measures adapting early on.”
A quick saunter across the medieval Clopton Bridge and along the serene river banks, Stratford’s resilience has also been shown at Avon Boating where the pandemic hit just as their season was about to start. As a seasonal boat hire operation who are dependent on the weather, lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for them.
“It was very frightening,” said Jade Swinfen, director of the long-standing local business. “We didn’t know when we were going to be able to open or in what form and we were looking at a prospect of being closed for 12 months.”
But despite only being able to operate at around 50 per cent capacity and unable to employ the normal amount of young seasonal workers he normally would, Swinfen acted quickly to put in all the Covid measures.
“We did a Facebook campaign and rebuilt our website to put information out there about what we were doing and how we’re doing it,” he said. “I’m not going to say it wasn’t tough, but the position is we’ve actually taken some money and feel a lot more comfortable about going through the winter, getting to next year and hopefully things are going to be somewhat easier.”
While tragedy may have engulfed Stratford’s economy in 2020, the spirit of its people is rousing and anyone visiting will receive the heartiest of welcomes.