‘Dream Home,’ reads the estate agent’s literature, ‘£720k The Old Falcon in Bidford-on-Avon’. And indeed, if you could afford the asking price, you might well imagine yourself in company with Shakespeare himself, raising a glass.
Bidford-on-Avon is seven miles downriver from Stratford-upon-Avon. The story goes that Shakespeare was a frequent visitor there, joining the ‘deep drinkers and merry fellows’ who caroused at the Old Falcon Inn. This is an impressive lias stone building north of the church and may well date from the reign of Elizabeth 1 since parts of it date from the sixteenth century.
Probate records name James Copland, yeoman, as the keeper of the Falcon up to 1621. His inventory mentions ‘the Falcon Chamber’ and that he had six hogsheads in ‘the taverne.’ After his death in 1621 a succession of publicans followed, though The Falcon’s exact dates as an inn are unknown. In the nineteenth century, it was used as a workhouse and in 1861 it housed the Bidford Institute and Working Men’s Reading Room. More recently it has been used as an antiques showroom and is now a private residence. A unique feature is the Victorian stained glass window in the dining room.
The legend that Shakespeare and his mates challenged the ‘Topers’ of Bidford to a drinking competition is well-known in Warwickshire. It has considerable appeal to the imagination and one can picture the roisterers setting out from a Stratford which was then a town of many thatched buildings, over a thousand elms and forty ash trees. The way from Stratford would have been well-trodden but heavily wooded, for the great Forest of Arden stretched across the middle of England in the sixteenth century. It was said that a squirrel could climb a tree in Northamptonshire and not put a paw to the ground until he
reached the foothills of Wales .Upon arriving in Bidford, the Stratfordians found that the ‘Topers’ had gone to Evesham Fair but were invited to drink with another group, known as the ‘Sippers.’ One can fancy that winks might have been exchanged; the ‘Sippers’ would be a pushover. But this was a grave miscalculation: the Stratford lads became ‘Intollerable intoxicated’ and, reeling out of the tavern, collapsed under a crab apple tree on the hill rising from the village centre.
It makes an entertaining story. And like all stories it may contain a grain of truth: it is quite likely that Shakespeare knew Bidford well and drank there frequently. But the tale has been embellished, amplified , distorted in transmission, and consequently exists in various different versions like many of the tales surrounding illustrious figures of the past. So, upon waking beneath the crab apple tree, Shakespeare is supposed to have composed an epigram on the local villages:
Piping Pebworth, dancing Marston, Haunted Hillborough, Hungry Grafton, Dodging Exhall, Papist Wixford, Beggarly Broom, and Drunken Bidford
It is, of course, both unprovable and highly unlikely that Shakespeare should have composed such a piece of doggerel but the attribution became inevitable. Meanwhile, the crab apple tree under which he had allegedly slept was, by the eighteenth century, shown to visitors as ‘Shakespeare’s canopy’ or Shakespeare’s Crab.’’ At The Falcon Inn, a chair was exhibited in which Shakespeare was supposed to have sat, together with the very tankard from which he had sipped. Clearly, the Shakespeare legend was good news for the publican. The crab apple tree itself was literally torn to pieces by souvenir hunters. In 1824, the remains were dug up and carted off to the Rev Henry Holyoakes who lived at Bidford Grange. A Stratford antiquary’s unpublished account recalls that ‘the Branches had entirely vanished from the further depradations of pious votaries; & the stock had mouldered to touchwood, the roots were rotten, & the time worn remains totally useless.’
One is reminded of the fate of the hallowed mulberry tree which stood in the garden of New Place, Shakespeare’s last home in Stratford. By the 1750s it was owned by the Rev. Francis Gastrell who became so annoyed by ‘pilgrims’ appropriating parts of the tree which Shakespeare was supposed to have planted, that he had it cut down. The pieces were sold to one Thomas Sharpe who, with an eye to business as acute as his name, created a number of portable souvenirs at a certain price. These tended to assume the status of holy relics, and mulberry wood goblets and cups were used for drinking toasts at Shakespeare’s birthday dinners up to the 1840s.
The stories surrounding The Old Falcon may be largely untrue but they attest the deep connections to his native soil which run through all Shakespeare’s works, transformed by the genius of the playwright, but everywhere apparent in richest detail.
No, I can’t afford that £720k.
I return to my Bryant house, built in 1977.
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant