Accidental author brings Stratford’s overlooked history to life

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Val Horton with her new book outside the house that started it all. Photo copyright: Mark Williamson/Stratford Herald

THERE are plenty of books telling the history of Stratford-upon-Avon and its many historic buildings. There are many that also capture the rich and varied stories of its people.

But if you are looking for something that takes a different view of the town and its residents over a period of 140 years of that past, then Val Horton has written a book worth a place on anyone’s shelves this New Year.

There’s a big clue in the title – It’s Not About Shakespeare – that this is not aimed at the tourist market, though lovers of social history from anywhere will find it as fascinating as anyone who has lived in Stratford-upon-Avon.

For what Val has done is turn a part-time, personal project to record the story of her family home into a sweeping account of how that house links into so many aspects of the town’s development. Or as she so modestly puts it, “I wandered accidentally into the archives and wandered accidentally into writing a book.”

If the title makes clear this is not another attempt to appeal to fans of the Bard – given further emphasis by the subtitle, ‘Aspects of ordinary life in Stratford-upon-Avon 1775-1915’ – it is, of course, the excellent archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust that have helped her take that initial idea and turn it into such a vital addition to our knowledge of the town.

While I don’t want to do Mayfield Avenue a disservice, it is one of those roads I first discovered on a driving lesson and have only really thought of in the years since as being part of a route to get around the town or to friends living off Clopton Road.

The likes of nearby Avenue Road and Rowley Crescent are distinctively grand but while pleasing to the eye, I had also never thought a great deal about the properties on Mayfield Avenue or their stories. And that’s where Val’s detective work comes into its own.

There’s a growing popularity for people to track the ancestry of their homes but Valerie has gone way beyond this, the work’s start date of 1775 being significant because that was the year of enclosure for land around Stratford and the arrival of one of the first key players in the Mayfield book of memories.

Though she has weaved together so many facets of life in our market town, the story of her house remains at the heart of it but we can be grateful her inquisitive nature saw her realise how one line of research was linking to other people and situations, her notes piling up as one thing led to another.

Having initially trained as a teacher, she gave up work to look after the boys, eventually returning to work for Citizens Advice, a fulfilling career which didn’t harbour any long-held ambitions to pursue detailed historical research or book publishing.

She started some eight years ago after retiring, not driven by a deadline and not working on it during the summer when the garden demanded her attention: “It’s been a long process because I wasn’t aiming to write a book. I went to the archives for five years, a couple of times a week in the winter months.”

When it evolved into a book, she stayed faithful to her original intent. It is dedicated to her two sons and they have been important in defining its approach. She said: “I thought I’d like to tell the boys more about the house they grew up in. I wrote it as if I was speaking to them. It’s not a study book, it’s a book to read. I’m not a scholar, so it’s written in that vein.”

Having decided to get it published as a book, she had to set about finding out how to do that – cue further research, this time on the internet to find publishers interested in local history and advice on how to go about getting them interested. One clear message was to write a synopsis and with that prepared she started making contact with those she saw as prospective publishers: “I sent the synopsis out and got lots of positive replies. Some said it was not in their remit, others sent contracts.”

But signing the contract would have meant agreeing to changes she wasn’t happy with and so she went in search of self-publishing options and found the ideal partner in YouCaxton Publications. The last two years have been about double checking, working with her editor and now the book is out there, available at WH Smith in Stratford, as well as online.

This fascinating book by Val Horton shines a light on many fascinating stories and characters. Photo of the book cover: copyright Stratford Herald.

So what can you expect from the book, without us giving away the plot? Perhaps we can turn to the reviews quoted on the back of the book. Social affairs correspondent Robert Booth said: “Bristling with the chaotic energy of riots, strikes and bacchanalia, this elegant, humane and subtly radical social history of Stratford reveals a place unknown to the millions of visitors who come looking only for the trace of Shakespeare.”

Or Dr Sarah Richardson from the University of Warwick’s history department: “The lost voices of the men and women of the town echo through the pages, providing a unique interpretation of the town.”

And Cyril Bennis, who was one of those who helped Val with the research, said: “Communities are a collection of individuals, connected by streets and this is the logical starting point for this engrossing social history.”

So prepare to be transfixed by chapters on slavery, insurrection, the workhouse, education, housing, suffragettes and more. The White Lion Inn is one of the lost buildings to play a large part in the tale, Val having already encountered a neighbour in Henley Street inspired to check out exactly where it stood.

We tend to think the past is largely about strong men dominating the scene but strong women are also key in this tale and, of course, some of the financial details are fascinating – seeing how landmark buildings cost and realising the seemingly trifle sums quoted are considerable in today’s terms.

Indeed, the house that started it all was sold for the first time, a few years old, for £450 in May 1911 and in 1930 reached the giddy heights of £650 when it was sold again. But we’re drifting again into the detail.

Let’s just say this is the kind of book that is certain to add to what most of us will know of Stratford’s past, linking every aspect of life across the years. As others have said, it is brilliantly researched at the treasure trove that is the birthplace trust’s archives, with some of the evidence coming from past editions of the Herald.

So what next for our reluctant author? My suggestion of another book is quickly ruled out – “Oh, gosh, no” – and I think she would rather show that many of us could stumble across an idea or a story worth telling, backed up by the material that could be lying unseen in either the trust’s archives or elsewhere.

She said with considerable modesty and with an absolute passion for those who helped her along the way: “I failed O-level English and I would like to say to people if you feel like delving in the past you don’t need to be a genius to do that. The people at the archives are lovely and the system is easy to learn.”

So, there you have it, if you are looking for a challenge for the New Year, it could be your turn to put pen to paper and bring another aspect of our history to life.