Stratford Guildhall refurbishment well underway

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Such major surgery to a unique part of Stratford’s history may strike terror into some, but the work, which will cost £1.4 million to complete, will safeguard the Guildhall for generations to come.

But aside from its striking wooden façade, what is so special about the Guildhall?

In a word it’s History. The Guildhall has acted as a court, a schoolroom, a council chamber, a theatre and even an armoury and was the centre of Stratford’s cultural and civic life for more than 400 years.

The building was constructed in 1420 and originally housed the Guild of the Holy Cross.

However the upper floor of the Guildhall became the main schoolroom at King Edward VI School in 1568 and is now most famed as the place where a young William Shakespeare was taught.

The hall would have been a big part of the playwright’s life, not only being the place he learned, but also the building where his father John Shakespeare, who was one of the first bailiffs of Stratford, governed the town.

The Guildhall may even have been the place where Shakespeare watched his first theatre performance, when the travelling theatre troupes the Queens Men and the Leicester’s Men came to perform.

Legend has it that the term green room, where actors relax backstage, actually came from the term ‘agreeing room’, which was how the lower floor of the guildhall known and was where actors waited before performing upstairs.

In his later life Shakespeare purchased New Place, a large house on Chapel Lane just a stone’s throw from the Guildhall, so he was never too far from his old schoolroom when in Stratford.

A little known fact about the Guildhall is that the classroom set out on the upper floor today is not actually the classroom where Shakespeare was taught it is a Georgian era classroom built later.

Shakespeare’s actual schoolroom space sits at the other end of the upper floor and is currently empty, though it will not remain like this for long, with plans to restore the space to how it was in the Bard’s day, built into the refurbishment plans.

The classroom is still referred to as ‘big school’.

Of course it is impossible for us to go back in time and sit next to Shakespeare in class, but those responsible for recreating the classroom have planned something special to bring the area alive for visitors.

With the aid of a video projection and a costumed guide, visitors will experience what a 16th Century Latin lesson was really like, with interaction between the guide and video creating as realistic experience as possible.

It’s not just all about Shakespeare though, other notable figures have also sat at desks in the old schoolroom, including First World War Victoria Cross winner Rex Warnford, who was honoured with a memorial plaque at the entrance of the Guildhall earlier this year.

An interesting part of the Guildhall’s history is that it has a living, breathing history which is still being added to by the school which continues to use the space for teaching. It is one of the oldest school buildings in the country.

The Guildhall will celebrate its 600th anniversary in five years time and the trustees of King Edward VI School are behind the long-term plans to revitalise the building.

The refurbishment work, which is the culmination of more than 10 years hard work by the trustees, has been made possible by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

Perhaps the most positive thing about the restoration work is that when it is complete the Guildhall will be opened properly to the public during the week and at weekends.

Those behind the project believe the refurbished building could prove so popular that up to 100,000 visitors may stop by to explore it each year.

Ronnie Mulryne, Trustee at King Edward VI and author of the book The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford, said: “We applied for Heritage Lottery funding three times before we were successful and it has been a long process each time, it’s been an uphill effort over 12 years.

“We feel greatly relieved and happy that we will be able to share the Guildhall with the people of Stratford, it’s an idea we have cherished for a long time. When the work is completed the hall can resume its central position in the cultural life of Stratford. The last major restoration took place in the 1890s.”