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No visitors, but the work doesn't stop at SBT

Stratford’s Shakespeare properties have always drawn in visitors from far and wide but sadly that's not been the case since last March, as the pandemic has seen the town’s tourist industry dwindle.

Mark Ratcliffe, Head of Estates for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, outside Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Mark Williamson S7/1/21/0137. (44029024)
Mark Ratcliffe, Head of Estates for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, outside Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Mark Williamson S7/1/21/0137. (44029024)

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which looks after the historic buildings, has suffered a hard year with a drop in income leading to redundancies.

The Birthplace on Henley Street was the only one of SBT’s properties able to welcome visitors for a period last summer, with special measures put in place to allow social distancing and prevent crowds.

However even that too is now shut and it remains uncertain when any of the properties may re-open.

This week the Herald spoke to Mark Ratcliffe, head of estates at SBT, about the work going on behind the scenes to maintain Stratford’s most historic buildings during this difficult time.

Mark said: “People sometimes get in touch worried that we’ve abandoned the buildings, the gardens or the animals at Mary Arden’s Farm, we really have not, we’re keeping everything ready so that as soon as we are allowed to re-open again we can do so.

“It’s quite a major and costly process to mothball buildings and then re-open them again but because we’ve not really known when we’d be able to re-open, we’ve not actually done that. We still regularly test the water systems, we heat the buildings and all the security and fire systems are maintained. During the first lockdown all of the historic artifacts and furniture were removed from the buildings and stored in our secure underground archive.

“Buildings that are not in use tend to deteriorate more in general and issues get spotted easier if there are more people around. Within two weeks of the first lockdown starting a stone plinth at the Birthplace fell down and rats got into one of the rooms.

“Historic buildings are flimsier then modern ones, they are more prone to drafts and damp, which has been a bit of a problem because in usual times they are better ventilated with people going in and out all the time.

“Insects and rodents are more likely to come in when it’s quieter and they’ve lost all their sense of fear during the lockdown.

“All the historic buildings have their individual issues, as timber framed buildings they naturally move around a bit depending on the seasons, they are living structures, but they are all quite different inside with their own challenges. People tend to think that SBT just looks after the five Shakespeare properties, but in reality with all the different outbuildings, our warehouse, our archives, it’s actually 80-90.

“There is a team of four of us who visit each property at least twice per week to keep an eye on things, test the water and systems and check for any vandalism, which although rare, does happen occasionally. In the first 111 days of lockdown one of our team walked 400 miles, just going between our properties in town.

“Something that hasn’t really been affected is the animals at Mary Arden’s Farm, they’re all still cared for, we’ve even got some little piglets on the way, life just moves on as normal for them.

“Overall we do have a smaller team looking after the properties at the moment, the gardeners are working hard to tame the weeds, mow the grass and trim the trees.

“One good thing about the current lockdown is we’re going to be able to mend the plaster ceilings in the Birthplace, if we were doing this work in normal times it would have to take place at night. However Brexit is actually having an effect on us too because it is taking longer for us to receive the lime plaster we use from France.

“It does make me feel sad when I walk around the Birthplace at the moment, with everything bare and no-one around, it feels a waste that I’m the only one allowed in there at the moment when there are hundreds of thousands of others who can’t wait to visit. I don’t know when we’ll be allowed to re-open, but I can’t wait, we’re aiming for a phased re-opening as soon as we are able to.”

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