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`Bare ruined choirs' all too true for Bard's English church

Shakespeare lies in Stratford's Holy Trinity, which needs repair. But tourism is down and the rain is pouring in.

January 14, 2007|Sue Leeman | Associated Press Writer

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, ENGLAND — Adopt a gargoyle. Sponsor a spire.

It could help save the 800-year-old Holy Trinity Church, where William Shakespeare was baptized and where he lies buried with his wife, Anne Hathaway.

Church officials hope that fans of the Bard around the world will help raise $6.3 million needed to repair a cracked spire, broken windows and eroding bricks -- and address damage from years of dry rot and death watch beetle.

"It's absolutely desperate," said Josephine Walker of Friends of Shakespeare's Church, which is in charge of fundraising. "It's raining, and as we speak, rain is pouring in through the clerestory windows."

It's a common story in the parishes of England, where hundreds of medieval churches need frequent loving care. The Church of England estimates that about $680 million worth of repairs are underway or urgently needed, and few of the crumbling churches have connections to anyone as famous as Shakespeare.

Friends of Shakespeare's Church already has an American fundraising arm -- but church officials are concerned at the drop in Britain's tourist numbers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as well as the July 7, 2005, suicide assault on London's transit system and more recent terrorism alerts. The number of U.S. tourists fell 13% from 2000 to 2005, when 4.2 million Americans visited Britain, according to government figures.

Catherine Penn, one of the trustees of the Friends, said urgent work had been done to repair the crumbling parapet, but that donations from tourists have dropped for other repairs at the church, located in Stratford-upon-Avon, 110 miles northwest of London.

She urged supporters to "sponsor a gargoyle" to help the fund.

Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity on April 26, 1564, and the church's burial register lists him as "Gulielimus, filius Johannes Shakspeare" (William, son of John Shakespeare).

After a career writing and staging his plays in London, Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1611 and was buried in the chancel -- an area near the altar -- on April 25, 1616, two days after his death.

About 100,000 people visit Holy Trinity every year to view his resting place, with its inscription "Will Shakspeare, Gent." The memorial was erected a few years after his death, and the plump-looking likeness on the gravestone is considered a good one.

"People say he looks like a well-fed pork butcher," church warden Bill Hicks said.

Shakespeare's prominent burial spot was not in honor of his supreme literary skill, but because in 1605 he bought privileges in the church that, among other things, obliged him to keep the chancel in good repair. But within a few years of his death, the structure was in danger of becoming one of the "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang" mentioned in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73.

Church officials say repairs are needed to the spire, the chancel, the north and south aisles, and the north and south transepts.

On the north transept, the orange stone buttresses are badly weathered and stained-glass windows are decaying. Stone on the south transept -- which is missing a cross -- is similarly weathered and shows signs of damp.

"It's a wonderful place with a wonderful heritage," said the Rev. Martin Gorick, the church vicar. "For 800 years this has been a meeting place, and we want to keep it that way."

And just in case anyone might think of moving his remains, Shakespeare's gravestone offers a curse, written by the Bard himself:

Good frend, for Iesus sake, forbeare

To digg the dyst encloased heare

Bleste be ye [the] man [who] spares thes stones

And curst be he [who] moves my bones.

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