Nearly twenty years ago, artistic directors, Philip Bowen and Susanna Best (pictured) founded ‘The Shakespeare Link’ after meeting and working together at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It soon gained charitable status and today the couple run The Shakespeare Centre which humbly embraces the magical surroundings of Mid Wales as its base.
One of the wonderful creations at the organic small-holding is the Shakespeare Hay meadow. Phil explains, “Over the years farmers have used copious amounts of nitrogen to maximise the volume of crops for harvest. We quickly realised that in order to create a Hay meadow we would have to seriously reduce the amount of nitrogen in the soil. After much deliberation, we took the drastic step of completely removing 6 inches of topsoil with a JCB to leave us with the impoverished soil conditions we needed. We then sowed a meadow mix and planted little wild flower plugs that had been sown and grown on by volunteers through the winter. One volunteer actually raised and planted over 400 little plug plants. All the plants we have used are mentioned in Shakespearean plays and we like to think it’s now the sort of sight that he may have seen as he travelled between Stratford and London.”
Another inspirational creation at the Centre is their Living Willow Globe, ‘Y Glob Byw’. “We wanted it to be based on the Globe Theatre in London so rang to ask if they had a book about the design and building of the Theatre, they said it was out of print but they had a children’s book that showed how to make a model of the Theatre. We simply used that,” recalls Phil. “We ended up utilising 2,000 rods of willow that I had already had struck based on a plan of Hampton Court Maze. The Living Willow Theatre holds 130 people and is a scaled down, living version of the Globe.”
When I mention from experience that willow structures can be a bit bolshy requiring ‘tough love’ as maintenance. Phil agrees, “We have two volunteers, Nick and Rhian who take care of that in the spring; they spend a couple of weeks on ladders tying in, pruning and generally sorting it out.”
He continues to speak proudly of the volunteers, “We have all ages, people have stages and rhythms in their own lives and they come and go at different times. The younger volunteers are available out of term time and on weekends and the retired people are usually around in the week. I am waiting for the summer break to put the youngsters to good use digging trenches to extend our green electricity system,” he shares with good humour. “Another of our volunteers recently built his first dry stone wall completely from scratch and he’s in his 70’s.”
“Many of the volunteers are Shakespearean enthusiasts and we stage a wide variety of events, including ‘Walk the Willow Way’, a Nature Trail where we link the environment with the words of Shakespeare; we have even translated and presented several plays and sonnets in Sign language,” he explains. “We are like a big cauldron here in the Heart of Wales and I like to think people can come and stir us as they like. We are also grateful for the funding we receive from private family trusts like Cadbury’s, as well as Glasu and WAG, it gives us status and a feeling of respectability, which we quite like!”