Travel: Et tu, Tinky Winky?

There's a clash of the Titans taking place in Stratford. Laa Laa, Tinky Winky and co are coming head to head with the Bard.
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The Independent Culture
SO THERE you are, four years old in the middle of Stratford-upon- Avon, Shakespeared out by a town's obsession with William someone or other. The afternoon looks bleakly Elizabethan; the outlook is, at best, architectural; and ye olde gifts in ye olde souvenir shoppe are all disappointingly adorned with someone who is definitely not the head of light entertainment.

It's not at all as you like it, in fact the phrase "much ado about nothing" springs randomly to mind, when in true Shakespearean style the action changes. It's a scenario worthy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, though not even the mischief induced by the impish Puck could have conjured up anything quite as surreal.

Enter, stage left, four oversized psychedelic babies, the Teletubbies - or rather, they don't. There's a double-edged bluff to the change of tempo which makes surrealism seem plainly dull. The Teletubbies are not in Stratford, yet even those in the literary and lipsticked know will confide in hushed asides, "Did you know we've got the Teletubbies here?" A comedy of errors? No, just 20th-century madness.

The hard facts are these: the Teletubbies' Home Hill, or a scaled-down replica of it, complete with sugar-pink slide and central illuminated control panel, is in Stratford, tucked away in the Ragdoll Shop, where Ragdoll Productions, creators of the Teletubbies, research with children at their imaginative best. A replica Rosie and Jim canal boat and Tots TV cottage are also there, with an invitation to "play on".

Children are encouraged to play free of charge, making the most of the opportunity to telephone direct Tinky Winky and chums or others of their favourite Ragdoll characters.

For those with the rampaging imagination of a four-year-old, there are limitless supplies of Teletubby custard and toast, and for those with more pressing needs there's a Teletubby toilet behind a secret door.

The fact that the Teletubbies themselves are not there does not seem to be an issue for the children. For the occasional "clubber", on more of a pilgrimage than a day out, there's a definitive reply from management: "The Teletubbies are babies; they're far too young to leave Teletubbyland in the Warwickshire countryside. Anyway they're about 8ft tall; they'd scare the children."

The odd juxtaposing of the Bard and the Teletubbies, these two opposite ends of the English language, will be appreciated by those who have experienced the cultural void of early parenthood spent in a wasteland of fun factories and adventure playgrounds. Shakespeare is to toddlers what Teletubby- speak is to adults; plain English is the bribe that comes in between, allowing adults to soak up a little Shakespeare and Stratford and children to wallow in ice-cream and Teletubbyland. All's well that ends well.

The visitors

Anna Pearce, an optometrist from Berkshire, took her two children, Madeleine, six, and Alec, four.

Anna: Stratford doesn't sound an automatic choice for somewhere to take small children, yet it is surprisingly children-friendly. Even the Shakespeare experience, which you imagine will be boring for them, is refreshingly animated and manages to focus their attention sufficiently to give a flavour of Shakespeare in Elizabethan times. The guides are particularly good at bringing the period to life and homing in on areas that children can relate to.

There are a lot of linguistic and literary references that even quite young visitors can make sense of. We took a trip around town and out to Anne Hathaway's cottage on an open-top bus, which provides a great view and an impressive commentary. The children particularly liked the history behind sayings such as "I've got a frog in my throat".

It is something of a bonus for young families to have the Teletubbies there in the midst of so much culture. The Ragdoll Shop is a little light relief on the horizon, especially for pre-schoolers, although you can see the relief on parents' faces too as they make their way through to Teletubbyland at the rear of the premises and are able to allow the children to let off steam. It is particularly good for babies who are at the crawling stage.

The children don't seem to worry that the Teletubbies are not there, although they enjoyed the replicas in the shop window, with TV-screen tummies which pick up the children as they stand in front of them.

Madeleine: I wish we could have stayed at the Teletubbies' place for longer, it's really good fun there. I liked seeing myself on the TV screens on their tummies and sliding down the slide. You could have as many turns as you liked.

I did like the bits about Shakespeare, too. The place where he was born had lots of chimneys in it, and the kitchen and bedroom were very different to the way they are now. The people slept on mattresses which were on top of rope. They had to tighten it up before going to bed, which is why we say "sleep tight". I would definitely recommend Stratford as a place for my friends to visit, but not until I've had a chance to tell my teacher about it first.

Alec: I like the yellow Teletubby best, the one called Laa Laa. I could see myself in Laa Laa's tummy. I really liked coming down the pink slide - sometimes I came down backwards - and I liked pressing the buttons and doing the levers at the bottom. I also liked going in "Brum" and climbing through the windows of the cottage. You could sit on the boat and watch a video. I don't think it was Shakespeare.

The deal

Location: Stratford-upon-Avon can be reached easily by car from the M40. Alternatively, Thames Trains run from London Paddington to Stratford, and InterCity services connect through either Leamington Spa or Birmingham.

The Ragdoll Shop is at 11 Chapel Street, open weekdays 9.30am-5.30pm and Sunday 12 noon-4pm. Toilets and a buggy park are available. There is plenty of Teletubby merchandise for sale. As Anna says: "There's no hard sell, but try walking past the souvenirs with a small child without being forced into buying."

Shakespeare's birthplace is one of five houses in the care of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. An inclusive ticket for all five houses costs pounds 10 for adults, pounds 5 for children, pounds 9 for OAPs and students and pounds 26 for families (two adults and up to three children). Opening times vary at each house.

Bus tours: Guide Friday open-top bus tours operate every 15-20 minutes. The tour lasts approximately an hour but your ticket is valid all day, allowing you to stop off en route. Price pounds 8 for adults, pounds 6.50 for OAPs and students, pounds 2.50 for accompanied children under 12, pounds 18.50 for families (two adults and up to four children). Under-fives go free. The tour does not include admission to any houses, though discounted tickets are available.

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