SHAKESPEARE may be firmly enshrined in the National Curriculum, but in the Barrett household we have Richmal Crompton's William Brown to thank for the Bard's rise to prominence. The BBC Radio 4 readings of the William stories by Martin Jarvis are seldom far from our car's cassette player.

In William and the Lost Tourist, the guileless American tourist Sadie Burford, with William's encouragement, mistakes his village for the town of Shakespeare's birth. The ever-helpful William obliges by showing Sadie the thatched house of deaf old Mrs Maloney, claiming it to be Anne Hathaway's cottage. ('An' there's Anne Hathaway lookin' out of the window,' says William. 'How dandy]' exclaims Miss Burford.)

In this parable of modern tourism, Miss Burford returns to her motor car where her father is waiting (he 'hates looking at things' and goes to sleep 'on purpose'). 'Seen it?' he asks laconically. 'Got it ticked off?' They return home satisfied that they have properly 'done' England.

And in William Holds the Stage, our hero locks horns with the appalling Wellbecker (provider of the ill-fated Wellbecker Shakespeare Acting Shield). The verbal chaos that ensues when Mr Wellbecker attempts to explain to William his theory that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by Bacon has enlivened many a long and boring car journey.

Would it be possible to learn anything more substantial about Shakespeare by a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon? The occasions on which I have passed through the town have suggested that there may be little more to Stratford than a succession of slickly managed tourist traps. Even in Richmal Crompton's day it seems that a trip to Anne Hathaway's Cottage had already become the ultimate tourist cliche.

Indeed, there is much that is crass about Stratford's relentless Shakespeare industry. The dozens of gift shops (the Anne Hathaway Cottage Garden Shop, for example, or the As You Like It souvenir emporium) offer a range of goods that defies parody. Here you can stock up on Shakespeare paper napkins, Bard of Avon tea towels or a Bardic Bust (pounds 20.50). Or what about a paper sculpture of William Shakespeare (pounds 4.95, 'No Mess')? Or a Shakespeare Quill Pen for pounds 5, a postcard cutout of Mary Arden's House for 90p or a Shakespeare rubber for 70p?

For a present with a difference, what about some unusual jewellery? Buy a pair of Shakespearrings, each apparently modelled on the theme of a different play.

Yet Shakespeare would probably have been the first to recognise that tourism is nothing more than a branch of show business. Few visitors to Stratford are engaged in an English literature doctorate; they come in search of entertainment.

Even the legendary American showman P T Barnum, who coined the expression 'There's a sucker born every minute', recognised the pulling power of Shakespeare. His plan to buy Shakespeare's birthplace, and to ship it to America stone by stone, persuaded Dickens and other writers to raise the pounds 3,000 necessary to preserve the house for the nation.

The first sight of the Stratford crowds is daunting, but don't be put off. Even on an August Saturday it was possible to cruise the main attractions in comfort. The best way to see the sights is to buy a ticket for the Guide Friday open-top buses that during the summer run every 15 minutes around the five Shakespeare properties: the Birthplace, New Place, Hall's Croft, Anne Hathaway's Cottage and Mary Arden's House.

If you stay on the bus, the round trip takes an hour. You may get on and off at each stop - taking the whole day if you wish. With children in tow, an in-depth examination of each of the houses is likely to prove rather exhausting. Anne Hathaway's Cottage and Mary Arden's House (and the adjacent Countryside Museum complete with baby owls and falconry displays) are the best bets out of town; in the centre of Stratford, the Birthplace is a must (so is Holy Trinity Church where the Shakespeare family is buried).

If there was disappointment at not spotting deaf old Mrs Maloney in residence at Anne Hathaway's Cottage, we could at least enjoy the company of dozens of Sadie Burfords on the buses. ('Is The Merchant of Venice the one with Julian Caesar? I get all those history guys mixed up.')

For those living on the route, the regular passing of these open-top buses must be awful - but for the tourists, I can confirm they are good fun. Some of the guides, particularly the older women, missed their calling as stand-up comedians. They deliver the commentaries with a fine dry wit and in the process they impart a raft of fascinating historical detail.

On Shakespeare's marriage: 'Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant when she got married - they had a shot-gun wedding. One of our drivers says this is the only thing he has in common with Shakespeare.'

On Elizabethan beauty standards: 'You were considered beautiful if you hadn't had smallpox, which disfigured the face. And also if your flea bites didn't show.'

The best way to finish off a trip is to take in a performance of a Shakespeare play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (known to locals, when it was first built, as 'the jam factory', for its particularly unlovely appearance). There seemed to be no shortage of seats for the matinee performance of The Merchant of Venice (in which Julian Caesar strangely fails to make an appearance). The modern-setting production was breathtaking - all Armani suits, flashing video terminals and wine bars.

As I sat among the legions of Americans and Japanese during the interval, I had leisure to ponder the even more breathtaking question of how a 16th-century grammar-school boy from small-town Stratford ended up in London and in the process invented a major plank of the 20th-century British tourist industry.

The final word on Shakespeare should, however, rest with William: 'Who was this Shakespeare, anyway?' he asked.

'He was a pote,' said Douglas unctuously, 'an' he - well, he just lived an' died.'

'Din' he do anythin'?' said William.

'He wrote po'try.'

'That's not doin' anythin',' said William contemptuously.

Bus tour: Guide Friday (0789 294466) tours operate from 9.30am until 6.30pm; all-day ticket pounds 6 (senior citizen pounds 4, accompanied children under 12 pounds 1.50; children under five free).

Main sights: A Shakespeare Town Heritage Trail ticket for the three in-town properties with self-guiding leaflet costs pounds 5 (senior citizen pounds 4.50, child pounds 2). An inclusive ticket for all five Shakespeare properties costs pounds 7.50 (senior citizen pounds 7, child pounds 3.25).

Royal Shakespeare Company: The 1993 season at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Swan Theatre and The Other Place includes King Lear, The Tempest, Murder in the Cathedral, The Country Wife and Moby Dick. Tickets pounds 6 to pounds 32.50 (information 0789 295623). Performances Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 1.30pm. A 'Stop-Over' package offers a stalls or circle seat for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a three-course dinner at the RST's Box Tree Restaurant and bed and breakfast: prices pounds 65.10 to pounds 106.

Further information: Tourist information centre, Bridgefoot, Stratford-upon-Avon (0789 293127).

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