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Shakespeare in Canada

Stratford's Shakespearean Festival- London, Ontario
Habeeb Salloum

Surrounded by Shakespearean countryside, the attractive city of London appears to be a bit of England transported to Canada. Its charming streets, many carrying the names of streets and towns in England, give it an old world charm.

As well, like London, Britain’s capital, the town is intersected by the River Thames and as is the case in most of the towns in England it is filled with green spaces consisting of pleasant parks and thousands of trees. They offer year round opportunities for outdoor leisure activities and have earned the city the nickname ‘Forest City’.

Located in southwest Ontario-roughly halfway between Toronto and the U.S. border, London, a city of some 350,000, is proud of its link to its namesake in England. Hence, its inhabitants have given a good number of its attractions and locations the same names as their English counterparts. In keeping with its British traditions, during summer, it is possible to take a sightseeing tour of town on an authentic British double-decker bus. After exploring the town in this manner, visitors will usually feel that they have seen a little part of Great Britain re-born in Canada.

Long inhabited by Iroquois tribes before the British arrived, London was incorporated as a city in 1855. In the ensuing years, it developed a strong industrial and commercial base and became [the] home to the University of Western Ontario, a renowned centre of academics and research-particularly in the field of medicine.

Today, the city houses seven museums, the most important being London Regional Art and Historical Museums, home to a collection of artefacts, as well as historical and contemporary art pieces; the London Museum of Archaeology and Lawson Prehistoric Village, a unique museum focussing on studying and interpreting the past 11,000 years of human life in southwestern Ontario; and the Banting House National Historical Site, the home of Dr. Sir Frederick G. Banting who was the co-discoverer of insulin, as well as a distinguished war hero and a Nobel Prize Laureate - featuring his contribution to the discovery of insulin and other events in his life.

However, overshadowing all other attributes, London is noted for its natural areas of forest, meadows, valley lands and wetlands - home to many different plants and wildlife. These include protected areas such as the Kilally Meadows, Meadowlily Woods, Medway Valley Heritage Forest, Sifton Bog, Warbler Woods, and Westminster Ponds. These natural areas feature some 22 km (14 mi) of paved bike paths along the Thames River. Their natural attributes along with its beautiful parks combine to give London a green landscape, reminding travellers of the English countryside.

Reinforcing this English aura are the towns and villages surrounding the city. Names such as Goodrich, Dorchester, Ingersoll, Port Dover, Simcoe, St. Thomas, Thamesford, Woodstock and the hamlet of Shakespeare add to the British flavour of this region of Ontario. One of Canada’s areas that has many historical connections to the British Isles, it is an ideal part of Canada to visit for those with a nostalgic feelings for Great Britain.

A traveller’s journey to this region would not be complete without taking in a Shakespearean play or two at Stratford – a nearby town with an overwhelming British aura. In name, spirit and atmosphere, it appears as if it has been plucked from an English countryside. Located some 60 km (37 mi) from London, Stratford is noted for its Festival – Canada’s epitome of literary events.

The Stratford Festival, luring between 500,000 and 600,000 annual visitors, rivals Broadway in its drawing power. It has been one of the most successful and widely admired theatres of its kind in the world. For more than half a century, many of the world’s-renowned plays have been performed, and a good number of famous stars of world theatre have come to this once sleepy rural town. Called by some ‘Canada's sacred cow’, the Festival has brought fame and repute to Canada's artistic community.

During 1956-57, the 1,826 seat Festival Theatre was constructed in such a way that the furthest seat from the stage be but 65 feet away. Evolving from the tent, which had for the first three years been the home of the Festival, it was designed along the lines of the Elizabethan stage. In 1957 the 1,100 seat Avon Theatre, a former movie house located in the middle of town, and later the 600 seat Tom Patterson Theatre, were added. In the ensuing years, the venture became a successful world-class theatre festival, bringing fame and money to the town of Stratford.

To accommodate the continuing growth in the number of visitors, in 2002, the new 250-seat Studio Theatre opened its doors. Throughout the last decade a great deal of renovation has been done in upgrading these theatres. Today, some 400 people work in all 4 theatres and create in the area some 3,000 other jobs.
Through the years, Stratford's Festival has put most other similar festivals to shame. All's Well That Ends Well, Carousal, Coriolanus, Cyrano de Bergerac, Guys and Dolls, Hamlet, Journey into Night, Kiss Me Kate, Richard III, My Fair Lady, Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night and endless other world-famous productions, are only a few of the celebrated plays most of which more than once have been enacted in this country town.

While the Festival rests on a Shakespearean foundation, other classic and contemporary works, along with international stars, are featured. In 2007, of the 14 plays to be performed, four are Shakespearean: King Lear, The Merchant Of Venice, Othello, and The Comedy of Errors.

All these plays are held in the background of the dammed Avon River, creating Victoria Lake on whose waters swim ducks and swans, seemingly furthering the connection between the Canadian and English Stratford. Most visitors, more than 30% Americans, travelling to this festival town, feel that they have enjoyed a taste of England.

For travellers to London, this Shakespearean atmosphere of Stratford makes a fine ending to their vacation to replica of a British city.
Merchant of Venice starring Graham Greene - buy tickets here

Facts About London:

1. London International Airport, excellent highways and, above all, the train station gives London easy accessibility. However, the best and most comfortable way to travel to London is by Via Rail - contact - 1-888-VIA-RAIL for Ontario, and 1-800-USA-RAIL, for U.S.A.
2. For visitors the most popular way to explore the town is taking the Double Decker Sightseeing Tours operated by Tourism London - for information on the call Tel: 519-661-5000 or toll free at 1-800-265-2602.
3. A good time to travel to London during The Western Fair, one of Canada's top fairs, drawing over 250,000 visitors to the city every September.
4. The Fanshawe Pioneer Village, a unique attraction exemplifying south-western Ontario life from the mid-1800s through to the early 1900s. Artefacts are on display in more than 25 restored buildings plus the trades of the past demonstrated by blacksmiths, farmers and weavers. It is always an anticipated stopover by tourists to the city.
5. While in London, one should see the diverse productions of London's Grand Theatre, one of Canada’s most attractive theatres and one of the city's most popular cultural attractions.
6. London offers five golf courses – four 18 holes and one 9 holes.
7. A fine place to visit is the Covent Garden Market, located in the heart of the downtown London featuring handcrafted products such as blown glass, jewellery, pottery, weaved items, woodenware and much more.
8. If with a family a stopover at the ever-popular Storybook Gardens in Springbank Park, offering year-round entertainment is a must.
9. Travellers with young children should not miss taking their children to Adventures on Wonderland, London's largest indoor playground facility for children 13 years old and under, offering interactive, energetic play.
10. For London hotels check
11. For a unique experience while in London dine at the Garlic's Restaurant, 481 Richmond St. Tel: (519) 432-4092 - famous for its garlic dishes - from garlic burger to garlic ice cream, it’s a magic experience.
12. For information about the Stratford Festival contact: Stratford Tourism Alliance, 47 Downie St., Stratford, Ontario, Canada N5A 1M7 Tel: toll free - 1-800-561 SWAN (7926) or 519271- 5140. Website:
For further information, Contact:
London Tourist Information Centre, 696 Wellington Road South London, Ontario, Canada N6C 4R2. Tel: 519-661-5000 or Toll Free: 800-265-2602. Fax: 519-661-6160/
Websites:; as well as
© Habeeb Salloum April 2007
H. Salloum is a freelance writer, author and member of Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) residing in Toronto, Canada. (And famous for his cookbook!)

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