There is often confusion between Stratford in north east London and Stratford-upon-Avon which is the town in the British Midlands about 2 hours drive north west of London, and which is intrinsically linked with William Shakespeare. A day trip from London will give you around 4-5 hours there if you want to be back in time for dinner, but whether you manage a day trip, a stopover en route somewhere, or a visit for a few days it’s a place which is definitely worth investigation.
The Shakespeare trail in Stratford-upon-Avon includes about 6 or 7 main venues in total, all of which are worth giving time to, but most groups will focus on just 2 if it’s a short visit.
Firstly, the stunning Anne Hathaway’s cottage in the village of Shottery (about a 5-10 minute drive from the town centre of Stratford-upon-Avon) is a beautiful, thatched medieval farmhouse set in it’s own grounds with a garden which is carefully tended. There are guides in the cottage itself and admission is in small groups so you occasionally have to wait outside for a few minutes in order that the group in front of you can hear what the guide has to say then move on. When you come out of this amazingly well cared for property where William allegedly courted Anne (who eventually became his wife only 6 months before the birth of their first child!) you should take time to explore the gardens, where there are some interesting sculptures as well as a hedge maze.
Next, Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the town centre is a must for anyone with even a remote interest in the Bard. It’s an excellently preserved medieval town house which looks rather out of place amongst it’s nearby contemporaries but there is a large garden where actors regularly perform for visitors, and a wonderful multi-media ‘walkthrough’ show which I’d recommend doing before you visit the house itself. Apparently in the 1800’s the American entertainer, Barnum, wanted to collapse the property and put it on a cart to tour around North America as part of his travelling show… thank goodness he didn’t! The house is set up as it was during the time of Shakespeare’s father, John, who was a glove maker, and there are rooms set up showing the craft. Sadly this year, I noticed that the famous tree which was in the garden at the back of the house, was no longer there, and when I asked I was told that they’d found in late 2011 that it was diseased and had to be cut down – it’s a shame as it was quite iconic… but it’s loss doesn’t distract from this fantastic property well worth a visit above anywhere else in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Just outside of town in the village of Wilmcote (you can get there on the open top tour bus) is Mary Arden’s House which is the 3rd property in the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust portfolio. This property is worth at least a half day visit as there’s always quite a lot to do, especially if you time it right. There are birds of prey displays, basket weaving demonstrations, bread-making, and even Tudor archery which you can get involved in for an extra fee. It’s what feels like a truly authentic, working Tudor farm with costumed guides which make you feel like you’re back in the 16th century! It’s open all year round and works with the seasons so there’s always something different to see and do.
Nash’s House and New Place are back in the town centre and there’s a lot going on there at the moment due to a major excavation on the site of New Place, which was Shakespeare’s big, posh retirement home where he eventually died in 1616. The house was pulled down many years ago by a former owner who allegedly asked the town council for money to restore the property but the council refused; he threatened to tear down the house if he wasn’t given the money; the council ignored him and he made good on his threat! A shame, but the house of Shakespeare’s next door neighbour (who’s son eventually married Shakespeare’s grand-daughter) is still standing and furnished as it would have been in the 16th century. At the moment, the focus is all on the excavation though and there’s an exhibition in Nash’s House called “The Dig!” which just opened in March and exhibits some of the finds from the archaeology work next door.
My favourite of all the Birthplace Trust properties though is definitely Hall’s Croft. This property is a short walk from New Place, and is another medieval town house where Susannah (the Bard’s eldest daughter) lived with her husband, John Hall, prior to Shakespeare’s death when they eventually moved in to New Place to care for Anne (her mother). John Hall was a physician and apothecary who left many books and notes about his remedies, some of which were very much ahead of their time. The huge garden is also stunning, and many of the herbs which Hall may have used still grow there. The house is Jacobean being early 17th century, and is currently being prepared for some major work to strengthen the structure of the building, and repair parts of the roof, but don’t let that put you off, it’s an excellent visit.
Those are all of the public properties managed by the Birthplace Trust but I can’t miss out Holy Trinity Church which is a stone’s throw from Hall’s Croft. The resting place of William Shakespeare himself alongside many members of his family, is a tomb in the church’s chancel. The church itself is a great example of medieval ecclesiastical architecture and the people of the town clearly love the place very dearly, and also love people coming to visit as we always get such a warm welcome. There is no admission fee to the main body of the church but there is a small charge to see the chancel where you’ll be able to see the grave itself and find a small exhibition. There’s also a small but excellent gift shop.
Lastly, a walk back in to town from Holy Trinity will take you through a series of gardens and past the famous “Dirty Duck” pub where many of the actors drink after shows at the theatres. Then there’s the newly refurbished theatre complex alongside the river. The Swan Theatre is stunning and worth going to see a show there even just to experience the amazing interior of the theatre, housed in a stunning Victorian gothic structure. The Royal Shakespeare theatre recent overhaul cost a huge £112.8 million and re-opened in November 2010 after closing in 2007. There are productions taking place all year round and you can visit the lobby, shop and box office any day.
While Stratford-upon-Avon is clearly all about Shakespeare, there is in fact so much more to this pretty market town, and when all the people on the Shakespeare trail have cleared out for the day, there is still much activity in the evening revolving around theatre, and the plethora of pubs and excellent restaurants, as well as some fun evening walking tours. There is some great accommodation in and around the town too, in the guise of hotels, hostels and some really homely B&Bs. So one way or another, a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is set to deliver the goods at any time of year!