Despite being weighed down by a constant stream of coach tours disgorging daytrippers in the town, the literary heart of England still manages to uphold its essential character as an alluring ancient market town. Gracing the banks of the slow-running Avon River, Stratford-upon-Avon has just been celebrating a milestone, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s legacy. When travelling through Shakespeare’s Country, this showpiece destination is so intimately steeped in the legacy of the Bard, that you can literally walk in his footsteps.
You can chart his illustrious life on foot all over town, all the way to his final resting place in the Church of the Holy Trinity. But with so many tantalising experiences, allow yourself ample time in this ravishing touchstone of old-school England, to properly do it justice. Previously, I learnt that lesson the hard way, by stupidly thinking a quick day-trip would suffice. So where to begin? Shakespeare’s Birthplace, naturally.
The half-timbered house on Henley Street, which looks like an alluring movie set, was where William Shakespeare was born and raised. It’s also where he spent his first five years of marital life with Anne Hathaway. Period furnished, this glorified shrine to the playwright offers a rich flavour of his formative years. For the past year, an added crowd-pleasing feature is the exhibition that focuses on the playwright’s circle of friends and family, “Famous Beyond Words.” It’s beautifully presented and succeeds in lending a humanising element to the birthplace experience.
Another new attraction is the visionary transformation of New Place, the site of William Shakespeare’s grand family home of 20 years, which has fast emerged as a contemporary heritage landmark to commemorate the 400th anniversary. Shakespeare was already an established playwright when he bought New Place at the age of 33, later dying in the house in 1616 after writing many plays on-site, including The Tempest. Sadly the New Place residence was demolished in 1759, with just the historic garden remaining.
However, now you can see the footprint of the lost family home, after archaeological excavations of the site. A dynamic permanent exhibition brings to life the story of New Place, housed in the impeccably restored Tudor house adjoining New Place. Another very exciting restoration and opening is William Shakespeare's schoolroom, which along with the town's ancient Guildhall, is now open for public viewing. It felt rather humbling to stand in the very room where he was educated, before admiring the Guildhall, built in 1420, where Shakespeare’s father played an influential role in the town’s civic life.
But for quintessential postcard-perfection, Anne Hathaway's Cottage, the family home of Shakespeare's bride-to-be, is the runaway heart-stealer. The picturesque thatched farmhouse, flanked by stunning grounds and gardens overflow with fragrant blooms, orchards and gorgeous artworks. Located in Shottery, it’s just over a mile from the town centre, an easy stroll via the sign-posted trail. Inside the 600-year old cottage, you can admire many original items of family furniture, including the Hathaway Bed, dating from Anne's time. But the endearing beauty of the charming cottage gardens was the real thrill, stretching across nine acres, threaded with woodland walks and a sculptural trail.
Back in town, I completed by homage to the Bard, by joining a Behind the Scenes Tour at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is sparking with new-found lustre since the theatre complex was remodelled, melding the old with the new. It’s a fabulously illuminating tour, taking in the wardrobe department, the audio and lighting booths, seeing both theatres and coming away suitably in awe of the productions that are routinely staged here. Our guide frothed freely with fun facts and insights, effortlessly illustrating what an unrivalled treasure this theatre company is. www.rsc.org.uk
As one of England’s classic towns, Stratford-upon-Avon is tailor-made for afternoon tea indulgences, whether you fancy a simple cream tea or the full champagne symphony. After a theatre tour, why not salute the Bard with bubbles and tea in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rooftop Restaurant? The panoramic views of across the Warwickshire countryside were as delicious as the oven-fresh scones. I also enjoyed the classic afternoon tea ritual at The Arden Hotel, which was also my overnight roost.
Supremely situated right across the road from the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatres, The Arden Hotel has undergone a substantial refresh to create a stylish and sophisticated 45-bedroom boutique luxury property. This graceful redbrick manor, flanking the River Avon, thoughtfully blends heritage-inspired furnishings contrast with contemporary touches, creating a classic country escape with a modern twist. Named for the idyllic forest hideaway in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, The Arden Hotel was a dream base for appreciating the life of the Bard, reflecting on the day’s discoveries in the chic Waterside Brasserie, where seasonal specialties are to the fore.
The hotel’s rooms and suites at The Arden Hotel are eye-catching and stylish in equal measure, with crisp, cool colour schemes and rich fabrics. My gorgeous guestroom featured an en-suite shower room with ESPA toiletries, smart TV, safe, complimentary fruit & mineral water, bathrobes, slippers and free wifi. From restorative coffees and delightful afternoon teas to late night cocktails, The Arden Hotel delivers the goods with aplomb.
Stratford-upon-Avon is not exactly famed as being one of the warmest places in the world, so the roaring fire in the lounge was a homely, cosy touch. Whatever the weather, the exclusive champagne bar is the cherry on top of this waterside retreat, in the theatrical heartland of Shakespeare’s town. Whether you wish to wine and dine at The Arden, or treat yourself to a memorable stay, for best rates and special deals, head to www.slh.com/hotels/the-arden-hotel-stratford/
The wider Warwickshire countryside is pitch-perfect for leisurely sightseeing, whether it be Royal Leamington Spa, Warwick or Kenilworth. For the very best advice on touring tips and temptations, head to http://shakespeares-england.co.uk
Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame.