Anthony Pearce enjoys the cultural charms of this quaint medieval market town – the quintessentially English birthplace of Shakespeare
Stratford-upon-Avon packs a lot of cultural punch into its tiny centre. Home to William Shakespeare’s birthplace and gravesite, the Warwickshire town has built its entire economy around the legacy of the Bard; at times, it can seem as if all of Stratford is a stage. On a recent visit on a hot summer’s day, we find actors in full Elizabethan dress performing Romeo and Juliet near the banks of the River Avon, a short walk from the imposing red-brick RSC, home to the 1,040-seat Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the 426-seat Swan Theatre. Just down the road, and under the same umbrella, is The Other Place, a creative hub for learning and research with a 200-seat studio theatre – the equivalent of London’s Young Vic to the Old Vic. In fact, there are enough Shakespearean attractions to keep even the playwright’s most obsessive fans enthralled for a lifetime. Aside from the theatres, there are the properties managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. That includes, of course, Shakespeare’s Birthplace, a restored 16th-century half-timbered house on Henley Street; Shakespeare’s New Place, a museum in the 16th-century home next door to where the Bard settled and eventually died, with an adjacent Elizabethan garden; and Hall’s Croft, the home of William Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna Hall.
Out of town, in the village of Shottery, there is the ever-popular Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, a 12-roomed farmhouse where the wife of Shakespeare lived as a child; plus Mary Arden’s Farm, the farmhouse of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, in Wilmcote. Visitors can enjoy unlimited visits to all five properties for 12 months for a very reasonable £22.50 (children £14.50; concession £21.00). In town, and free to visit, is Shakespeare’s funerary monument, his memorial, in the Grade I-listed Holy Trinity Church. It is the architecture of Stratford’s oldest, and perhaps most beautiful, building (and its grounds) that makes this worth the visit.
Will those with no interest in Shakespeare’s life and works get as much out of Stratford-upon-Avon as those with? It’s true there aren’t masses of non-Bard-related activities to enjoy, but the town remains an enjoyable place to wander around and admire the Tudor timber-framed houses that still stand. It’s the sort of quaint English setting, with its cafés, bookstores and sweetshops, that many American tourists dream of. The timber-framed Hathaway Tea Rooms (19 High Street) dates back to 1610 and is a good place to have a cuppa before beginning an exploration of the town. On Henley Street, you will find the Beatrix Potter gift shop, Timeless Tales – across from Shakespeare’s Birthplace – as well as Magic Alley & The Creaky Cauldron, a museum described as “a phantasmagorical emporium of magical delights from wands and spells to sweets and quirky gifts”, and the MAD Museum, the UK’s only mechanical art and design space.
For such a historic town, there are far too many chain restaurants and coffee shops, meaning the town’s culinary offering isn’t always befitting of its cultural prowess. That said, there is an increasing amount of good options: on the first and third Saturday of each month, you’ll find a farmer’s market on Rother Street, and there’s a Sunday market on Bridge Street. During our recent visit we stayed at The Arden on Waterside (see box), which opened the No 44 Brasserie earlier this year, and offers a menu of classic dishes as well as small plates to share. El Greco (27 Rother Street), run by husband-and-wife team Demetri and Flair Gougoulias, serves excellent traditional Greek fare, including meze.
You could argue that the real star of Stratford is the River Avon, where you can kayak, take a gondola, river cruise or cross on the hand-operated chain ferry, which was built in 1937 as the last of its kind to be used in Britain. Over on the eastern bank, you’ll find a butterfly farm, a Ferris wheel, tennis club and the Recreation Ground, a large green space with views of the RSC Theatre across the water. Google Stratford-upon-Avon and you’ll see its famous timber-framed buildings (including Shakespeare’s Birthplace), but the town’s most beautiful area is its riverside. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Avon (and the canal, which snakes off it) is with a cocktail in hand on the balcony of the RSC’s rooftop bar and restaurant, particularly as the sun sets. There are also, as you would expect, a number of excellent pubs, including The Garrick (25 High Street), an inn since 1718 (with the building dating back to the 14th century) and Old Thatch Tavern (Greenhill St), which dates back to the 15th century.
The Dirty Duck (Waterside) is nearly always lively.
Where to stay: The Arden
Opposite the RSC Theatre is the red-brick Arden Hotel, an elegant 45-bedroom boutique hotel in an area of the town known as the Waterside. On a recent visit, we stayed in one its master bedrooms, a spacious, airy and well-appointed room with a huge bathroom and nice views across the street to the pretty Swan Theatre and adjacent park. For those hoping to catch a play, you couldn’t ask for a better location – the RSC Theatre is about ten steps away, and The Other Place no more than two minutes. The hotel’s rooms are divided into classic (standard), superior and deluxe and master rooms, plus feature suites, each named after a type of tree (we stayed in the Monkey Puzzle). The newly opened No 44 Brasserie is one of the key draws, serving some of the town’s best food. There are classics, but its small sharing plates are the highlights. These include Vietnamese-style tofu spring rolls; braised sticky lamb belly, tamarind and roast pumpkin; and pear and endive salad with Roquefort dressing and walnuts. The cocktails, such as the secret-recipe ‘Shakespeare’s Secret’, are also excellent.