Stratford-upon-Avon is a pretty market town in the West Midlands, about 30 miles from the centre of Birmingham. Its streets are lined with a mix of Tudor, Victorian, and modern buildings, and the lively, bustling atmosphere gives it a friendly, pleasant feel. A range of independent and chain stores make it great for shopping, and there’s no shortage of pubs, restaurants and cafés to sustain hungry visitors.
The River Avon runs through a large, beautiful park in the centre that boasts modern bridges, sculptures, flower beds, benches, and an attractive canal. A café-bar-restaurant sits on the other side of the river to the shops, along with a mini golf course and more open park space, and rowing boats are available to hire to explore the willow-lined banks of the river.
Alongside its numerous other attractions, it is also the town synonymous with William Shakespeare. Here he was born, spent most of his life, and died, and four hundred years later people travel from all around the world to visit the buildings he knew and the streets he walked. This article describes a Shakespeare-oriented tour of the town in order to allow budding enthusiasts – or even those who are just a little interested – to know a bit about the places it has to offer.
This sturdy, beamed Tudor building makes an excellent starting point for exploring Shakespeare’s town, with a doorstep that opens right onto the high street. The entrance is just to the left of the house in a separate building, and it contains an interesting section on Shakespeare’s history and his impact on society. Follow it through and you’ll come to a large, pretty garden behind the house; inside, authentic Tudor furniture transports visitors back to the time during which Shakespeare grew up, and fully costumed guides provide information which – if you have a few moments to listen – is very interesting. A visit to this house took me roughly an hour and a quarter, so it’s not too time consuming.
One thing I learned: the phrase ‘sleep tight’ comes from the beds they used to sleep on in Tudor times; instead of slats, the spring-less mattress rested on a ‘grid’ of rope, attached to the bedframe through holes. The rope was tightened to suit the weight on the mattress, as tighter ropes stopped it sagging in the middle and kept it comfortable.
Holy Trinity Church
This is the only part of the tour that isn’t part of the “Shakespeare Birthplace Trust”. It took me roughly fifteen minutes to get here from Shakespeare’s birthplace in the middle of the town, and the walk through Old Town is very attractive. I’d recommend a visit because it’s a large, beautiful church in a lovely location, surrounded by trees and across the river from lush green fields. The stained glass windows are extremely impressive, and Shakespeare’s grave attracts people from all around the world.
Mary Arden’s Farm
This is the farm on which Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, grew up, and where Shakespeare would have visited family. It’s a large working Tudor farm, and of all the properties this has the most to see. I spent most of an afternoon looking round the buildings, petting the animals, watching a falconry display, and enjoying a walk around the fields. Best of all was an outdoor show about weapons during Shakespeare’s era in which they linked in the history of the swords to fight scenes in his plays, which was really interesting.
One thing I learned: the bubonic plague never reached as far as Mary Arden’s farm, which was lucky because nearby Stratford upon Avon was affected. They used to hang dried female toads in their windows to prevent plague entering, as demonstrated in the farm house.
Doctor John Hall was the husband of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, and Hall’s Croft was their home. It’s another pretty beamed building with a lovely walled garden, and like the other properties it is furnished as it would have been during their time. Upstairs is an exhibition room that currently commemorates the outbreak of World War One, and ties it to Shakespeare by using war-related quotes from his work. A large herb garden is planted with tens of different types of herbs that Doctor Hall would have used in his remedies. This house, although interesting, barely took me about an hour to get around – so it fits in well with a busy schedule!
New Place and Nash’s House
New Place was the grand family home that Shakespeare purchased before he was half way through his career, and the house he lived in as a successful playwright and poet. At the time it cost him £120, and was the second largest house in Stratford upon Avon. Unfortunately the building itself has been destroyed, but the site and gardens remain, adjacent to Nash’s House – the well-preserved home of Thomas Nash, the husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth. The downstairs of this building is authentically furnished, and upstairs are two exhibitions, one on archaeological finds from the site and one (rather fun) one on Shakespeare’s ‘Top Ten Heroes and Villains’. Again, this site took me just under an hour to explore, and the gardens (particularly the knot garden, bursting with colour) are beautiful.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and gardens
This is the picture-postcard thatched cottage that Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, grew up in. It’s a truly beautiful property on the edge of Stratford upon Avon that boasts nine acres of garden, orchard, and woodland. A sculpture trail provides some fascinating artistic interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, and a seriously impressive orchard and vegetable patch has inspired me, as a poor student, to try gardening! The house itself is lovely, large but cosy with its beams and thatch. Shakespeare is said to have frequently walked the mile and a half stretch to Anne’s cottage to sit on the kitchen bench and woo her, and upstairs the ‘Hathaway Bed’ is thought to be original to William and Anne’s time. This building, perhaps because of its romantic appearance and history, is particularly popular with visitors, and takes a couple of hours to explore.
One thing I learned: In his will, William left Anne his ‘second best bed’. Although this may sound insulting, at the time the best bed in a house was reserved for guests while the husband and wife had the second best. Therefore, in doing this he actually made his legacy to her more personal, showing her that even in death he would always be her devoted husband.
To walk on the same floors as William Shakespeare is an exciting experience, especially when you consider that his widespread popularity has only increased over the past four hundred years. I have described the properties in minimal detail, as the only way to really appreciate the place and the history is to visit.
Overall, I was so impressed with each property; the information supplied is interesting and succinct, unlike many similar places that bombard visitors with tonnes of reading. Staff are dressed in full Shakespearean costume, and they give interesting, brief talks and demonstrations on a variety of subjects related to the houses, Shakespeare, and his era. Several exhibitions add depth to the properties, and each one is immaculately preserved. The gift shops and cafés are well stocked, the toilets are clean, and it seems as if every effort has been made to ensure that visitors learn and enjoy themselves.
Shakespeare’s birthplace, Nash’s House and New Place, Hall’s Croft and Holy Trinity Church are within a 15-minute walk of the centre, and Mary Arden’s farm and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage are within a 15-minute drive. If you’re planning to visit all the properties, I recommend that you allow at least two full days to avoid feeling rushed and to fit in other activities if desired.
Five of the properties, excluding Holy Trinity Church, are owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a charity that preserves and promotes the enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s life and works. The Five-House-Pass ticket includes entry to all the buildings, and is valid for one year from purchase. It may seem expensive at £21.90 (student rate), but there are various vouchers online, and I used a 2-for-1 offer. Even my boyfriend, who is studying for a science degree and had no interest in Shakespeare, thoroughly enjoyed the properties, so if you’re in the area or fancy a trip away then I’d highly recommend it!