A Day with Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon

Comfortably cocooned in obscurity the little market town of Stratford in the Avon valley had very little to celebrate during the Tudor age. By the time Regency era dawned on England this town in Warwickshire county, was catching the attention of literary class and thespians. Oblivious to the fact that it will offer modern Britain’s economy a handsome share by welcoming nearly 4.9 million visitors each year, Stratford went along being the understated riverside town till 1769. All of the celebrity and fandom was stirred by one son it bore during late 16th century – William Shakespeare. The son of a glover, a poet who belonged to many languages as their own, a towering persona whose real life remains enigmatic and speculated even after centuries of historians digging the past, sometimes quite literally. I had the opportunity to spend a day in Stratford visiting the home and town of the world’s greatest playwright to understand the many facets of his personality. Next month on 23 April Stratford will be rife with events, walks commemorating the 400th death anniversary of William Shakespeare. I am sharing my itinerary to help you with the main sights and places during your visit. If you aren’t able to make it for the anniversary, I can assure you that every day in Stratford is a celebration around Shakespeare.  

How To Get There ? Stratford-upon-Avon is less than 3 hours by train from London and less than an hour from Oxford by road. The easiest commute would a drive from Oxford if you plan on visiting the university town or a train from London. Stratford is a small town and there will be plenty car hires or taxis outside the station. Drop off at Henley Street by the noble fool statue and you can begin your tour from Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Office right by his birthplace.

The Bard’s Birthplace

William Shakespeare's Childhood Home
William Shakespeare’s Childhood Home

One of the largest homes on Henley Street was owned by John Shakespeare from 1556 and his third child William is believed to be born here. John Shakespeare was known in the town as the glover and had the glove manufacturing industry right in his house with 8 children running about. He married an affluent farmer’s daughter Mary Arden who lived outside the town. William Shakespeare during his childhood had a privileged life as it could be in Tudor age. His was the house of half -timber and was large enough for two beds. When you visit his house today you will notice there isn’t enough room for a couple and their 8 kids however 452 years ago that was how the affluent class lived. Having a bed was considered a sign of affluence. But two beds? That would be showing off how wealthy you are. Though the house went through many owners after the direct lineage of the Shakespeares vanished a trust was founded to save Shakespeare’s home and maintain it in the exact condition as was during the 16th century. It was Charles Dickens who raised £300,000 to help the foundation restore the home. Most of the furniture is 450 years old and you can distinguish between old and new as the darker wood is the Shakespeares’ home furniture. There is a glove making room in the house where actors donning the costumes of the time enact the family’s daily chores. In the courtyard, you can sit down to watch an actor enact one of Shakespeare’s characters or walk about the garden or gift shop on the property.

School For A Shakespeare

King's New School Stratford

As soon as you’re done with William Shakespeare’s birthplace you can walk about a quarter mile to King’s New School & Guildhall. This was the school that helped shape little William’s knowledge of Latin and grammar while probably nurturing his creative skills too. The school is your typical Tudor building with a large courtyard and a Guildhall built in 1420 that shaped many events of the town’s council including John Shakespeare’s involvement in the council. The Guildhall is being restored to bring alive the age when it was built. The building has some of the most important medieval paintings on the wall. It will open to the public in April 2016 to commemorate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary and showcase its history and significance through many a tales with the help of soundscapes, presentations, film and pictures. Unravel the 600-year-old stories at this magical building in Stratford.

Shakespeare In Love

Ann Hathaway's Cottage
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Young William did wear his heart on his sleeve when he was acquainted with the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. He was only 18 years old when he met Anne at her picture perfect cottage and were married rather in a hurried manner as historians interpret. Anne gave birth to their daughter Susanna only 6 months later perhaps young William courted Anne at this farmhouse. Anne Hathaway lived not so far away from the center of the town in a hamlet called Shorttery within the parish of Stratford and how did she meet Shakespeare is still unknown. Though her cottage stands at the very spot even today and is a popular sight among visitors. The cottage is a Cotswolds-like thatched roof house with a  manicured garden and a small farm area. Walk through the 600-year-old cottage with original furniture while taking in the splendour of the garden bloom. Unravel the woman who stole the heart of the famous poet who penned romantic tragedies like Romeo & Juliet. If you wish to visit Anne Hathaway’s cottage somewhere after lunch do enjoy a lovely afternoon tea at the cottage.

Knot Garden at New Place
Image Courtesy : Shakespeare’s England

New Place For The Shakespeares 

It is not known where did the young William Shakespeare’s family of three children live before he moved to London to pursue a career as an actor. However towards late 1590 and early 1600s, his successful reign on stage with King’s Men company at The Globe brought along a handsome income for the poet and actor. It is believed that Shakespeare invested in the largest homes in Stratford upon Avon in 1597. New Place as it is known today was a miniature version of an aristocratic home. Archeologists have tasked themselves to unravel the mysteries of his own home where Anne Shakespeare lived with their daughters Susanna and Judith. Shakespeare and Anne had twins Hamnet and Judith but Hamnet passed away at 10 due to unknown reason. New Place has gone through immense restoration work over the last few years of excavation and rebuilding. It will open to the public in April 2016 to commemorate the 400th-anniversary event. New Place is the final home where Shakespeare lived in his prime days as England’s national poet and playwright. You can walk on the same ground as he did 400 years ago and learn about his family life through findings of the archeological work. The Knot Garden will be recreated as well staying true to the original design by Ernest Law.

Lunch At Stratford : After walking about the riverside town and taking in 500 years of history you are bound to work up an appetite. There are quite a few good taverns in Shakespeare’s town and you could read about it in the post or walk down Henley Street which is known for its pubs and streetside cafes for a traditional English lunch. 

Mary Arden’s Farm House

Mary Arden's Farm House

William Shakespeare’s mother grew up on this piece of land a bit outside the main town of Stratford. If you are keen to know everything there is to Shakespeare’s life it would be good to know the woman who gave birth to the greatest playwright. Though you may have to take a detour from the main town as all other sights are within a short walk from each other. While Mary Arden lived with her 7 sisters and parents in this farmhouse. They had a smaller house with two floors but a large barn and farm. Quite typical of Tudor age where even the affluent lived quite modestly as compared to the present times.

HTC_exterior_Harry Lomax
Image Courtesy : Shakespeare’s England

Final Abode

Holy Trinity Church with its spire peeping through the trees tops is where William Shakespeare was laid to rest. His grave has the epitaph that reads as “Blessed is he who spares these stones. Cursed be he who moves my bones”. Even during restoration the instructions left by Shakespeare not to touch his bones were followed carefully. Such is the influence of his written word after 400 years.

Celebration Weekend 

If you plan to visit Stratford on 23 April you will not miss the jubilant parade from 9.30 am that ends at the Holy Trinity Church and fireworks on the waterfront outside Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Since you are at Shakespeare’s hometown for the commemoration it’d be a shame not to watch a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre by actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Do take in some leisure time on the riverfront as well. Stratford is a lovely little town to walk around the storybook-like cottages and streets. I have enjoyed visiting this town and on hindsight, it could well deserve a stay over too. Please visit Shakespeare’s England for details on events and walking tours.

Where To Stay ? Walton Hall & Spa , Welcombe Hotel, Spa & Golf Club , Ettington Park Hotel 

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