Disclaimer: be prepared for some Shakespeare references here, people!
Despite Shakespeare’s birthday (and apparent death day) being 23rd April, the week before is a pleasant time to visit, as I had heard that Stratford Upon Avon can get particularly busy with people on pilgrimages to the bard’s home. Instead of booking a local B&B, which would be my usual choice, we stayed in the nearby Premier Inn on Birmingham Road, which was only a five minute walk from the top of the town’s high street.
9.30am Saturday morning we jumped up having not slept one wink due to excitement, treated ourselves to a McDonald’s breakfast (conveniently next door to the hotel), and made our way towards Shakespeare’s birthplace. The first thing we came across was the famous, but slightly disturbing Jester Statue at the head of Henley Street. As a monument to Shakespeare’s contribution to theatre, the pedestal it stands on is inscribed with famous lines about fools, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from its rather macabre face.
The birthplace is significantly less disturbing. The Shakespeare birthplace trust covers five historic houses, and although you can buy individual tickets, it is significantly better to buy a full story ticket, which at the time, included entry to all five houses. (It has since changed slightly, but check out the link at the end of the blog for more information). We decided to start in Shakespeare’s birthplace, the nearest house to the Jester Statue, and an ancient looking building on an archaic looking high street. Before entering the house, you are led through a museum, loaded with information on Shakespeare’s life and works, and into a garden. Little did I know it would be only the first of four beautiful gardens I would see, but we did make the most of the double pillory the trust had put in place.
Inside the house, knowledgeable and experienced staff, dressed in 16th Century period costumes, tell you all you need, want and never knew you needed to know about Shakespeare’s life, his family, and the standard of living of the people during the English renaissance. Even I learnt something new: boys slept upright in beds and girls on the floor because they believed that evil spirits would only take the souls of boys laying down. Clearly, girls drew the short and long straw there.
The house only takes 20 minutes or so to walk around, so before long, we were back on Henley Street with our full story ticket, ready to explore more. Continue down Henley Street, and pop into the shops and cafes on the way. The Creaky Cauldron is a quirky magic shop, and there is a haunted museum just over the road from the birthplace. There’s also a Christmas shop, which I found particularly entertaining in April. Otherwise, make your way down to the roundabout and take the second right onto High Street, where you will find Harvard House.
In comparison to the other houses, Harvard House is particularly small, but is of great significance in respect to the Shakespeare family, and the USA. Despite being cared for by the Shakespeare birthplace trust, it seems that Harvard House is generally closed to the public, except for special occasions, which is a real shame. It’s a stunning townhouse, with an elaborate facade, and clearly built by a wealthy man. The grandson of Thomas Roberts, the erector of the house, was the main benefactor of Harvard University. A couple doors down is The Garrick Inn, the oldest pub in Stratford Upon Avon, dating back to the 1400s. Dan and I stopped off for a lunchtime beer in the tiny bar area and we felt very old fashioned. People love old pubs for this very reason: it gives you a taste of real life.
Then, hardly snail paced, we made our way to Hall’s Croft. Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna and her husband Dr John Hall lived in this quite grand house. Later it became a school, before being purchased by the Shakespeare birthplace trust. Its garden is its most attractive feature: mid April, the flowerbeds are decorated with brightly coloured tulips and the grass is the boldest shade of green. An ancient tree grows in the centre of the walled garden, perfectly complimenting the classic Jacobean building. Inside you can find more creaky floors, vintage furniture, and interesting works of art.
Shakespeare’s Resting Place
Not far from Hall’s Croft is Holy Trinity Church, Shakespeare’s resting place. His grave is particularly famous for the curse written on the gravestone. We searched the gardens and graveyard for it, but we should have known it would be inside the church. They do allow photos, so I was not being entirely disrespectful. Holy Trinity Church was not only his burial place, but where his wife Anne, daughter Susanna and son-in-law Dr John Hall were laid to rest too. No doubt, the church is delightful, and a fitting place for a local celebrity to be buried.
At this point in our journey, we were in a pickle as it was roughly half one in the afternoon, we knew that Ann Hathaway’s Cottage was a 25 minute walk away and we were hungry. We thought we could last another half an hour, so we marched by houses and Stratford Girls’ Grammar School until we reached Shottery Village and a pub called Bell. By that time, we were famished and nearly ate them out of house and home. The sandwiches we ordered were delicious and filling, so if you end up in the same state, pay them a visit.
Ann Hathaway’s Cottage
Ann Hathaway’s Cottage was undoubtedly the most impressive of all the houses we saw. It was the home of Shakespeare’s wife, whose relationship included its own scandal. Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway, who was significantly older than him, while she was pregnant with his child, something extremely obscene for the time.
However, positioned within a flawless garden with a wooded area, the cottage is all you would imagine a cottage to be. Shakespeare birthplace trust have truly used the theme of romance as inspiration: in the gardens, there are a range of features designed for couples to sit in, where you can listen to recordings of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. The cottage, with its magnificent thatched roof, houses a number of Elizabethan, Georgian and Victorian relics, but also offers a dressing up area for children. Of all the houses we had seen that day, the cottage is aimed at families, and I think that makes it all the more heartwarming. We spent the longest period of time in this place, and I found that parting is such sweet sorrow.
Unfortunately, by the time we were finished exploring Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, we knew we wouldn’t be able to reach Mary Arden’s farm, which I would guess is the most child friendly house. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t see all the houses, but we had a busy day, and an even busier evening. Situated on the River Avon is the Royal Shakespeare Company, and although it pinched our pockets a bit, we managed to get tickets to see a story of murder most foul: the 2016 production of Hamlet. After a day of history, an evening drinking wine and watching one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays was simply the icing on the cake.
Our trip was such stuff as dreams are made on, and I’m sure it would be for anyone who wants a trip with handsome houses, gorgeous gardens and steeped in history.
For tickets and more information see https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/