Thinking back to 2016, Dan and I took our first weekend away. We had only known each other for about six weeks, and we were still in that ‘let’s try to impress each other’ stage, so I picked a weekend break to somewhere I had wanted to go for years. It’s a place located in Warwickshire, a stunning part of the country, and is primarily famous for being the birthplace of one famous playwright. Yes, one of the things I’d always wanted to do was visit Stratford Upon Avon. As I am sure I’ve mentioned before, I am a literature graduate, and have spent nearly every year since I was 10 studying Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. One of my ‘teacher friends’ shared pictures of her trip, I got a case of the green eyed monster, and to Dan’s probable dismay, I booked it.
Despite Shakespeare’s birthday being 23rd April, we went there the week before, as I had heard that the town can get particularly busy with people on pilgrimages to the bard’s home – a cottage on the Stratford Upon Avon high street. Although I would have probably enjoyed the atmosphere of hundreds of thespians surrounding me, I much prefer a solitary experience when on holiday or exploring new areas. I mean, the only places I can think of where we took a guided tour and didn’t sneak away were Kotor in Montenegro, and Chichen Itza in Mexico.
9.30am Saturday morning we jumped up – I’d love to say ‘having not slept one wink due to excitement’, but I love my sleep and I guess a 9.30 start is actually quite late for some. We treated ourselves to a McDonald’s breakfast (conveniently next door to the hotel), and made our way towards the high street. In hindsight, we probably should have found a local, independent café for something to munch, but I was in my early 20s, and still at the stage where a Double sausage and egg McMuffin was the best thing since sliced bread. Were we to visit again, I’d probably pass on the fast food, and opt for a slightly slower cooked plate of grease in a café… or a scone, or something.
The first thing we came across when we reached the town 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.
Shakespeare’s birthplace – our first stop – is significantly less disturbing. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust covers a number of 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 five houses: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Harvard House, Hall’s Croft, Ann Hathaway House, and Mary Arden’s Farm. It has since changed, which I’ll discuss later! We decided to start there since technically, it’s where it all began. Plus, it’s the nearest house to the Jester Statue – an ancient looking building on an archaic looking high street.
Before entering the house, or cottage, you are led through a small museum exhibition, loaded with information on Shakespeare’s life and works, and then 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. Seriously, who doesn’t ram their head straight into a pillory if they see one?
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. It’s filled to the brim with artefacts and very convincing replicas, and somehow, authentic smells from the tannery inside too.
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 now often 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. At the time of our visit, there were installations on three floors, offering visitors an insight into the life and times of the man.
A couple doors down is The Garrick Inn, the oldest pub in Stratford Upon Avon, dating back to the 1400s, which you can still enter. 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, including one painting of particularly haunting figures seated around a dining table.
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, 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 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.
Ann Hathaway’s Cottage
Ann Hathaway’s Cottage was undoubtedly the most impressive of all the cottages and houses in Stratford Upon Avon 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.
Royal Shakespeare Company
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.
The theatre is a fusion of the Globe and a more modern theatre experience. Unlike the Globe, it’s indoors, and all spectators are offered relatively comfortable seats. The stage is still a thrust stage, as Shakespeare’s theatre company actually used, but with the technology to create tricks of lighting, or alter the stage quickly.
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.
What it’s like in 2021
As I said previously, the Shakespeare Full Story ticket has changed since 2016. Later that year, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust reopened another of the cottages in Stratford Upon Avon – Shakespeare’s New Place – and closed access to Harvard House. This particular building was his family home for 19 years, and is currently open to the public following the Coronavirus pandemic.
Hall’s Croft and Mary Arden’s farm building are currently closed to the public, due to a phased reopening strategy. Hopefully all houses will be open for visitors in summer 2022.
Although it seems we would never be able to reproduce our exact visit, 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.
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