Brush up on your Shakespeare if you’re travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s the Bard’s birthplace so expect an overdose of the literary giant’s life and works.
Stratford-upon-Avon is one of the UK’s top tourist destinations outside London so I was curious to see what it has to offer other than men in Tudor tights and Elizabethan excess.
So are there enough attractions for an extended stay? Or is it a one-trick pony?
And, most importantly, how can you avoid the large numbers of coach parties and crowds?
Stratford’s big attractions
My last trip to Stratford-upon-Avon involved a lovely walk over the fields on a hot summer’s day to visit Anne Hathaway’s Cottage 15 years ago.
More than a decade on, I was keen to see how it has changed. The answer was – not very much.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised because traditionally Stratford’s strength is that it has been preserved in a time warp. A successful conservation story.
Beautiful Tudor buildings and Shakespeare’s legacy. These are the things that bring the coach parties and tourists flocking to Stratford.
As soon as you arrive, there’s no denying that it’s an attractive town with historic inns, timber-framed houses and charming streets.
Everywhere you look there are Shakespearian references from the Hathaway Tea Rooms, Othello’s Brasserie and Shakespeare Hotel to Iago’s emporium and Cordelia’s wedding shop.
My favourite themed shop was The Shakespeare in Love Bridal Boutique, a cheesy name if ever I heard one.
Brushing up on Shakespeare
It’s no bad thing that Shakespeare is all-pervasive, I guess, as long as you know what you’re signing up for.
So I decided to “do” Shakespeare by visiting all the main attractions in the town to see if they’d upped their game since my previous visit.
First stop was Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the most popular of the historic sites in Stratford by a mile. This is where William Shakespeare was born and bred so it’s the busiest of his houses.
Shakespeare also spent the first five years of married life in the house with his wife, Anne Hathaway – and it retains the authentic feel of a Tudor home.
Being a Friday in early springtime, I was hopeful that this popular historic house would be quieter than usual with fewer crowds.
How wrong I was…
As I booked my ticket, I noticed a large crowd of French school children ahead of me. Sadly, it was too late to avoid them and take a quick detour.
I was stuck on the walking tour of the house, every room crowded with babbling teenagers looking bored and sullen, blocking the doorways, aisles and exhibits. The kids were rabbiting away on their mobile phones, destroying the ambience of the Tudor house.
It was impossible to appreciate the ambience of the house or navigate around it. I did my best but it was a lost cause. A little voice in my head wanted to scream “Aargh!”.
It wasn’t the school holidays in the UK but obviously it was in the rest of Europe. I should have known better.
I don’t mind a bit of educational tourism but when you decant two large coach parties of kids into a small Elizabethan house, it’s totally overwhelming.
Earlier, I had managed to avoid a large party of Japanese tourists snapping away as I was going in.
In a nutshell – Stratford-upon-Avon has a real problem managing tourist numbers. And this is only March, not even the peak summer season.
It’s a shame because the Bard’s Birthplace is a lovely building and makes for an interesting trip, if you can avoid the tour groups.
But the interpretation needs to be much better for a world-class heritage site. There’s little sense of the man and his lifestyle.
In search of Shakespeare
Once outside, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed for one of Stratford’s many coffee and cake shops – Patisserie Valerie.
Having recovered from the coach party hell (the cake helped), I decided to try the quieter Shakespeare attractions – New Place and Nash’s House.
Shakespeare lived at New Place, his family home, when he wasn’t in London. It is thought that he wrote some of his later plays here including The Tempest.
It was Shakespeare’s last home and he died in the house in 1616 at the relatively young age of 52. Today the building is long gone, a hole in the ground, so there’s none of Shakespeare’s belongings to see.
For archaeology fans there are some exhibits from the excavations on the site but that’s really all that’s left.
Once again, I got very little sense of what Shakespeare was like, what inspired him and how he lived here with his family on a daily basis.
Next door is Nash’s House, a lovely Tudor building named after Thomas Nash, the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth.
Although there’s much to admire about the building, I was disappointed by the displays which are dull and lacking in imaginative presentation.
There’s a few dreary cabinets about Shakespeare’s plays and little to excite adults. For some strange reason, we’re given unwieldy, giant-sized information boards to carry around the house and gardens. This became quite amusing when I attempted to go to the loo!
The good news is that a major revamp is underway with new exhibits and improved interpretation to tie-in with Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary in 2016.
The traditional Tudor knot garden is the star attraction at Nash’s House with its sculptures and walks. There’s also a memorial to Shakespeare plus several modern statues celebrating the Bard’s plays and poetry.
The whole experience is a missed opportunity. Whilst I don’t suggest turning the houses into theme parks or gimmicky attractions, there needs to be better and more engaging interpretation.
I’m interested to see how the new heritage project will bring the house and gardens back to life, when it opens.
Rather more interesting is another Shakespeare house, Hall’s Croft, about 1/4 mile up the road in the Georgian quarter of Stratford-upon-Avon.
This impressive Tudor house was the home of Susanna Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, and her husband, Dr John Hall.
Built in 1613 the house reflects the Hall family’s comparative wealth and status with beautifully decorated and heavily-wooded rooms.
There is a better sense of the people who lived in the house including a collection of apothecary equipment and books in the doctor’s consulting room.
The pretty gardens are well worth a look especially the herb garden used by Dr Hall for his medical remedies. You can almost imagine him strolling around picking the herbs for his patients.
In the same vicinity, it’s also worth checking out Stratford’s old Georgian town with its well-proportioned, elegant houses.
It couldn’t be more different to the Tudor architecture nearby and makes for a refreshing change of historic period.
By now, there was just time to visit one more attraction – Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, a 15 minute stroll away. It’s like walking back in time as you cross the pastoral landscape and picturesque cottages.
This is one of my favourite Shakespeare houses. Anne lived here when the Bard was courting her before their marriage.
The thatched farmhouse with its pretty garden is the archetypal old English cottage with its traditional blooms and rural setting.
Although small inside, it’s a cosy cottage that you can imagine living in. It really felt like going back 500 years in time. And for once, I was lucky enough to see it without a coach party rampaging around its tiny interior.
The price of Shakespeare
The most annoying thing about the Shakespeare houses, run by the Birthplace Trust, is the lack of flexibility in the ticket pricing.
I had originally planned to spend time in one of the houses but was forced to buy the £15:90 ticket covering all three main properties (rising to £23 if you add in Anne Hathaway’s Cottage). Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is the only house where you can buy an individual ticket.
The £15:90 ticket may represent good value if you have a full weekend to get around all the houses but for the day tripper, it doesn’t work, especially if you arrive after lunch.
The fact that you can’t buy a single ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace is ridiculous.
I found myself racing around the houses to get the most out of my ticket. The tickets are valid for a year but, like many visitors, there’s no chance of me being back in Stratford in the next 12 months.
This really needs to be sorted out for the day trippers amongst us.
What else can Stratford offer?
After a glut of historic houses, it was time to go to the pub! There’s only enough Shakespeare you can take in one serving, even if you’re a fan.
Stratford is blessed with a good selection of hostelries from Tudor drinking houses like the black and white timbered Garrick Inn to The Black Swan which overlooks the River Avon.
I’d arranged to meet the family in the famous Dirty Duck pub but was bamboozled when, after walking up and down for 15 minutes, I couldn’t find it.
Then, I discovered that the pub has two names – the latest of which is The Black Swan. There are still two signs, pointing in different directions. Talk about confusing!
The best thing about the pub is that it’s covered floor to wall with signed photos of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company from down the years.
A young Dame Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart plus other luminaries stare down from the walls. It’s an entertaining way to spend an hour whilst relaxing with a pint of real ale and soaking up the atmosphere.
Play at spot the celebrity – you might be lucky enough to see some of the RSC actors having a pint. Alternatively, head into the restaurant at the back of the pub for a reasonably priced bar meal.
On a sunny day, you can sit outside and admire the views down to the River Avon with its famous white swans floating along in flotillas.
It’s well worth a walk along the river and canal basin to see a very different face of Stratford with canal narrowboats, rowing boats and water life.
For something completely different after your pint, head down to the Mad Museum of kinetic art and automata, ideal for families.
A stone’s throw away is one of Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous landmarks – the tower of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Since the theatre’s renovation a couple of years ago, you can ride up to the top of the new tower for impressive views across the town and surrounding countryside.
There’s also a cool restaurant where you might even bump into the RSC’s famous actors in between shows.
Also don’t forget to look out for the costume displays dotted around the theatre buildings.
Alternatively, why not take one of the guided tours behind the scenes or, better still, go to see a show.
Top class acting and productions are the RSC’s unique selling point and you can catch their season’s shows before they head to London.
The RSC has two programmes running at the same time, one in the main RSC Theatre and the other in the smaller Globe Theatre.
We saw the excellent historic dramas, Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies in the atmospheric Globe.
After the show, there’s always a good chance of spotting the cast in the Globe’s bar.
We saw Nathanial Parker who plays King Henry VIII having a quiet post-show tipple with fellow actors from Wolf Hall.
It’s a thrill to explore this iconic theatre. Some of the best spaces to relax are the Rooftop Restaurant and the Riverside Cafe. And don’t forget to dive into the excellent RSC shop.
So is Stratford about more than just Shakespeare?
Well, it’s a tough call. The old Georgian town and River Avon offer something different whilst weekend visitors can combine Stratford with nearby Warwick with its impressive castle and historic centre.
But at its heart Stratford-upon-Avon is really all about its special relationship with Shakespeare.
And I guess, despite the crowds and tour buses, you have to love the place for that. Nowhere does Shakespeare better.
Tammy’s travel tips
Stratford-upon-Avon is located in the West Midlands 8 miles from Warwick and 31 miles from Birmingham. There are train services from Birmingham Moor Street (45 minutes) and London (2 hours).
The Visit Stratford website has an overview of visitor attractions.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Hall’s Croft and New Place/Nash’s House are located close to each other in Stratford-upon-Avon town centre.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is in Shottery, a hamlet over one mile from Stratford town centre. Walk to it along a pleasant, well sign-posted footpath.
Mary Arden’s Farm is a short drive away in the village of Wilmcote.
The RSC theatre is a must-see attraction with live shows, theatre tours and exhibition spaces as well as the viewing tower.
Stratford has a range of hotels from big chains to boutique hotels and B & Bs. One of my favourites is The Shakespeare where I stayed over 20 years ago. I remember the giant four poster bed.
Now charmingly restored, The Shakespeare has reopened as a Mercure hotel, and looks all the smarter for its sympathetic makeover.
We stayed in our camper van at Stratford Marina. Although not cheap at £20 per night (and no hook-up), it’s in a great location within three minutes walk from the RSC and town centre.
Stratford is a very walkable city if you arrive by train from London or nearby Birmingham. There’s a pleasant shopping centre with a decent selection of small shops as well as the multiples.
Look out for the Shakespeare APP on your iPhone and iPad for background information on the Bard of Avon and Stratford’s history.
For art lovers I can recommend nearby Compton Verney, an award-winning art gallery in a Georgian mansion, about 9 miles down the road from Stratford. But you will need a car.
The best time to visit Stratford-upon-Avon is out of the main summer season to avoid the coach parties and crowds. You have been warned!