Big birthdays demand a blow-out. For my 70th last year it was unforgettable Ynyshir. Playing catch-up this, my bluestocking wife required Dreaming Spires and the Forest of Arden – so off to Oxford (where we met several decades ago) and to Stratford-upon-Avon for a rather apt staging of As You Like It (in the main theatre below right, image by Stratford Computers).
Theresa’s own version a few years ago tapped into youthful enthusiasm; the current RSC adaptation regroups a cast of grizzled veterans, supposedly 45 years on from the original production they were in. Cue all kinds of riffs on time passing. The best summation from another Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” Occasionally creaky, this As You Like It was all a rather joyous self-indulgence. As was the rest of our Stratford leg.
Familiar territory this half-timbered town, yet it never loses its allure. Top advice is to get to the major Shakespeare attractions early or, for those out of town honeypots, later in the day when the coach parties are dispersing.
Before filling you in on all those must-sees a mini-guide to more modest off-the beaten track discoveries we made on this recent visit. Just stray off thronged Sheep Street, Henley Street and the like to a Stratford shorn of Edinburgh Woollen Mills, Harry Potter shrines and shop windows rammed with tourist tat and you might encounter…
Ya-Bard – ‘a quart of ale is a dish for for a king’
The quote is from The Winter’s Tale (1611); of rather more recent vintage (2020) is Dave Moore and Sam Thorp’s splendid craft beer bar/bottle shop at 13 Rother Street (next to the Playhouse). The narrow space is lined with Belgian lambics and serious sharing bottles, but the five beers on tap are witness to Dave’s preference for hoppy pale ales and IPAs. Manchester’s own Track Sonoma was just about to go on when we dropped by. This is the real beer deal in a town whose bars and pubs don’t really cut the mustard. Falstaff would give them the sack!
Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop – ‘Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me From mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom’
The Tempest this time. We think its hero Prospero would approve of the good deeds of The Shakespeare Hospice, which runs a range of fund-raising shops, this gloriously well-stocked shrine to the printed the word the pick. We browsed there for the best part of an hour, relishing the generous prices… for quite recent review copies in many cases. I snapped up John Kampfner’s Why The German’s Do It Better for £4 and my wife a tome on moles for a quid more. If you visit don’t miss the quirky upstairs display of “Things we found in books”.
Box Brownie – the curtain’s down!
Coffee didn’t arrive in England till the mid-17th century (according to Samuel Pepys, England’s first coffee house was established in Oxford in 1650), so understandably there’s no mention in Shakespeare. Chocolate, in liquid form, was probably familiar to the Bard but the brownie is a late 19th century American invention. They do a delectable version at Ben and Hayley’s bijou coffee house at 20 Henley Street. An antidote to all the chains infesting this tourist town, their brilliant brews from locally roasted Monsoon beans.
Four Teas – ‘When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won’
Wartime home front style at this 1940s-themed tea room/English brasserie, which offers arguably Stratford’s best cream teas. Spoiler alert: the icing on the cake may be a soundtrack of Vera Lynn and Glen Miller. There’s always the garden to escape to, which comes complete with an authentic Anderson shelter. It being ‘Taking Back Control Britain’ the Classic Ivor Novello Afternoon Tea will eat up a lot of your ration cards. £27 per person, £32 with prosecco. Pass the tin hat, Captain Mainwaring.
The Kingfisher – ‘Marry, here’s grace and a cod piece’ (Lear)
Best quality sustainable fish from Grimsby, proper chips from Lincolnshire spuds at this Ely Street chippie. Lots of thesps (the likes of Patrick Stewart, John Nettles and Judi Dench) have ordered fish and chips from this low key gem, along with a certain Princess Diana apparently. It was in the same family’s hands for 42 years until 2020. The good news: it’s as good as ever and reasonably priced. Round the corner is Salt, Stratford’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. The tasting menu is the inevitable focus here, but it offers affordable lunch options. Chef patron Paul Foster is currently opening a second restaurant in Camden, so may not be at the mothership every day. A wonderful Salt alternative is just further along Church Street, located handily in our hotel base, the Hotel Indigo, a beautiful melding of a 1500s original building with contemporary lodgings set around a hidden garden (central Stratford car parking, too!)…
The Woodsman – ‘Why let the strucken deer go weep’
Hamlet quoting an old ballad there. Venison was very much a Tudor staple, so it is appropriate that a restaurant specialising in deer and other game sits squarely opposite the site of Shakespeare’s house, New Place (our bedroom looked out upon it). Exec chef Mike Robinson, whose other restaurants include the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham, The Elder in Bath and Chester’s The Forge, sources venison from his own private deer park in Berkshire. A dinner that featured chicken terrine, octopus and exquisite lamb as well as venison (loin and faggot) was a feast fit for a Bard, Recommended, as is the hotel.
So, what’s to see at New Place across the road?
Bought by Shakespeare in 1597, the largest house in town was where he lived with his family and later died in 1616. It was controversially demolished in 1759, but the ‘footprint’ of the razed property has been restored evocatively – notably with the creation of the Great Garden and the Knot Garden. Helping explain the history is the adjacent museum in the Grade I listed Thomas Nash House. This was owned by Shakespeare’s granddaughter’s husband and features a fascinating exhibition of archaeological finds from New Place.
Roman Catholic palimpsests in the Holy Cross Guild Chapel
The debate whether the Shakespeares were covert Papists has never been settled, but this unassuming medieval church on neighbouring Chapel Lane offers some clues. Notably the vestiges of Catholic murals. These were ordered to be wiped out in the Reformation and John William’s father John was given the task of doing this but chose just to whitewash over the paintings, perhaps in the hope of preserving them for prosperity.
Thus we can still make out over the chancel arch Jesus presiding in Judgement, with the souls of the elect rising from their graves to be greeted by St. Peter in Heaven. Meanwhile, the damned (whose sins of pride, luxury and gluttony are labelled) are rounded up by demons and dragged through hell’s mouth to unspeakable torments beyond. Elsewhere Popes to peasants parade in a devilish ‘Dance of Death’.
Shakespeare’s last resting place – ‘Alas poor Yorick’
Far overshadowing the Guild Chapel is the beautiful Holy Trinity, where the Bard and other members of his family are buried in the 15th century chancel. His memorial offers the famous curse “blessed be he who spares these stone and cursed be he that moves my bones”. That may not have deterred 18th century grave-robbers. AGPR (ground penetrating radar) has suggested the skull may be missing. Entry to the church is free but there is a £1.50 a head charge.
Avon calling – join the swans on the river
Avon Boating by the Clopton Bridge offer all sorts of ‘self-drive with oars’ opportunities on the river. Cruises, where the skipper takes the strain, are the most laid-back trips. Downriver there are unparalleled views of Holy Trinity and the RSC theatres, including a sneak peek into the balconied dressing rooms of the RST and, our guide informed us, it can be a bit of a shock to see Julius Caesar consulting the Ides of March on his iPad. Then head upstream in pursuit of kingfishers and the idyllic back gardens of Tiddington Road, the most expensive street in Stratford.
The Play’s the Thing – ‘All the world’s a stage etc’
You can’t go far in this town without stumbling across quotations emblazoned on the pavement and statues contemplating skulls. All this bardolatry would, of course, be pointless without the hub – the RST, the Swan and The Other Place. Stratford is about theatre and there is a host of exciting Shakespeare performances currently playing and lined up for the near future. For details visit here. For true theatre geeks there’s also a selection of backstage tours. Starting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Cloakroom, you will learn about the history as well as exploring a production in more depth to learn about the theatre making process.
Your Shakespeare pilgrimage – further places to visit
But then many visitors are happy just to bathe in the aura of our greatest playwright. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust manages the five very different properties relating to the playwright with a mission to reach out to all ages. Its website features videos and virtual tours to whet the appetite. And at the moment it is offering a great value special ticket covering all the houses.
In the town itself, besides New Place, there is Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the comfortable Tudor house where young Will grew up and (alas closed to the public at the moment) my favourite, Hall’s Croft, home to the surgeon John Hall and Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. High-ceilinged and furnished to show wealth, it has a magnificent formal garden with herbs that would have been used in Hall’s remedies. Alas, it is currently closed to the public.
As both houses have the original flagged floors there’s a frisson to know you are literally walking in Shakespeare’s footsteps. Knowledgeable guides in costume loiter in rooms with intent to draw you into the experience of 16th century family life. In the Birthplace guest room a woman playing a harp explains about the mouldy oranges – bought for show and never intended to be eaten.
A costumed glover stands in John, the playwright’s father’s workshop amid an array of his wares, all designed for different purposes. In the window hang a range of “pockets” or Tudor man-bags, the must-have accessory for any Stratford dandy. We learn also about the less pleasant side of glove making – urine used as bleach and the noxious smell of human and animal waste from the tannery in the backyard.
Country Matters with Anne Hathaway and Mary Arden
The two out of town properties with their land and gardens offer great family entertainment. The family home of Shakespeare’s wife-to-be, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery, is beautifully preserved with the settle on which William and Anne did their courting and, again, a minor life-enhancing detail of a descendant who reputedly chipped splinters from it to sell for sixpence to tourists. Knowledgeable volunteers fill you in on period language and customs. You want to know the origins of upper crust? You’ve come to the right place.
The gardens are a delight, in high summer a riot of sweet peas and lavender. Don’t neglect to take in a sonnet in the Sonnet Arbour, its trellises channelling the surround sound of the actor’s recorded voice.
Mary Arden’s Farmhouse, (the home of Shakespeare’s mother) has been developed into a fascinating period attraction where costumed guides and volunteers cook Elizabethan feasts using authentic ingredients and care for the heritage animals and poultry without mod cons. We watched Kate the English longhorn cow being milked by hand into a wooden pail while her calf (Quickly) looked on. Why “Quickly”? Because all the cattle must be called after Shakespeare characters and the names (rather like hurricanes) have to go through the alphabet. The calf may have had designs on being Viola or Titania but she ended up named after a brothel keeper.
You can also stroke the cute black Mangalitza pigs, learn to herd geese and groom the resident horse. The period feel is enhanced by groups of schoolchildren in costume, the only incongruous detail their trainer-clad feet. There are also birds of prey displays.
Enough period charm – let’s close with some Horrible History
A very different slice of period life was delivered up in Tudor World. Lurking down a cobbled alley in the old Shrieve’s House off Sheep Street, this is a hands-on fun experience for all the family. On the way in you are given a Tudor ID card with details of ‘your life’; on the way out you learn how you died – usually painfully and by execution. In between are chances to dress up, sit on the throne, pose in the stocks and glance in at some gruesome period practices. In one installation the barber surgeon extracts a patient’s tooth with no anaesthetic and much blood.
In another the magician and alchemist, John Dee, sits surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade. On the wall behind is the fascinating fact that he was a spy, code-named 007. And Ian Fleming took the moniker for what must now be the most famous secret agent ever.
Main image of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and subsequent images of Birthplace, Hall’s Croft and Mary Arden’s Farmhouse from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.