Shakespeare – the very name denotes classic literature of classic era England. His plays continue to be the muse of literati and theater lovers. Wonder if anyone can ever compete with the re-interpretations of his works. I am not someone who has read Shakespeare beyond what the school textbooks required. I do keep meeting his works off and on in theaters, in cinema halls and sometimes even in some form in written words. A few years back, when I lived in the UK for a while, every weekend I would explore one city. So, one of the weekends I landed in Stratford upon Avon and walked around the town.
This was also one of the first times I took a walking tour of the town. I must admit I was quite enchanted by the charming tour guide, whose name I do not remember, but I remember quite a few words she spoke as such. She walked us through the historic spine of Stratford upon Avon that takes you through the various houses associated with Shakespeare and his family. Shakespeare was not only born in Stratford upon Avon but he was spent his last years in his hometown. In between, he spent his time London and earned his fame.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace at Hanley Street
The tour begins at the house that is believed to be the birthplace of William Shakespeare. His parents lived here and later some of the descendants of his sister lived here for a while. This 15th CE half-timber house passed many hands including some belonging to butchers. In 18th CE some leading figures like Charles Dickens started visiting this house that it started getting noticed. It was when an American showman wanted to buy the house and move it to America that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was formed to maintain it. The actual restoration took place in mid 19th CE. It’s interesting all the changes made since the inception of the building were reverted back to bring back its original state in which it was built. What a great project it must have been for the architects involved.
When you stand there, you visualize a young Shakespeare observing people around who would become a part of his stories. Walking around this house, I admired the 19th CE architects who could reverse time in a way that Shakespeare’s birthplace remains eternal just like his literature.
The house now recreates the family life of John Shakespeare – the father of William Shakespeare, including his glove making workshop. It is a great attempt to recreate the ambiance of the house as in the days of young Shakespeare. This includes planting the same herbs and flowers as in his days. There is a small museum inside.
Shakespeare birthplace is a national memorial.
Other Houses of the Shakespeare’s family
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – This is the family home of Anne Hathaway – the wife of William Shakespeare. It is now a museum open to the public.
Did you know Shakespeare at 18 married Anne Hathaway who was then 26?
Mary Arden’s Homes – There are two homes next to each other, formally called – Palmer’s farm and Glebe farm that are supposed to be childhood homes of Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden. Both these are now a part of Shakespeare Countryside Museum.
Hall’s Croft – This is the house that belonged to Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband Dr. John Hall. The interesting feature of this house is an exhibition on obscure medical practices.
New Place – This is the house where Shakespeare breathed his last in 1616. There is not much left of the house but the land still is called New Place. Nash’s house next to it houses a museum that traces the history of Avon valley.
When you look at all these houses of Shakespeare’s extended family, you realize that they all lived within walking distance of each other. Both his mother and his wife’s parental homes are not too far from his own house. This tells us a bit about the society of 16th CE England. I remember our guide mentioned that none of the descendants from the direct line of Shakespeare survives. She added, however, we never know there may be some from his London days. It seems there is a lot of ambiguity about the days he spent in London.
Apart from the famous Henley Street, you can also explore the Sheep Street to see some 15-16th CE houses where potentially sheep were traded for the wool industry. These are commonly known as half-timber houses.
Holy Trinity Church
Holy Trinity Church is the main church of the town of Stratford upon Avon. It is a regular town church that offers regular church services to the people. For the literature lovers, this is a kind of pilgrim place – for the bard whom we revere so much was both baptized here and rests here within the precincts of this church.
When you go there remember to read his epitaph that curses anyone who moves his bones from the place. Who would dare to?
Royal Shakespeare Company
Where there is Shakespeare, theater can’t be far away. Theatre has been a part of the cultural fabric of town of Stratford upon Avon. The physical theaters have been built to be destroyed, burnt, and dismantled at various times. It was in 1932 that Royal Shakespeare Theatre was formally set up. Royal Shakespeare Company would be formed later in 1961. It is now UK’s largest theater company with as many as 20 productions a year.
Apart from the 1000-seater Royal Shakespeare theater, there are other theaters with their own journeys and histories that you must hear when you visit.
Do watch at least one theater performance in Stratford upon Avon to complete your experience of the city.
If you are adventurous enough, go to some of the local pubs and speak to the performing actors or playwrights and get a glimpse of their life. It is interesting to see their relationship with the 400-year-old bard who is both their source of inspiration and income.
The River Avon that flows through the town of Stratford Upon Avon remains its lifeline even today. You can take a boat ride in the river and wonder about this ancient trading town.
Clapton Bridge on Avon at Stratford opened up the town to trade in a big way in late 15th CE. It allowed travelers to come into the city with ease. Before this bridge came up, there was an unreliable wooden bridge that could not keep up with the changing water levels of the Avon River. I wonder if this bridge allowed the stories to come to Stratford that the Shakespeare would pick up few decades down the line.
Stratford upon Avon is one of the very few towns that have the name of the river embedded in their names.
A boat trip up and down the river is a must-do activity in Stratford upon Avon.
A stroll along the river is also rejuvenating. After my walking tour of the town, it was a pleasure to sit by the river to slowly digest all the stories of the town, of the Shakespeare and his family and other little titbits.
Stratford upon Avon beyond Shakespeare
There are a few things in Stratford upon Avon that are not really related to the famous playwright but can be still fascinating for the visitor:
Harvard House – with an interesting connection to Harvard University
MAD or Mechanical Art & Design Museum – a great place to get a dose of creative design inspiration
Butterfly Farm – get lost in the world of colorful butterflies
Take the night ghost walk with professional performers
Ghost Cruise on Avon
Do you know the house of grandfather of John Harvard – the man behind Harvard University is also in Stratford upon Avon?
Stratford upon Avon – a tourist destination
Stratford gets 2.5 – 3 Million tourists ever year. Tourism contributes greatly to the economy of this town primarily because of Shakespeare. No wonder you can find a tourist information center within your eye’s reach anywhere in town. You could say that his work and his stature in the world of literature is still the source of income for his townsmen. Is that not what makes him even greater for the people of Stratford upon Avon.
Souvenirs from Stratford upon Avon
Do I even need to tell you that you can buy all kind of Shakespeare memorabilia in the town he was born in and died? You can, of course, buy his books but check out these interesting collectibles from Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s online store.
Travel Tips for Stratford upon Avon
- Birmingham is the closest airport for visiting Stratford upon Avon.
- Stratford upon Avon is about 2 hours drive from London, 30 minutes from Birmingham and 10-15 minutes from Warwick.
- Stratford upon Avon is connected by rail links to Birmingham, Warwick, and London Marylebone. There are a few bus services to the town.
- Once in town, you can either cycle around the town or take a walking tour. It is a compact town with lots of heritage to see. I highly recommend taking one of the walking tours. You can follow it up with walking around on your own, clicking images or soaking in the museums.
- Most walking tours start from the Swan Fountain. In summers this place is very lively with both tourists and entertainers.
- If for some reason you do not want to walk, there are open top bus tours available.
There are events going on around the year. Check this website for events happening during the dates of your visit.
Stratford upon Avon literary festival organizes the literary festival and that is a good time to visit the city. For more information, check out their website.
Weekends around April 23rd – the birthday of Shakespeare have birthday celebrations – this is also a good time to visit the town.
To find more information on Stratford upon Avon check Visit Britain Website.