Visiting Stratford Upon Avon and the legacy of Shakespeare
Visiting Stratford upon Avon in England has been a dream of mine since I started reading Shakespeare in high school.
I have visited Stratford upon Avon in Ontario and seen several performances held at the theatre there. I have watched Shakespearean plays in the park in Toronto, and the Globe Theatre in London. I even studied Shakespeare in my Feminist literature class at University.
Thanks to Shakespeare’s England for providing complimentary entry into the Shakespeare Sites in Stratford and to the RSC for complimentary tickets and a tour for the purpose of this honest review. All opinions expressed are my own and as usual brutally honest lol.
Visiting Stratford upon Avon and having the opportunity to not only see where the bard was born but a chance to visit several sites where he began his life as a writer was a chance in a lifetime. Hubs and I were housesitting in a little village called Tanworth on Arden in Warwickshire and we took every opportunity to see as much of the County as we possibly could.
We spent 3 days exploring all the places Shakespeare was known to have lived, worked and played as well as taking in a superb performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon.
Getting to Stratford upon Avon in England
Stratford upon Avon is a smallish market town in Warwickshire which is very close to London and the drive is around 2.5 hours. It’s very easily accessible by public transport and by car. Although parking in Stratford upon Avon is pretty tricky.
Stratford upon Avon by car
Coming from London it’s a pretty straight run on the M40 into Warwickshire and then it is very well signed from there.
Stratford upon Avon by train
The Stratford upon Avon train station has direct links to trains from London including Marylebone and Birmingham New Street.
Stratford upon Avon by bus
Unfortunately, the buses, although somewhat cheaper than trains take around 3 hours to get to Stratford, so unless you plan to stay over it could be a very long day. There are National Express coaches that run from London Victoria to Stratford Upon Avon
Getting around Stratford upon Avon
Stratford upon Avon is fairly compact and most of what you will want to see is within easy walking distance of each site. If you head towards the Visitors Centre by the Avon River you can pick up a good map and take advantage of some of the many tours that allow you to experience the town fully.
When we first wandered into Stratford upon Avon we chanced upon a walking tour and listened in as the tour guides talked about the town. We were really impressed with the depth of knowledge and interesting information that they provided.
We wish we had taken the opportunity to go on one of the tours but we would highly recommend it as a way to truly feel the history of Stratford upon Avon.
The Stratford Town Walk costs a mere £6 and is absolutely superb, they also do a brilliant Ghost Walk with guides who are professional actors and entertainers.
27 places in Stratford upon Avon you must not miss!
- A walking tour of Stratford upon Avon
- Shakespeare’s Birthplace
- Shakespeare’s Centre
- Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre
- Tour the RSC theatre
- Take in a Play at the RSC
- Hall’s Croft
- Nash’s House
- Shakespeare’s New Place
- Guild Hall and Shakespeare’s Schoolroom
- Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm
- Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
- Trinity Church and Shakespeare’s Grave
- Anne Hathaway’s Tea Room
- Garrick’s Inn
- Mad Museum
- Canal Basin locks and market
- The Big Wheel
- A River Cruise on the Avon
- Fish and chips at Barnaby’s
- Countess of Evesham Boat dining
- Old Thatch Pub
- Magic Alley
- The Butterfly Farm
- Tudor World
- Shakespaw Cat Cafe
- Alms Houses
Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust
The Birthplace Trust takes you through 5 historic Shakespeare locations that are all in Stratford upon Avon.
Tickets for all 5 locations cost £22.50 and include entry to Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Shakespeare’s New Place and Hall’s Croft.
Right in the very heart of Stratford upon Avon is the place where Shakespeare was born. It is attached and you enter from the Shakespeare Centre which has some fascinating pieces of Shakespearean history and writings.
One of the items on display is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s work, published in 1623. It’s believed that around 230 copies of the book have survived.
The house attached to the Centre was owned by Shakespeare’s father John Shakespeare who was a glove maker and had his business in the property. Over the years as his business and family grew he purchased neighbouring houses and these are all today one museum.
Shakespeare and his 8 brothers and sisters grew up in this house and he also spent the first 5 years of married life here with Anne Hathaway.
Shakespeare’s parents were so wealthy that this house was the largest one on Henley Street. The house is located in the centre of Henley street and it is a timber-framed Tudor home built in 1564.
John Shakespeare William’s father lived and worked in the house for fifty years. in 1568 he became the Mayor of Stratford and because of his Mayoral privilege, his children had a good education at the local grammar school.
In 1601 John Shakespeare died and his eldest son William inherited the house. When Shakespeare died he left the house to his oldest daughter Susanna and when she died it was left to her only child Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had no children, so when she died the house fell to a descendant of Joan Hart, one of Shakespeare’s sisters. The house was owned by the Hart family until the late 18th century until it went up for sale and was purchased by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1847.
The house tour has many items from Shakespeare’s life and even the floors have never been replaced so you are walking in Shakespeare’s actual footsteps.
This is the window that hung in Shakespeare’s birth room. The window panes are etched with the names of visitors over the years.
Ask to have the Witching Mark pointed out to you. It is a mark carved into a timber which is shaped like a map of the house but backwards to ward off evil spirits.
When you exit the house you are treated to several actors from Shakespeare Aloud in the garden performing various great sonnets, scenes and moments from Shakespeare’s plays. This was such a treat and the actors were great.
As you leave the area don’t forget to check out the gift shop where you can pick up some tempting Shakespearean t-shirts or even his complete works.
A short walk from Shakespeare’s birthplace, near the banks of the Avon River, is the Royal Shakespeare Theater. If you take the elevator up to the tower you can look out over Stratford from a vantage point that Shakespeare would have never known.
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Royal Shakespeare Company was established as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1875 and opened to the public in 1879. The original building has been much enlarged from those days and many of the RSC’s speciality areas such as set build and costume rental are nearby but not in the newer building.
I would highly recommend you take one of the tours offered by the Royal Shakespeare Company they are simply fascinating and if you love theatre you get to see behind the scenes and it is remarkable.
They offer 3 tours all of which start at £7 which is an amazing value. The guides are brilliant and so informative and can answer any question posed to them.
There is the Behind the Scenes Tour which is the one we took where we got to learn about making theatre. We saw behind the stage from the wings. We got to go into the sound booth and see where the important work of Stage Manager is undertaken.
We even got to see the costume area, makeup and learned how expensive fake blood is. The cost of fake blood is stupendous literally hundreds of pounds. What makes the tour so fabulous is that all these folks are experts. Just ask the Head of Dyeing and Painting.
‘Blood? What kind? There’s veinal blood, arterial blood, edible blood, newly dry blood, crusty old blood… You don’t want it to be too red – that looks bad – but then there are so many types and thicknesses. Ours is a secret recipe, though. And it will remain so. from the Telegraph
In props, there were goats, crocodiles, ships, suits of armour and a crazy array of stuff you wouldn’t believe.
Another costume trick is that of magnets. Due to many a quick change, very heavy-duty magnets are used instead of things like buttons or lacings. They don’t use velcro as the sound of it ripping can be heard in the theatre.
From Page to Stage is where you can discover how a play actually gets from the script to the public performance.
The Audition Tour is brilliant, you get to peek into the costume hire department, try on costumes learn some Shakespearean lines and all about the history of the RSC.
The RSC even has a costume hire facility that the public is welcome to rent costumes from. This place covers virtually every time period you can think of and even some that don’t exist. Our prices are very competitive. Costumes and accessories are priced individually, so you can hire as much or as little as you need. The cost of a full costume is £90 +VAT for the first week of hire. They don’t rent by the day but only by the week.
Not only were we privileged to see backstage but we were also given complimentary tickets to see As You Like It, one of my favourite Shakespearean plays. The RSC said about their version of the play.
LOVE IS MERELY A MADNESS.
Rosalind is banished and with her best friend, Celia by her side, she journeys to a world of exile. But not before catching the eye of love-struck Orlando who is also forced from The Court into the Forest…
What ensues is a riotous combination of a feisty cross-dressing heroine, a tartan-clad fool, melodic songs, questionable poetry and laughs aplenty. Will love conquer all, or is it merely a madness?
Kimberley Sykes (Dido, Queen of Carthage, 2017) directs this playful and passionate version of Shakespeare’s much-loved romantic comedy.
The Reviewers said
‘INVENTIVE, PLAYFUL, CAPTIVATING…A BONKERS TRIP TO THE FOREST OF ARDEN’ DAILY TELEGRAPH
‘CAPTURES THE JOY OF FALLING IN LOVE’ MAIL ON SUNDAY
It was magical as soon as the play began we were lost in the moment. The actors were superb and to see a woman finally reciting those words “all the world’s a stage” was simply a joy. The antics of a Billy Connelly style Touchstone incited the audience to uproarious laughter, the gender-bending and inclusion of LGBTQ characters was fabulous. I have to say this was without a doubt the best performance of a Shakespearean play I have ever seen.
Visit Hall’s Croft
Hall’s Croft is a stunning Jacobean house that was the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna and her husband John Hall who was a Doctor. Susanna was Shakespeare’s oldest daughter born in 1583 and died in 1649.
The house is incredible given its age and the gardens are a real pleasure to walk through. There is a Mulberry tree in the garden that was planted in 1969 that split in two and is now supported by bricks.
Black mulberries are a childhood memory of mine when we used to eat them straight from the tree. These are not mulberry trees which are loved by silkworms, however. You will see mulberry stains all over Stratford upon Avon and when you eat them your fingers turn purple.
In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus the hero is encouraged to stand with his head held low:
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling.
The House is furnished with period antiques and has some really interesting and gruesome medical displays from the time period including some of Dr Hall’s medical equipment.
There is a lovely little cafe in the house and an outside area where you can take your cream tea.
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & the Guild Hall
Shakespeare’s schoolroom is where he learned to read and write. They didn’t use paper in those days as it was much too expensive to waste. All their lessons were written down on slates. Latin was taught in school and school started at sunup and went on until sunset even on a Saturday.
Today, you can walk inside the classrooms where Shakespeare was taught and the guides will give you some really interesting information on what it was like to attend school in Shakespeare’s Day. This is not one of the tours that fall within Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust so the entry fee is £8.50 for adults.
Learning about the Guildhall
The Guild of the Holy Cross built the Guildhall in Stratford upon Avon somewhere around 1418. Over the years more and more buildings were added including a schoolhouse, almshouses for the poor and a chapel. The Guildhall became the heart of civic life in Stratford upon Avon for over 400 years.
Built from timber frames you can even see the Roman numerals inscribed on the posts to help guide the builders in putting the Hall together. The centre of the timbers was filled with wattle and daub which was made from a variety of items including clay, horsehair, animal dung, straw and wet soil. This was “daubed” between the wooden strips (the wattle) to create the walls.
As part of your tour, you will get to see an example of rare medieval wall paintings with scenes from the bible. The Guild Chapel which is next door used to be part of the Guild Hall. Dating back to the 13th century the Chapel was originally catholic and in the 1560’s the Reformation ensured that all things catholic were banned. And so the Guild Chapel was going to be destroyed but John Shakespeare, William’s father whitewashed the Catholic murals from the walls. This whitewashing actually preserved the paintings which were rediscovered in 1804 during a restoration of the Chapel.
Nash’s House is a beautiful timber-framed building and was the home of William Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth. The house stands immediately beside the site of Shakespeare’s own home of New Place.
The house holds a museum of local history, focussing on Shakespeare’s life and works.
A viewing platform overlooks the Tudor knot garden of New Place, laid out on the site of Shakespeare’s house. Exhibitions showcase archaeological finds unearthed during the excavation and restoration of New Place.
The ground floor of the house is occupied by a shop where you get tickets for New Place, while the upper floor holds the exhibition and several activity rooms.
Explore Shakespeare’s New Place
Shakespeare’s New Place was the location of Shakespeare’s family home from 1597 until his death in 1616. When London was in trouble such as the times of the plague Shakespeare would retreat to his home in Stratford upon Avon.
Shakespeare’s New Place was originally a grand Tudor home, but fashion and style come and goes and so when Susanna inherited the building her husband considered it old fashioned and it was demolished to build a grand new home.
On the grounds was a huge tree that visitors and tourists of the day would take branches from in remembrance of Shakespeare. The man that owned the building was apparently a Reverend and he was not happy about this so had the tree removed. He was also asked to contribute to the welfare of the poor through a property tax and being a bad Christian refused. As a result, he decided to destroy the house and today a sculpture of the old tree stands in the glorious gardens.
Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm
Take a trip to the farm where Shakespeare mother Mary Arden lived and worked. The Farm was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother. To get there you will need to either take a taxi or drive to the farm which is only 3 miles from the centre of Stratford upon Avon, another alternative is to take the Hop on Hop Off bus.
Here at the farm you get to experience all the sights, sounds and smells of a working Tudor farm. The farm’s animators go about their day just as it would have been back in Shakespeare’s times. There are nature trails, falconry displays, archery, and lots of heritage animals and farming methods to be seen.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife and they married when Shakespeare was 18 and Anne was 26 years old and pregnant. Pretty gossip inducing back in those days. Anne was older than William but she outlived him by 7 years.
Anne’s cottage is heavily touristed so I recommend you get there as early as you can to be able to tour the house and see everything without the droves of people getting in the way.
There is parking just down from the cottage in a pay and display lot or you can take the Hop on Hop Off bus from town.
The cottage is a beautiful Tudor thatched building with 9 acres of gardens. It was built in 1453 and Annes grandfather, John Hathaway, rented it and then eventually bought it. Anne was born here in 1556.
Upon buying your ticket you head to the Cottage for your tour. On entering the cottage you are greeted by a tour guide who gives you some wonderful information about the house and the Hathways. These guides are so knowledgeable and their love for the place shines through. They are happy to answer any questions you might have.
The Shakespeare Trust purchased the building from the Hathaway’s who lived here until 1892. The last Hathaway to live here was Mary Baker who got a great deal in the sale, not only did she profit from the house purchase but she negotiated a grand salary for the day as a Tour Guide.
You can wander through the various rooms that are laid out as appropriate to the times with authentic period piece.
You can even see Shakespeare’s “second-best bed” which was left to his wife. Well, it is a bed of the period that is believed to be made from parts of the “second-best bed”. Now, this was considered a romantic gesture at the time, as the second-best bed was the marital bed.
I loved learning about how this place became a museum! The Hathaway’s lived here until 1892 when the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust bought the cottage.
Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church
The Holy Trinity Church was the centre of life in Stratford upon Avon back in Shakespeare’s day. He was baptised here along with his brothers and sisters, the family worshipped here and he and Anne were even married here. In the end, Shakespeare was laid to rest in a memorial tomb within the church.
The entrance to the church itself is completely free but you will have to pay a donation of £4 to see Shakespeare’s grave. Anne’s tomb sits next to him and his daughter Susanna and John Hall her husband are in the sanctuary.
There is a curse that Shakespeare had put on his gravestone! It reads “Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones”. !
Visit The Garrick Inn for a Shakesbeer
The Garrick Inn is Stratford upon Avon’s oldest pub, with parts dating back to the 1400s, originally called the Greyhound its name was changed in the 18th century to honour David Garrick who was a famous Shakespearean Actor.
Nobody knows if Shakespeare patronised the tavern but it is believed that this is where the outbreak of the 1564 plague started.
Because of the level of tourists and interest in the pub, you should reserve a spot if you want to eat or drink here in the summer months. It’s not so bad in the winter but in summer insanity prevails.
Anne Hathaway’s Tea Rooms
Although the building dates back to 1610 it was never Anne Hathaway’s Tea Rooms back then. It was known as the George Inn and in its day it has been a bookshop an apothecary and a bootmakers. In 1931 it became Anne Hathaway’s Tea Rooms.
A cosy little place you can get some delicious breakfasts or lunch here but the speciality are the afternoon teas. Served with a huge variety of loose leaf tea this is a real treat for your day in Stratford upon Avon.
The only one of its kind in the country the Mad Museum is a mechanical art and design museum. A brilliant attraction for kids and adults alike the Museum is filled with interactive sculptures and kinetic art that marry science, technology and art. Tickets cost £7.80 for an adult and children (6-15yrs): £5.20
The Canal Basin
This is the area between the RSC theatre and the main area of town that runs along the canal. With its pretty waterside garden – perfect for a picnic there are lots of activities and events that take place here. There is a market a few times a week where you can pick up some lovely handmade gifts. There are street food wagons and displays of art and craft.
Often you will find some of the animal welfare groups like the day we were there and they had some owls that couldn’t be returned to the wild due to injuries.
From here you can take a number of boat rides or even paddle your own rowboat on the Avon.
The Big Wheel
Directly across from the canal basin you will soon spot the Big Wheel and a children’s park. The giant wheel is right beside the Stratford Rowing Club and taking a ride on it ensures fabulous views of the RSC, the canal and the River Avon. A trip on the wheel costs £5 for adults and £4 for children.
A River Cruise upon the Avon
We were lucky to be provided with complimentary tickets to a River Cruise with Avon Boating which was a lovely treat. We took an Edwardian electric launch down the river on a 40-minute boat ride.
Passing by the RSC buildings we could see the huge size of the theatre and the apartments built specifically for the actors appearing in plays in the theatre.
Down past the place where Shakespeare is buried Holy Trinity Church, we glided past swans and ducks and just enjoyed the beautiful day.
The river is full of small rowboats and sculls along with some stunning canal boats that people live in and travel up and down the waterways of England with. This is a lovely way to spend an hour on a bright and sunny day, perfectly relaxing and so quiet on the Avon with these lovely old boats.
Fish and Chips at Barnaby’s
Right across from the canal is an incredibly busy fish and chip shop and boy do they serve awesome and huge portions of fish and chips.
The interior is dated with its vinyl stools, melamine tables and probably dates back 50 years but the food can’t be beat. Even Gordon Ramsay who was raised in Stratford upon Avon loves this place.
The Countess of Evesham
Know as Stratford upon Avon’s version of the “Orient Express” the Countess is a 70m restaurant boat that drifts along gently on the Avon while you enjoy a fabulous gourmet meal.
You can take the lunch boat and spend a gloriously peaceful afternoon on the water, or dinner service with a 3-course meal. Monday to Friday lunches cost This cruise is £23.50 and evening cruises are £34.00 prices do increase on weekends.
A small little museum set in an amazing Tudor building in the centre of town up from the canal Tudor World recreates different areas of Tudor life interwoven with stories and legends from Stratford’s history.
Within a historic 16th century building discover what life was really like during Shakespeare’s time. Sit at a feast; lie down on a four-poster bed; go in the pillories; write with a quill and take part in a witch trial! Beware there are low beams, uneven floors and lots and lots of atmosphere! Adult: £6, Children: £3
Shakespaw Cat Cafe
I just love this idea it originates from Taiwan and is very popular in Japan. Basically the Cat Cafe is like a hotel for kitties, they live here, this is their home. The cafe provides a service so that people who are unable to keep their own pets or may not want the responsibility can interact with cats.
You book a time and go enjoy lunch or a cream tea with some friendly moggies and get all the cat-loving you need and help animals at the same time – what could be better?
The Old Thatch Tavern
The Old Thatch is the oldest pub in Stratford upon Avon. Located in the heart of the city it’s very close to all the Shakespeare sites so you can drop by for a pint or two and a rest.
Built in 1470 ghost stories abound on this old ground including a murky tale of murder, on Christmas Day 1795, the spirit of victim Joseph Pinfield continues to haunt the place to this day.
Serving traditional English food like bangers and mash, fish and chips mushy peas and homemade pies you can be assured of great comfort food.
The Magic Alley shop for all things wizardry and Harry Potter filled with wands, spells, broomsticks, dragon eggs and even butterbeer the Magic Alley is a must stop for all muggles.
There’s even an Enchanted Manor Museum where the magic of storytelling is housed. It’s an interactive puzzle trail exploring the world of fairies, wizards, time travel, pirates based on the best selling series “The Chronicles of Wizard’s Thatch”.
The Enchanted Manor is also an atmospheric performance space that hosts magicians, storytellers and travelling theatre productions.
Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm
If you love all insects, crawly things and in particular butterflies then this is the place for you. With waterfalls, tropical plants, ponds and a giant greenhouse to wander through filled with beautiful butterflies.
You can see a butterfly lifecycle in the Discovery Room. Watch stick insects, ants and beetles make their life in Minibeast Metropolis and check out spiders in Arachnoland – home to the world’s largest spider.
The town’s famous row of Almshouses was founded at the beginning of the 15th century by the Guild of the Holy Cross for elderly locals. Standing alongside both the Guild Chapel and the King Edward VI Grammar School, the Alms Houses have now been converted into modern flats.
Harvard House is a magnificent white and black Elizabethan townhouse and perhaps the most ornate landmark of its kind in Stratford upon Avon. Rebuilt following the town’s infamous Great Fire in 1594, the Harvard House was formerly owned by the grandparents of the founder of America’s acclaimed Harvard University. The house and its enormous collection of valuable antiques are now actually owned by Harvard University, although managed on the university’s behalf by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The house is usually opened to the public for special occasions.
That’s not an exhaustive list of things to do in Stratford upon Avon it is a town that you could spend a week in and still have things to discover. The entire county of Warwickshire has a huge amount to offer and I hope to spend much more time exploring this area of England.
If you are spending some time in the area make a trip to Kenilworth Castle and its Elizabethan gardens
Have you been to Stratford upon Avon? If you have what is your favourite Shakespearean quote? Mine is…