“And now my dear, you will literally be walking in William Shakespeare’s footsteps”. That’s when it sunk in. I was in Stratford-upon-Avon and I was about to enter the house where the greatest English playwright was born in 1564 and spent his childhood years.
When I got to know that I’d be in Sheffield for two weeks in April, the first thing that I did was find out where I could go on the weekends. Everyone I knew said that there was nothing to see in Sheffield so I should make plans to visit some of the nearby places and one of the suggestions was Stratford-upon-Avon. I’ll write about the other two soon 🙂
Me and my colleague looked up Google, checked all information available, booked train tickets and tickets to see Shakespeare’s family homes and on a very cold, snowy Easter Monday morning, set out to discover the Bard’s birthplace.
How to Get To Stratford-Upon-Avon
Since we did not have a car, we took a train from Sheffield to Birmingham New Street railway station. Got down at the station and walked for about ten minutes to the Birmingham Moor Street railway station from where we took a London Midland train to Stratford-upon-Avon. There are a number of websites from where you can book train tickets for travelling within UK. We used the website Go Euro and paid around 35 pounds for the return tickets from Sheffield.
If you are travelling from London, the train ride is around 2 hours long and you will need to get down at Stratford railway station. If you want to fly down, the nearest airport is Birmingham and from there you can either take a train to Stratford or rent a car to drive down.
Travel tip – Don’t wait to buy train tickets two days before your travel because prices can be really high. It is always a good idea to book them atleast a couple of weeks before your trip. Make sure to compare prices between a few websites to get the best rates. Go Euro, The Train Line, My Train Ticket are some of the websites that you can check for tickets at reasonable rates.
Tour or no Tour?
If you are staying in Stratford-upon-Avon, it does not make sense to book a tour because the town is quite small and on a grid, so it is easy to walk around. If you are visiting for a day and have only a few hours to explore, it makes sense to book a hop on-hop-off bus tour from Viator for about 14 pounds (peak season will be more). We reached Stratford-upon-Avon around 11.30 in the morning and had about 6 hours till we boarded our train back to Sheffield in the evening. The bus tour therefore came in really handy because we saved time in getting from one place to another.
We booked the bus tickets online and once we reached the town, from the railway station we took a cab to go to the tourist office to board the bus. Like all hop on-hop off buses, this one was also an open top bus so the ride was a very enjoyable one. The bus drops you off at the major tourist spots and picks up at a designated time.
What to see?
Shakespeare’s Birthplace – No visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is complete without visiting the birth house of William Shakespeare. This is the house where Shakespeare was born, grew up and spent his childhood years. The house is located in the center of the town and is surrounded by shops, cafes and restaurants making it the most popular tourist spot. I went when the weather was really cold and there were hardly any tourists around but if you go during the peak season, make sure to reach early to avoid the queues.
The visit starts at the Shakespeare Centre which houses an array of artifacts that date back to Shakespeare’s time including one of the three First Folios owned by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. There are only 230 First Folios that have survived to this day thus making the artifact extremely rare.
From the exhibition, you go into the main house. Inside, you’ll find guides in medieval costume either performing or talking about the history of the house. It is remarkable how well the house has been maintained and credit for that goes to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. There are various pieces of furniture that belonged to Shakespeare’s time. You can see the room where he was born, the crib where he slept, the kitchens, the bedrooms, desks, chairs etc.
Travel tip – If you are a Harry Potter fan or intrigued by the world of witches and wizards, definitely go to Magic Alley and The Creaky Cauldron, a shop selling magic wands, wizardry games, spells and butterbeer made from an old Tudor recipe. The shop is located next to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and is quite easy to find.
Shakespeare’s New Place – New Place is said to be the site of Shakespeare’s last home and the place where he died in 1616. The house no longer exists as it was demolished by Francis Gastrell in 1759. The story goes that Gastrell who bought the house after the death of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall got irritated by the influx of visitors and destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden said to have been planted by Shakespeare. In retaliation, the townsfolk destroyed New Place’s windows. Gastrell applied for local permission to extend the garden. His application was rejected and his tax was increased so Gastrell retaliated by demolishing the house in 1759. This greatly outraged the inhabitants and Gastrell was eventually forced to leave town. In fact even till this day, anyone with the surname Gastrell is not given permission to live in Stratford-upon-Avon!
New Place reopened in 2016 and features an exhibition center with rare artefacts relating to Shakespeare’s life, as well as a beautiful garden with commissioned artworks.
Guild Chapel – Standing across from New Place, Guild Chapel was built when in 1269 the Guild of the Holy Cross was given permission to build a hospital and chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1500, Hugh Clopton, Lord Mayor of London paid for the Chapel’s wall paintings. Conservators now believe that the Guild Chapel’s walls display one of the few surviving pre-Reformation medieval schemes painted at the same time, and painted as one piece.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – Located slightly outside the town, this 600 year old thatched roof cottage was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. Inside, there are guides narrating the story of the Hathaway family, how Shakespeare met Anne, how he came to the house to ask for her hand from Anne’s father, the scandal their marriage caused etc. You can see many rare family items of furniture that date back to Anne’s time, including the finely carved, oak “Second Best Bed” that William left in his will for Anne.
Why Second Best Bed? Because in those days, having a bed at home was a rarity and a symbol of wealth. People rarely slept on the Best Bed and it was more of a showpiece. The Second Best Bed was used by a couple and therefore to give that to Anne was an expression of William’s love and affection for her.
Mary Arden’s farm – Want to experience life in a Tudor farm? Then you’ll perhaps also like to visit Mary Arden’s Farm, which is the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother and is also a working Tudor farm. I did not have the time to go in and only saw the farm from outside and it looked fascinating. If you are going with kids it will be a great experience for them because there are lots of farm animals inside and interesting activities.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre – If you are planning on staying overnight then you must definitely complete your Shakespeare experience with a show at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I missed out on the experience because I was there for only a few hours but if I ever go back, I’m definitely booking a ticket for myself.
River Avon – A walk along the river Avon or even a river cruise is a must do here. Before going back we spent some time walking along the riverside, gazing at the beautiful swans, clicking pictures and also enjoying a snack of crepes and strawberries. The peaceful atmosphere and the beauty of the place is soul soothing!
Viator Sightseeing Stratford-upon-Avon Hop=on Hop-off Tour
Royal Shakespeare Company
I hope this guide was useful and you enjoyed reading about my travel story. If you have been to Stratford-upon-Avon, I would love to know your experience and your stories. Do share in the comments below.
Pics – Niladri Chakraborty