Birthplace of the Bard
WITHOUT the happenstance of one man’s birth, would Stratford-upon-Avon have been a town just like so many others in the Midlands?
Unquestionably the legacy of the Bard can be felt wherever you look - from souvenir shops and pubs to museums and boat trips, something of William Shakespeare’s influence is evident. But when a town can comfortably claim to have witnessed the great man’s birth and death, is there any wonder why not?
Go beyond the obvious attractions and you will find the real Stratford, a town very much of its type when compared to similar communities in this part of the country, still tied up in its past of metalwork and farming. Backstreet pubs are certainly the province of the locals, who seem to tolerate the tourists who have invaded their town as a necessary evil rather than welcome guests.
That said, there is little about Stratford which the casual visitor will not find appealing: a lively town centre packed with a variety of independent shops as well as the more familiar chains; a beautiful riverside overshadowed by the impressive Royal Shakespeare Theatre; and an inviting selection of restaurants and pubs.
My partner Laura and I stayed just outside of the city centre, at the Menzies Welcombe Hotel Spa and Golf Club, a spectacular 1866 country house set on a private estate of 157 acres. Boasting many of the original features, including a magnificent oak-panelled lounge, landscaped Victorian garden and individually decorated bedrooms, it was the epitomy of luxury.
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Although we did not eat in the hotel’s a la carte restaurant, we did take advantage of the spa, which included a level deck swimming pool, external vitality pool, four thermal experience rooms, a gym and aerobics studio, plus a selection of treatment rooms for that extra bit of pampering.
Golfers would no doubt be drawn to the par 70, 18 hole championship course, home to the European Seniors Tour Ryder Event in 1998, which features rolling countryside and lakes that prove challenging for the expert and exhilarating for the novice.
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Away from the hotel then, and back into Stratford itself for our first day of exploring, coinciding with major celebrations for the birthday of Shakespeare himself, which includes a variety of events aimed at the whole community.
We enjoyed a slow riverboat cruise along the Avon, taking in the magnificent riverside homes found along its banks, and heading up to Holy Trinity church, where the Bard is buried. Afterwards we checked out the recently redesigned and relandscaped Bancroft Gardens, in the shade of the great Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which had been officially opened earlier that day by the celebrated actor Sir Donald Sinden.
As the late afternoon sun began to sink beneath the horizon, there was still time for a stroll through the extensive shopping area and a few drinks in some of the city centre pubs, most of which play up on the Shakespearean theme by claiming links to the great man or his era. Dinner was in a humble Indian restaurant, albeit offering some fantastic dishes which did not disappoint.
Before heading back to the hotel, we also visited the amusing Falstaff’s Experience, named after the character in two of Shakespeare’s plays, and located in the Shrieve’s House, parts of which date back to 1470. Rumoured to be the most haunted building in England, it offered an interesting look at the darker side of Elizabethan and Jacobean society, including the Black Death, witchcraft and torture, as well as more mainstream themes like education, the theatre and royalty. Well worth a visit, even though we didn’t see any ghosts.
After a relaxing night’s sleep in the sprawling king-size bed, followed by a first-class breakfast overlooking the sun-blessed golf course, Laura and I enjoyed a morning in the gym and spa, before heading back into St Albans for lunch.
Our second day was spent in celebration of the Bard himself, visiting the unmissable Shakespeare’s Birthplace exhibition for a fascinating immersive journey through his work and legacy, culminating in a walk around the world-famous building where he first took breath.
With his birthday celebrations in full swing, there were performances in the streets of scenes from plays, readings from sonnets and various other forms of entertainment, which kept us busy throughout much of the afternoon, so we didn’t get time to visit some of the other attractions in the area, including the cottage belonging to the family of his wife Anne Hathaway, Nash’s House and New Place where Shakespeare died, or Hall’s Croft, the Jacobean doctor’s house where his daughter Susanna lived, all of which offer further evidence to build up a comprehensive picture of the Bard’s life and times.
Our final evening took us to a bustling Italian restaurant before a visit to some more lively city centre bars, and then it was back to the hotel after what proved to have been an exhausting but rewarding day.
The impact of Shakespeare is perhaps unavoidable in Stratford-upon-Avon, but this is something to be celebrated, not ignored. No other man has had such an impact on the dramatic arts, a wordsmith whose influence permeates our culture and language, and for such a genius, surely a pilgrimage to his birthplace and grave is nothing short of justified?
For further information on Shakespeare Houses and Gardens, visit www.shakespeare.org.uk
For details about Menzies Welcombe Hotel, visit www.menzieshotels.co.uk or call 01789 295252.