In search of Shakespeare’s country
THE MYSTERY of William Shakespeare is that he’s managed to become so well known as a writer and so unknown as a man. Much has been written about the glovemaker’s son from Stratford upon Avon, but the scarcity of biographical detail means that a lot of Shakespeare is shrouded in myth. But the myth and reality intertwine, elevating him to a height that is perhaps befitting of a world-famous writer.
A visit to Shakespeare’s charming hometown in Stratford upon Avon underlines the ambiguity that surrounds him, offering visitors the chance to see his birthplace, his final home and the site where he is buried, yet still leave much to the imagination about who the man really was.
I’m an ardent Shakespeare fan and visiting his hometown is akin to a pilgrimage for me. The rolling fields and luscious greenery that envelops what is now promoted as Shakespeare Country not only make for a pleasant drive or walk, but give a little insight into what might have formed the foundations of some of Shakespeare’s greatest settings. Try visiting Kenilworth Castle and discovering that Robert Dudley entertained Elizabeth I with a grand pageant there, which many believed inspired Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then re-reading the play and imagining anything other than the forest which sits at the foot of the castle.
My trip in Stratford actually begins at the end of Shakespeare’s mortal life, at his burial place. Inside the Holy Trinity Church, which has been there since 1210, I stand where countless people have stood before and wonder just what the man buried beneath would have made of the fame and immortality his work has granted him.
The town is characterised by its rich architecture and the walk through the town to his birthplace from the Holy Trinity Church is beautiful whatever the weather, because it’s a town that has been tasteful in its blending of the old and the new.
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Shakespeare’s birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage both exemplify the old and the staff in them are full of the most intriguing facts – the beds are so short because people propped themselves up when they slept as they believed lying flat was strictly the reserve of the dead being one of the facts I most enjoyed– and keen to share their knowledge.
The newest addition to Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, stands proudly on the banks of the River Avon. The most striking element of the new building is the tower rising 36 meters above the river. From the top, much of Stratford can be seen and the view beyond is quite something. The sprawling market town is stunning and below it, and it’s amazing to watch, many people who have travelled from all over the world potter about, exploring the town. In the summer, the vast area around the theatre is usually awash with picnicking families and outdoor performances.
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The new theatre is impressive and really opens up the foyer. Exhibitions throughout the theatre make the creative achievements of the RSC accessible to all. The new thrust stage auditorium is far more intimate than the previous theatre and with an array of performances for young and old, it really is worth a visit especially as family tickets are quite affordable.
A trip here would not be complete without seeing a show but even if you don’t, make sure you head to the Dirty Duck pub, about 100 metres from the theatre. It’s a favourite of the actors post-performance and nothing quite beats seeing the man you saw die brutally on stage appear fresh-faced minutes later where he’s ordering a pint of his favourite tipple. Some of the more famous faces in the RSC ensemble have been known to frequent here too.
You don’t have to be passionate about Shakespeare to visit Stratford, mildly curious will do, because the town itself is so steeped in history and has done so much to share this with its visitors, that there’s plenty to do for all. Children will love The Falstaffs Experience with its interactive exhibitions and the Butterfly Farm, but the Shakespeare Houses can also captivate children.
There are plenty of delightful places to stay in Stratford or the surrounding area and I nestle in at Ettington Park Hotel, just six miles outside of the town. The neo-Gothic mansion is awe inspiring and sits in the picturesque Stour Valley. If I had been less inclined to pay homage to the great bard in Stratford, I would have been quite settled remaining here all weekend.
It’s the perfect getaway – around 90 minutes away – and I would like to say I enjoyed afternoon tea there while reading King Lear, but I actually enjoyed afternoon tea there while taking in the glorious views from the Great Dining Room. Later, I took a walk around the grounds which are steeped in history and the staff are more than happy to tell you the tales. But some of the tales are of a supernatural bent, which is no surprise given that the AA voted Ettington Park as the Most Haunted Hotel in Britain.
There are no strange apparitions during my comfortable stay, however, and I become quite the sceptic until I return one misty evening from Stratford and recall being told this hotel was where the original film of The Haunting was shot in 1963. It certainly looks impressive and it definitely has character, but it’s one of grandeur and class.
I feel very indulged during my stay: the staff are friendly and attentive and I make full use of the pool and Jacuzzi, and the steam room relaxes my muscles after walking around Stratford. The two rosette award winning restaurant indulges my palette fully, where I order from the a la carte menu. The food was lovingly presented but not at all pretentious, and eating in the Oak Room Restaurant is a very grand experience.
Although I have a basic room, it’s still very luxurious and much grander than your average room. But, if you want to up the ante and go all out, the suites are befitting of royalty.
Although close to Stratford, Ettington Park Hotel provides the perfect base from which to explore an area that is promoted as Shakespeare Country. It takes in north and south Warwickshire and includes Warwick, Royal Leamington Spa and Kenilworth. It’s an area rich with beautiful landscapes and historic landmarks with plenty to do. Just 20 minutes away from Stratford is Warwick and any trip to this part of the world should include a visit to Warwick Castle. There are so many things to do there that you’ll need the entire day and I recommend you experience the dungeons, because they more than rival their London equivalent.
Further north in Tamworth (50 minutes), you can visit Drayton Manor Park and Zoo which packs all the fun of Alton Towers – almost a two hour drive away – into a smaller space, which means that pleasure-seekers won’t have to lose minutes moving between rides.
Travelling across this area, there’s plenty to see: forests, castles, heaths and grand mansions, all settings which crop up in Shakespeare’s work, albeit not directly. While none of it brings you closer to who Shakespeare was, it gives you an idea of the world he saw and what may have influenced him.
Although he left Stratford for London, he eventually came back and it’s really no wonder. And while his bones may lie in the humble market town of Stratford, the enigma that is Shakespeare pervades the area - even if it cannot be caught. It really is Shakespeare’s little country.
For accommodation, special offers and more information visit the official website: www.Shakespeare-Country.co.uk or call Shakespeare Country on 01926 471 329.