Shakespeare Country: Birthplace of the Bard
By Jenny Larby
Walking along a leafy riverside path through Stratford-Upon-Avon, enjoying the views of gothic churches, half-timbered houses, and the green Cotswold countryside beyond, is enough to put anyone in a thoughtful mood.
But the musings of one ordinary man, who grew up here five centuries ago, have revolutionized English literature. William Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have influenced the work of nearly all the great writers who followed him. Recently, he’s been named, ‘Man of the Millennium,’ for his contribution to the world’s heritage.
Warwickshire in the West of England, where Stratford nestles in the Cotswold Hills, has dubbed itself ‘Shakespeare Country’; and the bard’s legacy is everywhere. An enthusiastic investigation into Shakespeare’s life and family has identified several of his relatives’ homes, including his birthplace, and opened them to the public.
Exploring Shakespeare Country
There are two historic theatres still showing Shakespeare’s plays, a multimedia Shakespearean exhibition called ‘The Shakespearience’, and many beautiful gardens and castles in the area that claim to have inspired the poet at his work.
Having studied fifteen of his plays in our heady student days at university, my friend Joy and I remember a lot of the poet’s work with nostalgic affection.
Visiting Stratford seemed a suitably romantic way to get into the psyche of the bard – sharing sonnets by the river, in the perfume of the cottage gardens, and we set off to investigate Shakespeare Country for a weekend.
A Cozy B&B
For the last twenty years, Ted and Margaret Mander have run a cozy B&B in Wilmcote, just outside of Stratford. It was a 16th century home known as the Pear Tree Cottage, which had been owned by Shakespeare’s parents.
The Manders told us about the historical interest of the five ‘Shakespeare Houses’, homes of Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, his wife Anne Hathaway, and the families of his children and grandchildren.
“There were a lot of controversies recently – it was discovered that Mary Arden’s house was incorrectly designated,” Ted told me. “She actually lived in the house next door.” Luckily, historians were able to straighten out the confusion, and the correct histories of the two houses were quickly adopted for visitors.
“The signs outside changed almost overnight – it was quite extraordinary how quickly it was corrected.”
Accuracy Counts Here
Historical accuracy is taken very seriously in Stratford. And standing in Anne Hathaway’s cottage, beneath the low, crooked beams of a 15th-century wattle-and-daub room, it gave me quite a thrill to think that Shakespeare once sat in this same room with his bride-to-be.
“Some say that this chair is the one where William Shakespeare and Anne used to sit while they were courting,” the guide told us.
At Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street, where his father ran a tannery, you can see the bed where he was born, and learn about the family business. The house is full of carefully preserved tools, linens and artifacts that help tell the story.
The houses have been made accessible and informative. But for me, the gardens were the highlight – topiary and knot gardens in the town-center houses, while Anne Hathaway’s cottage has a less formal garden of rambling flowers and vegetables.
There’s also a ‘sculpture trail’ for touring the statues and artworks inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.
There’s even an arbor with seats for two, and soft-spoken recordings of some of the most popular sonnets – you can choose one from a row of buttons on the seat.
The multi-media approach to learning about Shakespeare is certainly catching on. The ‘Shakespearience’ will blast you with cold air while you listen to famous lines from Macbeth, and deafen you with the roar of Henry V’s army all around you as they prepare to charge into the breach.
The Shakespearience begins with a short film about the poet’s rise to fame, presented by TV personality, Quentin Wilson. The second ‘Act’ is set on a mock-Elizabethan stage; a play with holographic actors, featuring David Bradley as Shakespeare’s disembodied voice; it shows highlights of some popular plays, and the atmosphere of the most famous lines is recreated with surround sound and special effects.
Reviving the Bard’s Color
With dry, textbook Shakespeare still a vivid memory from school, it’s nice to think that new technology can revive his color and drama for children around the world. After all, as one of the guides told me, ‘Shakespeare was the Spielberg of his day – his plays were juicy sagas for the masses, not scholarly intellectualism.’
Only a few minute’s drives away are Warwick and Kenilworth, two of England ’s biggest medieval castles. It’s said that these ancient landmarks were the inspiration for some of the great castles in Shakespeare’s plays.
Warwick Castle is now owned by Madame Tussauds and is peopled by a cast of eerie waxworks – characters from the castle’s history, designed to show visitors what life was once like for Shakespeare whose home was a castle.
You can wander around the ramparts and visit the ‘ Ghost Tower,’ where actors play out the spooky story of Sir Fulke Greville, murdered in his bed by an angry servant.
What Else Is There?
If you are not interested in Shakespeare, you might find the number of pubs, shops, and tourist sites that pay homage to his name rather overwhelming – but there are some more unusual attractions in Shakespeare Country than just the poet himself.
The Butterfly Farm and Teddy Bear Museum are popular local attractions in Stratford, as is Harvard House; owned by the founder of Harvard University, and now home to the UK ’s biggest pewter collection.
Royal Leamington Spa, just down the road, has an excellent shopping center, beautiful gardens, and an art gallery with regular new exhibitions.
There are also several imposing National Trust properties nearby – including one with the inevitable Shakespeare connection; Charlecote Park, where the playwright was apparently once caught poaching deer.
It is easy to imagine Shakespeare taking inspiration from the grand landmarks around him. Perhaps some of the sites claiming to have influenced him are a little wistful, but they all share a spot on our sceptered isle that Shakespeare was particularly proud of.
Standing by the Avon at sunset, watching the hills and the thatched roofs turn pink, is enough to inspire poetry in anyone.
You can hire a guide of your own, who will show you around the sites of your interests. Or, you can find John Hogg, who leads daily group walking-tours – just show up and pay £5.
If you enjoy exploring for yourself, Stratford has excellent public transport. The sightseeing buses tour the town and the surrounding villages, with stops at all Shakespeare Houses. A ticket is valid all day so you can use the buses as many times as you like.
There are also extensive footpaths if you prefer to find the houses on foot – but a ticket to all five houses is only valid for a day and you may find you are pushed for time if you want to visit them all on foot. Two are a little way outside town.
Guided Weekend Breaks
Warwickshire Tourist Board run ‘Shakespeare Themed Short Breaks’ – long weekends including tours of the Shakespeare sites and Shakespearience, an evening at the theatre, and other visits to suit you, like Charlecote or Warwick Castle.
They can include accommodation, speakers, and guides.
Stratford and the surrounding towns are full of pubs and cafes. It can be difficult to find dinner on a Sunday, however.
Every pub we visited was friendly and attractive, though vegetarian options were limited on pub menus. There are restaurants to suit every taste and budget.
We loved Pear Tree Cottage, a short drive from Stratford. Buses go to the town center every ten or twenty minutes, and there are two good pubs nearby.
Jenny Larby, a press officer and freelance writer from Berkshire, UK, funds her travels by working as an animal artist in her spare time. For a portrait of your pet, visit pet-portraits-online.co.uk.