Stratford-Upon-Avon native Matthew Brace offers a local's guide to the Bard's backyard.
There are few things more comfortingly English than a midsummer's evening in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Guides and guardians of the various historic Elizabethan properties dotted around the town farewell the last of the tourists, dust the furniture and turn off the lights, letting the houses creak back to normality and the ghosts come out to play.
Restaurants and bistros fire up the ovens and light the table candles as the early supper crowd bowls in, clutching their precious tickets for that evening's theatre performance. A peal of bells from Holy Trinity Church rings out across the rooftops, and the first pints of beer are sipped on the stone terrace of the Dirty Duck pub, under the hanging flower baskets.
Not only is Stratford steeped in history, architecture and the dramatic arts but it is also situated in one of the most tranquil and picturesque parts of Britain. It is surrounded by gentle landscapes and patchworks of fields, while to the south stretch the Cotswold Hills, one of the UK's Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
This region has recently become known as Shakespeare Country and it makes a delightful short stay on a UK tour, whether you're a fan of the Bard or not.
Stratford's the obvious base and, although very much a town for all seasons, is best in spring and summer. Next spring's visitors are in for a treat: in April 2014, the town (as well as the rest of Britain) will celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday. Each year on the birthday (April 23) there is a parade of actors and dignitaries through the town, flags flying in the streets, special performances at the theatres and a gala luncheon by the river, usually with a royal in attendance. 2014 should see the town going all out.
Here are my Shakespeare Country recommendations for couples:
1. Stratford architecture tour
The town is awash with preserved architecture including Shakespeare's Birthplace, Hall's Croft and the charming Anne Hathaway's Cottage but there are some lesser-known gems too. One is Mason's Court (next to the modern police station on Rother Street), which has twisted and buckled considerably since its construction around 1485. For great examples of 16th Century 'black-and-white' buildings, seek out The Shakespeare Hotel and the Falcon Hotel (Chapel Street).
2. Romantic evening at the theatre
An evening at one of the Stratford theatres is a romantic experience whether or not you are moved by the prose and verse. It's a chance to dress up and make a night of it.
3. Messing about on the river
Take a picnic and a bottle of wine, rent a rowboat and head downstream past the theatre and the weeping willows of the gardens towards the soaring spire of Holy Trinity Church and find a quiet spot to tie off, eat, drink and laze.
4. Pints in the pub
Drop into one of Stratford's many old pubs for a pint of 'real ale'. Three recommendations are:
• The Dirty Duck on Southern Lane, the actors' favourite pub (for atmosphere, star-spotting and views of the theatre)
• The Swan's Nest, south bank of the river near Clopton Bridge (for the best 'real ale' selection)
• The Garrick on High Street (probably the oldest pub in town and the cosiest – especially the front bar)
5. Day out in the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds is one of the most beautiful parts of England and close enough for an easy day-trip from Stratford. One suggested itinerary is to head for the village of Lower Slaughter, which is very peaceful despite its violent name, then to Bledington for the perfect English rural scene: ducks playing in the stream, village green, honey-stoned cottages. It also has a wonderful country pub, The King's Head, which is ideal for lunch and a pint of Old Hooky. On the way home, drop in to the 11th Century church of St Nicholas in Lower Oddington; its inner north wall displays a rare medieval 'Doom' painting, complete with angels and demons.
6. Walk in Shakespeare's footsteps
Don your boots and head out of Stratford, up Maidenhead Road and on to the Welcombe Hills, a wooded nature reserve. This was once the main route between Stratford and the village of Snitterfield, where Shakespeare's paternal grandparents lived, so it's possible that the Bard once walked these hills. I'd also put money on him getting inspiration for A Midsummer Night's Dream from the enchanted woods.
7. Dream gardens
Shakespeare Country has many formal gardens. Two of the best are Charlecote Park and Kiftsgate. Charlecote includes a grand 16th Century stately home, ornate grounds, a delightful Orangery and an extensive deer park. Kiftsgate is far less visited yet it's a local treat – a subtle, secret woodland garden, offering dramatic views over the surrounding Cotswold Hills.
Shakespeare Country - FACTFILE
B&B: There are scores of B&Bs in town. TripAdvisor's top pick is White Sails. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: +44 (0) 1789 550469.
Two consistently good restaurants in town are Sorrento (Italian) on Ely Street (email: email@example.com, tel: +44 (0) 1789 297999) and The Vintner (email: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: +44 (0) 1789 297259).
• A play: the 2014 schedule (Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan Theatre can be found on the Royal Shakespeare Company website.
• The Shakespeare Houses: the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust offers a range of passes to one or more of the five official Shakespeare Houses.
Be sure to visit one or both of the theatres, ideally for a performance but if not then for a backstage tour. An adjacent tower, built when the theatre was redesigned recently, offers panoramic views over the town.
Couples Will Love
A romantic day trip to the Cotswold Hills, strolling through tranquil villages, driving lonely roads stopping to marvel at the views, and dropping in for a pub lunch.
Stratford is a 90-mile (145km) drive from London's Heathrow Airport. You can catch a coach from Heathrow to Warwick Parkway and then a taxi to Stratford (about 7 miles, 11km), or hop on the Tube and head to London's Marylebone train station and get the Chiltern Railways service (several per day) direct to Stratford. Another option is to fly into Birmingham Airport (via a European hub such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Copenhagen) and get to Stratford by train or taxi (about 30 miles, 48km).