A Local’s Guide to Shakespeare’s England

Stratford-Upon-Avon native Matthew Brace offers a local’s guide to the Bard’s backyard.

Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon is one of the most romantic parts of the UK, whether you are a fan of the Bard’s plays or not.

Stratford's traditional architecture
Stratford’s traditional architecture. Photo: Matthew Brace

As well as being steeped in history, architecture and the dramatic arts, the small town is also very picturesque. Wood-beamed, black-and-white buildings line the streets, many dating back to Shakespeare’s time. Swans glide gracefully along the Avon River past the theatres and Holy Trinity Church, where the playwright is buried.

In summer, the riverbank gardens are perfect for picnics, under the shade of weeping willow trees. In winter, the town’s welcoming pubs—some of them also dating from Elizabethan times—are cosy spots for a pint and some pub grub in front of a roaring fire.

If you’re planning a spring trip, try to be here for Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23. Every year 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.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage
Anne Hathaway’s cottage.

Regardless of the season, make time to visit one or two of the properties connected to Shakespeare. His birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (his wife’s family home) are the most obvious but New Place is worth a visit too. This is the site of the large house (long since demolished) that Shakespeare bought when he returned to Stratford after literary success in London. He may also have written some of his later plays here.

If you are staying longer, take a trip out of town to explore the beautiful nearby rural areas with their gentle landscapes and patchworks of fields. East is the vast and impressive Warwick Castle and south are the tranquil Cotswold Hills, one of the UK’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Here are my recommendations for couples visiting Shakespeare’s England:

1. Stratford architecture tour
The town is awash with well-preserved architecture. As well as the Shakespeare Properties  there are some lesser-known gems. One is Mason’s Court (next to the police station on Rother Street), which has twisted and buckled considerably since its construction around 1485. Others include the White Swan hotel on Rother Street, the Garrick pub and adjacent Harvard House on High Street, and the Indigo and Shakespeare hotels on 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.

Boat on river Statford UK
Photo: James Homans

3. Messing about on the river
Take a picnic and a bottle of wine, rent a rowing boat and head downstream past the theatre and the weeping willows of the gardens, towards the soaring spire of Holy Trinity Church. Find a quiet spot to tie off, eat, drink and laze on the riverbank.

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, on the 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 one of the cosiest, especially the front ‘snug’ bar)

Lower Slaughter. Photo: Ivy Barn

5. Day out in the Cotswolds
The Cotswold Hills 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, a village green and 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 back, 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
This area of the UK has many formal gardens. Two of the best are Charlecote Park and Kiftsgate. Charlecote includes a grand 16th Century house, ornate grounds, a delightful orangery and an extensive deer park. Kiftsgate is far less visited yet it’s a treat – a subtle, secret woodland garden, offering dramatic views over the surrounding Cotswold Hills.

Charlecote Park.
Charlecote Park. Photo: Colin Watts

Shakespeare Country – FACTFILE

The White Swan is the most characterful hotel in town. Parts of the building date back to 1450 and it was used as an inn from about 1560. It has a charming oak-beamed bar with cosy fires, good food and plenty of real ales. Email: WhiteSwanHotel@fullers.co.uk, tel: +44 (0) 1789 297022.

Two consistently good restaurants in town are Sorrento (Italian) on Ely Street (tel: +44 (0) 1789 297999) and The Vintner on Sheep Street (email: info@the-vintner.co.uk, tel: +44 (0) 1789 297259). For a cosy café, head for Box Brownie near Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street, and for great country pub food try The King’s Head in Bledington (Cotswolds), email: info@kingsheadinn.net, tel: +44 (0) 1608 658365.

• A play: Check out the Royal Shakespeare Company website to see what’s on at all the theatres when you plan to visit.
• The Shakespeare properties: the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust offers a range of passes to one or more of the five official Shakespeare properties.

Don’t Miss
Be sure to visit one 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
Lazing by the river with a picnic, or going further afield to the nearby Cotswold Hills to stroll through tranquil honey-stone villages, drive country roads, marvel at the pastoral views, and enjoy a traditional pub lunch.

Getting There
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 or 11km), or hop on the Tube and head to London’s Marylebone train station and get the Chiltern Railways service (several per day) to Stratford. Another option is to fly into Birmingham Airport (via a European hub such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Munich) and get to Stratford by train or taxi (about 30 miles or 48km).

More information: Shakespeare’s England is the official site for Stratford-Upon-Avon and its surrounding towns and villages. 

Related: Take a Highland Fling in Scotland’s Western Highlands.

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