An exclusive guide of things to do in Stratford-upon-Avon for a Shakespearean weekend
Shakespeare’s jester, Touchstone – a bronze statue of the character from his play “As You Like It,” is the trailhead of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Historic Spine. It’s a half mile walk past half-timbered houses that are heaving with magnificent Gothic and Renaissance architecture – along with landmarks dedicated to the world’s greatest writer, William Shakespeare.
Beyond the Historic Spine that links Shakespeare’s home to his grave, there’s a plethora of theatres, pubs and many other things to do in Stratford-upon-Avon. With its rolling Avon River, friendly locals, quintessential medieval market-town vibe and the indelible spirit of the world’s most famous playwright that lingers on every corner and laneway, I discovered – in the words of the great bard – that “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.” Here are my favourite things to do around the town:
River Avon: Enjoy activities by the water
“He that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail” (Romeo and Juliet)
Aside from Shakespeare, the River Avon is the biggest draw for visitors to Stratford. Centrally located near the Royal Shakespeare Theater is Bancroft Garden, a riverside park replete with trees and shrubs that offer fresh bloom or vibrant shades throughout the year. Floating food vendors line along its canal – like the Barge and Quarter Deck, a traditional Dutch vessel that offers pizza from a wood fired oven and cool craft beer for those who want to stay close to shore.
For the more adventurous – there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the River Avon. Close to Clopton Bridge is a boat house where visitors can hire a small vessel – each one named after a Shakespearean character – to explore the riverbank or row upstream to picnic in a meadow.
Alternatively, there are short boat cruises to capture sights from Alveston Village to Holy Trinity Church in the mind’s eye or by camera while on board. The Countess of Evesham, a restaurant inside a 70-foot barge, glides downstream past three locks to the old village of Luddington for those in search of a slower pace.
Family-friendly: Create a fun itinerary for all ages
“It is a wise father that knows his own child” (The Merchant of Venice)
Pop up theater and matinees offer a fully interactive Shakespearean experience for children – but Stratford-upon-Avon offers more to families than sinister characters, sword fighting and swooning hearts. The Magic Ally in Bell Court Shopping Mall is for your very own junior Prospero (the wizard from ‘The Tempest’) -it’s an enchanting interactive studio and store crammed with riddles, books and spells.
Alternatively, head to the MAD (Mechanical Art and Design) Museum to add a little science to the fun – by constructing gravity driven marbled runs or harnessing energy to ignite panels. It’s the only permanent museum of this nature in England and right in Shakespeare’s ‘hood on Henley Street.
Children can set free flying mechanical birds free at MAD – or can walk towards the canal to see another, real life winged species. The Butterfly Farm is the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom – with thousands of the kaleidoscopic shaded critters fluttering and swooping by – along with the resident bird eating tarantula and other wee beasties.
History: Navigate across Stratford-upon-Avon's past
“There was a star danced, and under that was I born” (Much Ado About Nothing)
Let’s face it – most visitors, me included, come to Stratford-upon-Avon for one thing: to follow the footsteps of Shakespeare from the cradle to the grave. As an introduction to the town’s architectural history, The Stratford Guild Chapel in conjunction with the University of York has introduced the world to The Clopton Trail, its online medieval guide to Stratford. An actor playing an apprentice painter named Kit gives the backstory to Hugh Clopton who constructed many of the town’s historical landmarks.
In real-time, it’s the 15 minute walk between Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street and his final resting place at Holy Trinity Church via the splendid Royal Shakespearean Theater and his school, that gets most of the footfall in search of the town’s literary past. Behind the half-timber, honey rendered façade of Shakespeare’s Home is a detailed Tudor interior where characters come to life and exhibitions recount details of one of the architects of the modern day English language.
Leafy Holy Trinity Church – on the banks of the Avon – has local guides on hand to give hushed information about the bard’s life and his simple grave. His carved words “blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones” into his slab at the foot of the chancel steps leave little doubt that he wanted Holy Trinity Church to be his eternal resting place.
Nighlife: Spend the night out with merriment and ale
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (Twelfth Night)
Don’t let Stratford’s estemed history stand in your way of a good night on the town. Long before the bard quilled his first sonnet, the 15th century Old Thatch Tavern on Greenhill Street offered ale and sustenance to the good local folks. It’s touted as the oldest place in town and its cavernous interior with low-hanging timber beams certainly bear all the hallmarks of Tudor England. Linger till late in the courtyard for fine ale and locally sourced food.
For something a little stronger, head to the northwestern edge of town to Shakespeare’s Distillery. Set in Drayton Manor Farm – with gin and whisky on tap – visitors can take a tour or cocktail class at the only working distillery in Stratford. For spirits of a different nature, make your way down to Sheep’s Street on a Saturday night for a Ghost Walk. A professional actor will escort you through centuries of spooky specters and paranormal vibes around the twists and turns of this market’s town’s streetscape.
Shakespeare's County: Explore the beauty of the region
“There Is a World Elsewhere” (Coriolanus)
Warwickshire, home county of Shakespeare, rugby, atmospheric landscapes and cathedral spires – offers visitors miles of hilly pastures with hstoric ruins. Just outside Stratford-Upon-Avon is the glorious Anne Hathaway Cottage – the family home of Shakespeare’s wife (and nothing to do with “The Devil Wears Prada” actress.) The gardens have a Shakespearean sculpted trail and the cottage gives a good insight to an impressive, medieval working farmhouse.
Close to the lush meadows around Welcombe Hills is Charlecote Manor, a large country-house with exquisite detailing such as a double barrel ceiling and vast grounds with roaming deer. It’s where Shakespeare was partial to a little poaching from the Lucy family – and some say, he paid the price. Wilmcote – about 10-minutes’ drive in the Warwickshire countryside from Stratford-Upon-Avon – is home to Mary Arden’s House, a living 17th century farm that was once home to Shakespeare’s mother.
Warwickshire produced more that one literary giant over the centuries – drive 30 miles to pretty Nuneaton in the heart of England to discover the birthplace of “Middlemarch” and “Silas Marner” novelist, Mary Ann Evans (or George Eliot.) Her statue takes pride of place in town and the location inspired many settings in her books.
Hero image by Sara Beaumont Photography