Shakespeare Country Guide

The area around Stratford upon Avon in the UK is known as Shakespeare Country and it oozes history. You’ll find lovely historic buildings, beautiful scenery and of course the world renowned Royal Shakespeare Company on a city break here.  These are our recommendations of what to see…

WHAT TO DO IN SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY

Stratford Upon Avon River Scene

The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre (RSC) – This theatre complex, alongside the river, dominates the centre Stratford upon Avon. It was totally remodelled a few years ago and is now an clever mix of old and new buildings. There’s a huge look-out tower with views over Stratford and a nice park area to enjoy in front of the theatre. Of course the best thing to do in this complex is watch some Shakespeare and we can thoroughly recommend performances here. Don’t worry if you find Shakespeare difficult to follow, because the acting and the staging really bring the stories to life. Make sure you book well in advance of your trip though, or you may be disappointed. If you haven’t got time to see a play, you can still explore the building.  It’s open to the public and with the exception of the tower, it’s free to enter. Inside you’ll find cafes, a restaurant, seating areas, a shop, and the original 1930s art deco foyer.  Look out for the old silver box office frontage which is still in place…but can be moved up and down to allow better access to the theatre.
The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre: More info, pics, links & map…

Stratford Shakespeares Birthplace Front (www.free-city-guides.com)

Shakespeare’s Birthplace – You’ll find this beautiful building right in centre of Stratford upon Avon. Shakespeare was born here in 1564 and was the son of a glove maker.  Entry to the birthplace is through the more modern exhibition building next door.  The birthplace is quite small and it’s normal to find queues to get in at peak times, but it’s worth it.  We’ve visited in both high season and low season and it’s fair to say that your visit will be enhanced by aiming for off-peak times of the year, or just off-peak times of the day! Make sure you spend a bit of time in the garden here. We’d recommend that you walk right to the bottom near the metal gates to get the full view of how attractive the garden is when pictured with the house. The birthplace is one of 5 buildings with Shakespeare connections in and around Stratford. The others are listed below.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace: Read more, ticket prices, pics, links & map…

Stratford Anne Hathaways Cottage wide (www.free-city-guides.com)

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – This is our favourite Shakespeare property even though he never actually lived here. Think of the most beautiful “chocolate-box” thatched cottage that you can, and it still wouldn’t be a patch on this one! This was the family home of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway and he would have visited the cottage when he was ‘courting’ her. We love this building partly because of its beauty, but also because of its character with the retention of so many original features. The house is laid out as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time complete with beds upstairs and cooking implements downstairs.  The gardens here are superb and on top of that you can spend time in the orchard or in the new woodland walk which we really enjoyed.  Anne Hathaway’s cottage is located in the picturesque hamlet of Shottery, a short drive from Stratford Upon Avon. If you don’t have a car, you can use the Hop-on, Hop-off Bus Tour to get there.  Walking takes around 30 minutes.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage: Read more, prices, hours, pics & map…

Stratford Mary Ardens Farm Palmer house

Mary Arden’s Farm – This was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, and is your opportunity to experience a real Tudor farm. Costumed residents are on hand to help you get a feel for the place, along with pigs, goats, sheep and cattle. The farm complex includes Mary Arden’s house, many barns and outbuildings and the farmhouse of the Palmer family.  During the year there are many organised activities and displays. For instance, at weekends there’s a birds of prey demonstration and you’ll also find Tudor entertainment from time to time.  We enjoyed the extra dimension that the farm adds to the collection of properties connected with Shakespeare.  It’s the one that young children will get the most out of, but it’s certainly not just for families. The farm is the village of Wilmcote, a short drive from Stratford. The Hop-on, Hop-off Bus Tour also stops here. The farm is closed in the winter.
Mary Arden’s Farm: Read more, pictures, tickets & map…

Stratford upon Avon Halls Croft rear garden (www.free-city-guides.com)

Hall’s Croft – Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, Susanna, married the town doctor, John Hall and lived in this house near the church in the centre of Stratford. The house is preserved with luxurious rooms, befitting of a man of his status. We thought this house was absolutely charming. It’s very attractive, interesting to wander round and the formal garden is beautiful.  Inside the house, there are some medical artefacts and an edition of Dr John Hall’s medical notes from 1657. Whilst this is a great example of a house of its period, we felt it was the house which has the least connection with Shakespeare himself, but it’s still well worth visiting.
Hall’s Croft: Full review, admission prices, pictures & map…

Stratford New Place Public Garden flowers (www.free-city-guides.com)

The stunning public gardens of New Place

Nash’s House and New Place – It’s shocking to think that anyone would be able to simply knock down a huge part of the Shakespeare life story in Stratford, but it happened.  The house that Shakespeare bought, lived in with his family and then died in was first knocked down and rebuilt in around 1700 and then totally demolished and turned into a garden in around 1759.  Original plans for “New Place” do thankfully still exist and in recent years an archaeological exploration has unearthed original foundations and walls.  When we last visited, you could still see the ‘dig’ in action.  New Place is accessed through Nash’s House next door which was lived in by Shakespeare’s grand daughter during her marriage to Thomas Nash. The gardens of New Place are another attraction and when archaeological digs are not taking place, access to the larger part of the garden is free.  Our visit to the property lasted around 25 minutes, most of which was spent sitting in the garden, admiring the plants and sculptures!  Nash’s House and New Place are on Chapel Street in the centre of Stratford.
Nash’s House and New Place: Full review, prices, pictures & map…

Stratford upon Avon Shakespeares Grave sign (www.free-city-guides.com)

Shakespeare’s Grave – Whilst there is some argument over which church Shakespeare got married in, there’s absolutely no doubt about where he is buried. You’ll find his tomb marked by a gravestone within Holy Trinity Church in the centre of Stratford alongside other members of his family. The church is a traditional English design and it’s free to enter and have a look around. The altar section where Shakespeare’s grave is located though does have an suggested donation charge. Apart from the grave, there’s an extra memorial to Shakespeare in the bust which is a featured on the wall. Away from the grave, spend a bit of time looking at the stained glass windows and the impressive organ pipes in the church which we thought were particularly striking.
Shakespeare’s Grave: Read more, pictures & map..

Stratford Upon Avon River Rowing Boats (www.free-city-guides.com)

The River Avon – One of the unmissable features of the centre of Stratford is the river. You’ll find lots of boats trips depart from opposite Cox’s Yard and they last around half an hour. Alternatively, walk down the river path on the opposite side to the RSC. After a while you’ll come to an interesting lock and eventually, a weir. You can also hire rowing boats to spend some time on the Avon. We’d also recommend that you experience the river by taking the historic chain ferry from one side to the other.  The ferry takes you from the rear of the RSC to the opposite river bank and the journey costs 50p (2011 prices).
River Avon at Stratford: Read more, boat trips, pics & map…

Stratford upon Avon Market (www.free-city-guides.com)

The busy market in Stratford upon Avon

Explore Stratford – You’ll find all the shops and restaurants you’d expect along the main streets of Stratford upon Avon, but it’s worth spending some time just walking down the less busy streets too. You’ll find attractive Tudor buildings, pretty cottages, lovely pubs and a busy market selling quality produce. In particular look out for the Black Swan pub, known as the Dirty Duck by actors, which has a long tradition of thespian drinkers.
Explore Stratford: Read more, location list, pictures & map…

Warwick Mill Street wide (www.free-city-guides.com)

Historic Warwick – Around 20 minutes from Stratford is the picture postcard town of Warwick. The main attraction here is the castle (see below) but the town itself is certainly worth spending some time in. The streets are lined with attractive historic buildings and the shopping centre has quaint tea rooms and cafes. You’ll also find the Warwickshire Museum in the Market Hall.
Historic Warwick: Read more, pictures, attractions & map..

Warwick Castle combat display (www.free-city-guides.com)

Warwick Castle – This is one of England’s best preserved castles and it now has a big budget “theme park” feel to it. The building itself is the star here, from entering the historic rooms, to walking the walls, you feel like you’re either on a movie set or part of the history of the place. In addition though, a lot of money has been spent on entertainment ranging from trebuchet demonstrations to hand to hand combat. Our kids particularly enjoyed the birds of prey demonstration which takes place in a ringed area within the grounds. The price to enter does seem steep, but there’s loads to see and do once inside and it would be easy to spend a whole day here.
Warwick Castle: Attractions, discount tickets, pictures & map…

Stratford Charlecote Park tower (www.free-city-guides.com)

Charlecote Park – This attractive stately home between Stratford and Warwick was once visited by Elizabeth the 1st. The owners built a special gatehouse in her honour which still stands today! You’ll get to see inside many of the official rooms like the dining room, library and entrance hall. Also on display are the rooms used by Elizabeth the 1st. It’s also claimed that a young William Shakespeare was caught poaching here. The house and gardens are now run by the National Trust and they’re well worth a visit. We thought the house was peaceful, yet beautiful and the small gardens at the rear alongside the river are great to sit in and watch the world go by.
Charlecote Park: More info, ticket prices, hours, pics & map.

Kenilworth Castle ruins (www.free-city-guides.com)

Kenilworth Castle – This is the former home of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, whose love affair with Queen Elizabeth 1st is widely documented. The Queen visited the castle a number of times, but most notably in 1575 when Dudley created a garden for her which has now been was re-created in 2009 (pictured above). Today much of the castle stands in ruins with the exception of the attractive gatehouse, which has been furnished in keeping with the time and the stables which are now the visitor’s centre.
Kenilworth Castle: Full review, opening times, pictures & map…

OUR TOP TIP IN SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY

Stratford RSC Theatre Tour Spiral Stairway (www.free-city-guides.com)

The RSC Theatre Tour – Not everyone realises that this tour exists and since the re-modelling of the theatre complex, it’s taken on extra significance. This is a fascinating way to see how the old has been melded with the new in the RSC theatre. You’ll see the original walls from the art deco building inside the new structure. The tour also takes you “behind-the-scenes” to wardrobe, the lighting booths and the audio description room. You sit in both theatres, see where the production director controls the show and get a feel for how precise the timings in an RSC production have to be. We liked this tour because it was a combination of an architectural tour and a traditional theatre tour. Our guide was fascinating and was able to answer pretty much anything that was asked of him.  We would have liked to have seen even more of the non-public areas of the theatre complex and it would have been great to stand on the stage, but all in all it was a great insight into the building and the performances that are created inside.
RSC Theatre Tour: Full review, tour prices, tour times & pictures…

RECOMMENDED HOTELS

Stratford Ettington Chase front (www.free-city-guides.com)

Ettington Chase Hotel

On our last visit to Shakespeare country, we stayed in two hotels and we’d thoroughly recommend them both.  The Ettington Chase hotel is located in the beautiful Warwickshire countryside a short drive from Stratford.  The original historic building has been extended to provide all the features you’d expect in a country hotel including a pool, wedding and conference facilities.  We stayed in the older part of the building and the quality of the room was exceptional – certainly one of the plushest hotel rooms we’ve ever stayed in!  We thought the service in the hotel from the staff we encountered was first class too, and the breakfast buffet offered plenty of nicely cooked food that was refreshed regularly.

Warwick Hilton room (www.free-city-guides.com)

Hilton Warwick

The other hotel we stayed in on our most recent visit was the Hilton, located between Warwick and Stratford, just off the M40.  This is a modern hotel with a pool and again the service we received from the staff was excellent.  We had a ‘club’ room which was huge, complete with a sofa and plush Hilton bath robes!  We had breakfast and dinner included in our stay and both were delicious.  Whilst the hotel location is actually closer to Warwick, Stratford is still only a 10 minute journey and we found it ideally located if you want to visit more of Shakespeare country.

GETTING AROUND SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY

The nearest main airport to Shakespeare Country is Birmingham Airport.  If you’re not hiring a car, the easiest way to get to Stratford is by rail, taking the train from the airport station (Birmingham International) to Birmingham New Street and then to Stratford upon Avon. You’ll find Stratford railway station is just a short walk from the town centre.  If you have access to a car, you’ll find there is plenty of parking in Stratford, although it can be very busy at peak holiday times.  A car is certainly the best way to get around the rest of Shakespeare Country, to see locations like Warwick, Kenilworth and Henley in Arden.  However, if you’re only interested in the main sights, the City Sightseeing hop-on hop-off bus tour is a great way to get around.  It calls in at all the Shakespeare properties and we found it very informative and entertaining.

MORE ON SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY

Shakespeare Country – Official website with accommodation, special offers and more information.  Alternatively call +44 (0)1926 471 329
Hotels in Stratford-upon-Avon – Best prices from Hotels.com
Warwick Hotels – From Hotels.com
Warwick Hilton – Where we stayed – it’s a lovely hotel
Stratford Hop-on, Hop-off Bus Tour – From City Sightseeing
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – Discount admission to the Shakespeare properties
Stratford Upon Avon Guide Books – Amazon.co.uk (UK)
Stratford Upon Avon Guide Books – Amazon.com (US & Canada)