Sue Parslow spent two days soaking up the atmosphere in historic Warwickshire
Stratford-upon-Avon will be buzzing with activity in 2016 in honour of the 400th-anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Top of your ‘must visit’ list should be New Place, which re-opens to the public late spring as a new incarnation.
The site on Chapel Street has for many years been a garden beloved of locals and visitors alike. This is where Shakespeare’s last home stood – the house he purchased when he returned to the town and where he penned 26 plays.
I was lucky enough to meet Nic Fulcher, Interpretation Manager at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to learn more about this hugely ambitious and incredibly creative project. Nic explained this project would be the single most significant Shakespearian project anywhere in the world to commemorate 400 years of Shakespeare’s legacy and the anniversary of his death in 1616. The cost of the project is £5.25-million.
Described in Shakespeare’s will as “the newe place wherein I nowe dwell”, New Place has attracted literary fans since the 17th-century. Sadly the house, which at the time was the largest single residence in the town, was demolished in 1759 by its then owner who was reputedly annoyed by visiting Shakespeare enthusiasts.
With much of its heritage hidden below ground or in the extensive archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, it has been difficult to get a real sense of the site’s significance and history. Visitors will be able to walk in Shakespeare’s footsteps through a new entrance on the footprint of the original gatehouse. A contemporary landscape treatment will echo the known footprint of the original Shakespeare family house, giving an impression of its scale and its relationship to the surrounding buildings.
On display will be a silver galleon and a globe representing the world as Shakespeare knew it. The centrepiece marking the heart of the home will be a large sculpture - His Mind’s Eye - representing the power of Shakespeare’s imagination and his enduring influence. Pennants will represent Shakespeare’s plays and ribbons embedded in the ground will represent the sonnets.
A new exhibition centre in neighbouring Nash’s house will display rare and important artefacts relating to Shakespeare’s life at New Place, many of them on show for the first time. For more information on the five Shakespeare Houses, including New Place, visit www.shakespeare.org.uk or www.shakespeareliveshere.co.uk.
I began my day in Stratford by hopping aboard the open-top City Sightseeing tours bus (www.citysightseeing-stratford.com) at the Tourist Information office.
The bus wound its way through the town, passing the house that was William Shakespeare’s birthplace and The Shakespeare Centre, past the market place, the Guild Chapel, King Edward Grammar School, the RSC Theatre and other key spots in the town before heading out into the countryside, first to the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife (Anne Hathaway’s Cottage), then to the family home of his mother (Mary Arden’s Farm and Countryside Museum), then back into the town via the Maybird Shopping Centre. There are 11 stops and you can jump on and off as often as you like as you explore the various attractions.
The recorded commentary was really informative and at times amusing too. It’s definitely the best way to access the out-of-town locations while learning about local history and the significance of the attractions as you go.
An alterative or addition to the open top bus tour is the award-winning Stratford Town Walk, which runs daily (www.stratfordtownwalk.co.uk).
To absorb the atmosphere of Stratford at a gentle pace, boat cruises are a nice option. Bancroft Cruises are based alongside the Holiday Inn and offer a 45-minute river cruise with live commentary. They run all year round and you can choose from a wide-beam open cruiser or heated modern cruiser. Groups are welcomed to charter a trip — they offer exclusive traditional cream tea charters for groups of up to 36 people (www.bancroftcruisers.co.uk).
The Shakespeare Centre is a good place to start your journey with the Bard. You can buy tickets for all of the houses here. It is also the gateway to Shakespeare’s birthplace via a multimedia collage of his life.
Mad But Fun
The MAD (Mechanical Art & Design) Museum (www.themadmuseum.co.uk) in Henley Street is well worth a visit. You can lose yourself in a world of moving oddities. Adults and children alike will be fascinated to watch balls (and other objects) being transported around frameworks of pulleys or in one case, kitchen objects - that could only have been created by ‘mad’ geniuses.
There’s a mixture of fun and thought provoking exhibits at a standstill until the visitor presses a button. Carved wood or metal is used to create unique kinetic sculptures. When I visited there was an exhibition of humorous prints by the illustrator famous for his eccentric inventions, W. Heath Robinson.
Children are given the chance to create their own moving sculptures. In fact, it was as much fun to watch youngsters’ reactions to exhibits as observing the objects myself.
Helpful staff are on hand to answer questions and keep an eye on proceedings and you finish your tour in the gift shop selling various toys and self-build kits.
Enjoy A Play
A real must if you are staying in Stratford is a visit to the theatre. I enjoyed an RSC production of Love is Love by William Congreve in the Swan Theatre.
Check out the RSC Theatre’s programme of events for 2016 and be sure to plan ahead to see your play of choice. Group packages are available for groups of 20 or more and the theatre offers opportunities to book morning coffee, afternoon tea, theatre tours and trips up the viewing tower (www.rsc.org.uk).
The Riverside Coach Park is five minutes’ walk from the town centre.
Heading out of Stratford, the towns of Warwick and Leamington Spa offer lots to interest a visitor. I called in at remarkable Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick and was amazed at how beautifully preserved this medieval timbered building was.
A joy for history lovers and photographers alike, the Lord Leycester Hospital (the word ‘hospital’ is used in its original sense, meaning ‘a charitable institution for housing the poor’) is home to ex-servicemen and their wives, but visitors can admire the buildings and take a peek at the pristinely kept garden.
You cannot miss the yellow and timber buildings as they sit at one end of the High Street beside the Norman gateway into the town, with a 12th-century chapel perched above it. The building itself is steeped in history and houses The Regimental Museum of the Queen’s Own Hussars.
Discounts are available for groups of 12 or more and guided tours can be arranged — call 01926 491 422 or visit www.lordleycester.com.
I enjoyed a pot of tea and a teacake in The Brethren Kitchen tearoom, which overlooks the magnificent galleried courtyard. You can admire a couple of intriguing artefacts while you enjoy your lunch or slice of cake. Your payment goes towards the upkeep of the building.
A major attraction in Warwick is Warwick Castle, which has events all year round. There are a number of good deals (up to 40% off) and exciting packages for groups - call 0871 222 6688 or visit www.warwick-castle.com.
Why not also combine your visit with an afternoon at the races at Warwick Racecourse, which stages horse races throughout the year, offering group discounts with rates for more than 10 and more than 20 people (www.warwick.thejockeyclub.co.uk, ticket hotline 03445 793 013).
The coach drop-off point in the town centre is next to the main bus station and in the main car park, St Nicholas Park.
Royal Leamington Spa
I completed my visit to Warwickshire by taking a wander around Royal Leamington Spa, a town famous for it’s creamy white Regency-style buildings, stylish shops and it’s historic spa.
For more about the latter, visit the Royal Pump Rooms on The Parade and learn about the therapeutic spa waters that attracted visitors to the town in the past. The building (formerly a hydrotherapy spa) houses a local museum and an art gallery, along with a café that looks out across the road to the Jephson gardens.
Entrance is free (www.warwickdc.gov.uk). Pick up a leaflet for a self-guided trail of the Old Town at the Pump Rooms.
Jephson Gardens is a formal Victorian park ideal for a quiet stroll away from the hustle and bustle. It was named after the doctor who promoted the medicinal powers of the local waters and forms part of the Spa Gardens, a ribbon of riverside parks that are Grade-II listed. Here, you’ll find a glasshouse with tropical plants, goldfish pond and observation beehive, a collection of sculptures including a rhino, plus around 140 species of native and non-native trees. The Aviary Café serves refreshments in a Victorian pavilion building.
Close by is the Royal Spa Centre with an events programme featuring touring stage shows, music events, ballet, stand-up comedians and more (www.royal-leamington-spa.co.uk).
If you fancy a bit of retail therapy, you’ll find plenty of independent shops as well as the big names in Leamington Spa’s smart shopping streets and arcades. The coach drop-off point is alongside Jephson Gardens by Newbold Terrace.
With thanks to the Holiday Inn for providing bed and board at their riverside hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I enjoyed a delicious evening meal before dashing off to the theatre. The hotel provides an excellent base for a few days in Warwick, being centrally placed with ample parking. It is coach-friendly and is ideal for group visits (www.holidayinn.com/stratford).
You can find everything you need to know about planning a visit to Warwickshire at the official tourist website - www.shakespeares-england.co.uk.