Holly Cave explores the historic region of Stratford and Warwickshire, which celebrated the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, looking ahead to the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016. The charming town of Stratford-upon-Avon lies, as you would expect, not in East London, but along the banks of the River Avon, deep in the pastoral countryside of Warwickshire. Had it not been for the birth of one particular chap four-and-a- half centuries ago, this spot would never have been any more than a traditional English market town.

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Stratford-upon-Avon proves more than just a traditional English market town.

Instead, thanks to the achievements of William Shakespeare, born here in 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon draws in an incredible 4.9million visitors every year.

In the way football stadiums welcome legions of lifelong supporters, worshippers of the world’s most famous playwright flock to Stratford-upon-Avon for a glimpse into the life of an undisputed genius. And the town is only getting more popular. Over the last few years, there’s been a welcome boost to tourism investment in the area. New and returning visitors will now find a brand new open bus tour of the town, a sparkling Visitor Information Centre, and a fresh and official website.

THE PLAY’S THE THING

While you’re in town, why not book a ticket to see a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or Swan Theatre, adjoining venues which sit right on the banks of the Avon.

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Royal Shakespeare Theatre offers views over the River Avon and beyond.

The Swan Theatre is built onto the side of its larger neighbour, sitting in the foundations of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which was sadly destroyed by a fire in 1926. Both theatres opened in 2010 after a huge £112.8million investment, which transformed the existing structures and facilities, and linked them together by a new Colonnade. In addition, a new public outdoor area called Weston Square connects the theatres with the old medieval town to the west, and an idyllic riverside walk leads from Bancroft Gardens towards Holy Trinity Church.

This winter, the Royal Shakespeare Company are putting on performances of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won (otherwise known as Much Ado About Nothing), alongside a number of other wonderful plays written by more modern playwrights. Both theatres are open daily from 0900hrs and 1000hrs on a Sunday. Even if you’re not planning to watch a performance, this is actually a rather good place to kick off a trip to the town – to get a sense of your bearings from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s tall viewing tower. Lifts and stairs lead up to its glassed viewing platform, which showcases views across the town, up the Avon and over the Welcombe Hills.

In addition to a knowledgeable guide giving you some historical insight, you’ll also get a handy map that points out all the landmarks. Elsewhere in the building, there are free temporary exhibitions which feature props, photographs and costumes from renowned Royal Shakespeare Company plays. The Rooftop Restaurant and Bar is a pleasant place to stop for refreshments, with views stretching out over the river and the fields beyond. Theatre tours are also fascinating, with insider guides revealing the secrets of special effects, costume-making and the merits of method acting.

Group discounts are available for tours and weekday performances at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Packages including a behind-the-scenes tour and cream tea start from £11.25 per person. Contact the Royal Shakespeare Company directly for more information.

THOSE WHO RUSH STUMBLE AND FALL

Follow the Bard’s own advice and take your time to enjoy the area as you explore.

There are enough Shakespeare themed attractions in town to keep you busy for a few days or more, but the key sites for “Bardolatry” are the theatres, the church where he was baptised and buried, and the five Shakespeare Houses – Anne Hathaway’s Cottage & Gardens, Hall’s Croft, Harvard House, Mary Arden’s Farm and Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

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Anne Hathaway’s Cottage & Gardens is one of five Shakespeare houses.

William Shakespeare was born in a house on Henley Street, which is now open to paying visitors. Shakespeare’s birthplace was the house in which he spent his childhood. He also lived here for the first five years of his married life with Anne Hathaway. The attraction hosts live performances daily amidst extravagant displays and gardens. The current exhibition, Famous Beyond Words, opened in March 2014 and showcases memorabilia, artwork and a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Holy Trinity Church was the building in which a young William Shakespeare was baptised, and where his remains are now interred. The exterior of this ancient place of worship has hardly changed since Shakespeare’s day. Visitors can peek at his gravestone in the Chancel, where several members of his family have been buried alongside him. A bust of the playwright can also be seen in the Church and is said to be a good likeness, given that it was commissioned while his wife, Anne, was still alive. Please note that the Church is closed to non-worshippers on Sunday mornings, Mondays from 1615hrs to 1730hrs and on Tuesdays from 0945hrs until 1115hrs.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage & Gardens was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife. This thatched farmhouse has gorgeous gardens, which are filled with blooms throughout summer. Walk through each room; recreated to mimic what it would have been like during Anne’s time here.

SBT Adult Groups © Amy Murrell 2012-6

Stratford-upon-Avon draws 4.9million visitors every year. AMY MURRELL

The house where Shakespeare’s mother grew up is also open to the public, and provides an informative insight into the Tudor way of life. Mary Arden’s Farm is a more “hands-on” attraction with falconry displays, farming activities and nature trails. This site is only open from March until November. Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, lived with her wealthy husband at Halls Croft.

Evidence of William Shakespeare is more tenuous here, but the grand house is a fascinating place to explore how the rich would have lived in the 1600s. The man of the house (and Susanna’s husband) John Hall was a doctor. The public rooms feature many of his strange medical “remedies” and the walled garden is planted with herbs and plants he may have used previously on his patients. New Place and Nash’s House – the Bard’s last home and the place of his death – is currently closed for restoration. It will open as a brand new visitor attraction in spring 2016, just in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Until then, perhaps call in at Harvard House. Located a little further down the High Street, this beautiful Elizabethan building was built by Thomas Rogers in 1596. Rogers’ grandson, John Harvard, was a preacher and teacher who immigrated to New England. Thanks to his bequeath of 230 books and £750 (worth around £3million today), his name is now associated with the oldest academic institution in the United States, Harvard University.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust manages all these attractions on a charitable basis. Groups of 15 or more benefit from great discounted rates at all the attractions, especially if tickets are booked more than two weeks in advance. Around the time GTW went to press, group entrance to all five houses booked and paid for this far in advance come in at £16.90 per person – a whopping 25% discount. Concessions and child rates are also available, and tickets can be booked for individual attractions. There’s also free admission awarded to coach drivers and group leaders. Detailed information regarding opening hours is available for each house on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s website at www.shakespeare.org.uk. Get in touch with the Groups Team on 01789 201806 to book and discuss options, such as special talks, exclusive tours and evening entertainment.

IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE, PLAY ON

2014 marked 450 years since William Shakespeare was born. Much celebration has taken place to commemorate the occasion with special exhibitions, fireworks, processions, and additional one-off events helping to make this one of the most popular years to visit.

The Carter Company even launched a new cycling tour, dubbed Shakespeare’s Way, which marks the route between The Globe Theatre in London, where most of his plays were performed, and travelling back to Stratford, passing along the River Thames and through the Chilterns.

William Shakespeare passed away on his birthday – April 23, 1616, at the ripe age of 52 – which means that 2016 will be another excuse to celebrate the life and times of this great man. It seems a shame to drop the pace in 2015, so expect the upcoming calendar year to be jam-packed too.

Every April, a series of annual events celebrate the life and death of the Bard. The Shakespeare Marathon and Half Marathon sees competitors racing through the streets at the end of the month, and the Stratford Arts House (formerly the Civic Hall) vibrates with the sounds of musical concerts performed in the playwright’s memory. Stratford remains a centre for writing, the arts, and those of a literary leaning. The Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival comes to town on April 25, in what will be its eighth year. Events run through to May 3, including a wide range of compelling talks and workshops from well-known actors, authors and playwrights. The Orchestra of the Swan will continue in their series of Discovery Concerts, set to pull in visitors at the Arts House.

ELSEWHERE ABOUT TOWN

Even without Shakespeare, the town could still draw in the crowds. It’s a pretty little place, surrounded by chocolate box villages and a grand sweeping countryside.

Thanks in part to the tourist board; lots of traditional Tudor buildings have been kept in one piece. The little almshouses on Church Street, possessing many of their original architectural features, are well worth wandering past. The Ely Street Antiques Emporium is an interesting spot for seeking out quirky ornaments and fashions. There are some great pubs around, too. Wrap up your visit by stopping in at the Dirty Duck Pub – which was a renowned drinking den during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Make a toast to the Bard with a tipple of your choosing. For a fantastic overview of the town, many groups might like to take a canal and river tour on the wide beam barge, Jennifer May.

Groups can enjoy discounted rates on a 45-minute tour from the centre of town through to the historic canal lock and down the River Avon. Drivers and tour guides receive complimentary tickets and refreshment vouchers. The Stratford Walking Tour Company offers outstanding guided walks and coach tours. Contact them on 07855 760377 to discuss requirements and to find out more about special local discounts. For a slightly different experience, Tudor World is an award-winning museum located in the heart of Stratford, housed within a Grade 2 listed historic building, where visitors can experience Tudor England in an educational, accessible and atmospheric way.

Stratford is well equipped to cater for coach parties and has a number of coach parking facilities available. There are coach drop off points at Windsor Street (Shakespeare’s Birthplace), which is three minutes from the town centre, and the Riverside Coach Park, which is approximately five minutes’ walk from the town centre. For further information visit www.shakespeares-england.co.uk

FURTHER AFIELD
While you’re nearby, why not consider visiting Warwick Castle? Located just ten miles away, this 1,100 year old motte-and-bailey castle is one of Britain’s best.

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Warwick Castle. VISITENGLAND/JAMES KERR

A visit to the castle wouldn’t be complete without observing the summer jousting tournaments, watching the magnificent birds of prey in action, or gazing in amazement as the world’s largest trebuchet launches a fireball. Groups of 10 or more receive up to 40% off entry prices, with special 45-minute tours through the Gate House, Barbican, State Rooms and Great Hall available for £5 per person. A similar distance from Stratford is the fairytale ruins of Kenilworth Castle, the sublime setting for the love story between Queen Elizabeth I and Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Make use of the complimentary audio tour to explore its extraordinary Elizabethan gardens, featuring magnificent carved arbours, a bejewelled aviary, and an 18-foot-high fountain carved from Carrara marble. English Heritage owns the site, and they offer a 15% discount for groups of 11 or more paying visitors, as well as offering free entry for coach drivers and tour leaders.