This is post is dedicated to the many places that you can learn about William Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon!
Experiencing Shakespeare in Stratford Upon Avon
That’s a bit of a misleading title. Trying to find evidence that, yes, Stratford is the hometown of William Shakespeare is about as difficult as finding a winery in Tuscany. What I actually mean by that is I’m going to take you on a blog-post tour of the many different places that you can encounter Shakespeare in Stratford Upon Avon. Hold on tight.
I’ve spent far too many hours of my life binge-watching BBC productions. I can’t tell you anything about 95% of the shows on American TV, but if you need a quote from Downton Abbey, I got you. Keeping Up Appearances? Mom and I watched that every Saturday night growing up. And I feel like beating my car with a tree ala Basil Fawlty every time my car makes some new, alarming noise.
So why it has taken me a year to actually write anything about the 10 days my family and I got to spend in England is beyond me. But, here I am, remedying that now.
But before we get too far, I should point out that if you read about this village online, it has a number of variations on its name: Stratford Upon Avon (no hyphens, all capital letters), Stratford-upon-avon (hyphens and mostly lowercase), Stratford-upon-Avon (hyphens and indecisive about the lowercase), or just plain Stratford (for the lazy). I’m going to use several of these versions (because why should I be the one to decide which is best?), so just know that, at least in this post, they are all talking about the same town.
To Visit or Not to Visit?
I fully expected Stratford to be exactly the type of town I don’t like – a mecca for tourists. I envisioned streets filled with Shakespeare groupies, spouting off random lines from Henry V on every street corner. Or worse, throngs of those whose Shakespeare knowledge only extended to that one time their teacher forced them to read Romeo and Juliet in high school.
Love his plays or hate them, the world knows Shakespeare. Therefore, most of the world knows Stratford Upon Avon, as the site of his birth, his death, his grave, and a lot of his life (and that of his family members’) in between. And since it’s only 2 hours from London, it’s an easy day trip for tourists visiting one of the world’s busiest cities. Finding Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon would be difficult only because of the hordes of other tourists.
But Stratford turned out to be a surprise. Of the places in England we visited on our trip, it was one of my favorites. It may see thousands of visitors every year, but Stratford feels like a small English town. Somehow, it has retained it’s quintessentially British identity, unlike London. The buildings have maintained their Elizabethan-era facades, with the exposed timber posts and white paneling in between.
Leave the main streets and you’re immediately in a quiet, residential part of England, with private cottages and well-kept English gardens, and locals out walking their dogs and running errands.
So if you’ve avoided Stratford out of fear of it being a tourist trap, don’t put it off any longer. If you are even slightly interested in Shakespeare’s life, a trip to learn more about Shakespeare in Stratford Upon Avon would be well worth your time.
In this one town, you can visit the place where he was born, where he lived with his family, other miscellaneous homes owned by extended family members, and his gravesite. If you want to hit it all in one day, you can. We visited the majority of the sites connected to Shakespeare in Stratford Upon Avon in just a few hours without feeling too rushed.
Because you can cover the entire timeline of the poet’s life via the various homes and museums in Stratford, it makes sense to begin your pilgrimage at Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
The wattle-and-daub half-timbered building is nothing special to look at from the outside, but when John and Mary Shakespeare owned the building, it was the largest house on the street. William Shakespeare was born here in 1564 and was raised here along with his seven siblings. He even spent the first five years of his marriage to Anne Hathaway in this house. When his father died, the building was left to William, who leased part of it to an inn called the Swan and Maidenhead. The inn remained open until 1847.
Shakespeare left the house to his daughter, who left it to her daughter, who passed it on to a descendant of one of Shakespeare’s sisters. In 1847, the house was put up for sale and purchased by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who have been taking care of it ever since.
Today, visitors can tour the inside of the home, much of which is original from the 16th century. You can also take a stroll through the gardens, or have some Shakespeare monologues recited for you from one of the actors who work for the Trust.
Since my mom and I always breeze through museums, we got to have a long chat with one of the actors (and made a new friend, as always), who had just finished filming for BBC’s Prime Suspect. And then, of course, had our own private performance of Leontes’ monologue from A Winter’s Tale. Our quest to find out all about Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon was off to a good start.
“New Place” is an odd name for any type of museum, isn’t it? Something that houses old artifacts or that is a historical building can’t really be associated with “new.” And in this case, it’s really just a lovely garden in the place where a building once stood. Shakespeare’s New Place is not a building; it’s an experience.
Shakespeare’s New Place is located a couple of blocks from his Birthplace. A modern gold-framed gate marks the entrance to the site. From 1597 to 1616, Shakespeare and his family lived in a home on this block. But on one of Stratford’s most tragic days in 1759, the home was demolished. The Rev. Francis Gastrell was the owner at the time and became so frustrated with the number of tourists wanting to see the house that he just knocked the whole thing down.
I get the whole “I really dislike multitudes of strangers knocking on my front door every day” thing, but…really? That’s just not a good reason to bulldoze the entire building.
Fortunately, not everyone in Stratford has such a distaste for tourists. Today, a commemorative garden stands in place of the playwright’s home. There are modern sculptures that signify different aspects of Shakespeare’s life.
Admittedly, modern art is often lost on me. The symbolism was explained to us by the tour guide, but I either don’t remember it or never understood it in the first place. Sorry to all of you modern art fans out there.
There are also remnants of the Great Garden, which is the largest surviving piece of Shakespeare’s estate, and an excellent example of an English garden. No art knowledge needed to appreciate that.
A five-minute walk from New Place is the elegant Hall’s Croft, another place to learn about Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna married renowned doctor John Hall. Their home is a beautiful example of how the well-to-do lived in the 17th century and includes an exhibit on medical practices of the day (including a number of gruesome ones that will make you very glad you weren’t alive then).
But the highlight of Hall’s Croft is the magnificent walled garden that contains herbs and other plants John Hall would have used to treat his patients, as well as a manicured rose garden.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
No, it’s not the home of the American actress (some people on the trip with us asked that so I feel that’s important to clarify…..lol).
This is my favorite of the places to learn more about Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon. Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is away from the town center, about a 30-minute walk from Hall’s Croft. It’s technically in the hamlet of Shottery, not Stratford. A few hundred years ago, the two were entirely separate villages. But in today’s world, they are so close that there’s hardly a difference.
If the weather is cooperating, the walk is a great opportunity to see the residential side of Stratford, with its quiet streets and private cottages. The path to Anne Hathaway’s cottage goes between gardens and past an idyllic sheep farm. If you want some pictures of the stereotypical British countryside, this is a good place to get them.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage was originally a humble farmhouse built in 1463. Her grandfather was the first of the family to live there, and Anne, who would eventually become Shakespeare’s wife, was born there in 1556. But as the family grew, so did the house, to the point that “cottage” became a misnomer for the structure. For the time period in which it was built, it’s a substantial building and is evidence that the Hathaway family made a fine living off of sheep farming.
The cottage looks just as you imagine a Tudor country home should look, with its overhanging thatched roof and exposed timber structure. There’s a sprawling garden as well, with a number of benches and pavilions made from twisted vines.
If you have time, make sure to stop by the Tea Room next to the gift shop for a spectacular piece of Victoria Sponge Cake.
Ticket info: You can buy one inclusive ticket for all five of the Shakespeare sites (including Mary Arden’s farm, which I didn’t visit) for £23. Tickets to one individual site cost around £18, so even if you just do two out of the five, it makes more sense to get the all-inclusive pass.
Holy Trinity Church
Holy Trinity Church is where Shakespeare was baptized, where he worshiped, and where he and several of his family members are now buried. It’s still an active parish, but visitors are welcome to come and see the gravesites for a small fee of £3.
The church and its grounds are lovely, if eerie. Large and ancient tombstones are scattered around the church, which dates back to 1210.
Shakespeare’s grave, and that of Anne and their daughter Susanna, are inside at the front of the church, in the chancel.
Royal Shakespeare Theater
You can’t experience Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon without seeing a performance of one of his plays! The Globe Theater in London is where everyone wants to see a Shakespeare play in England. But the performance we got to see at the Royal Shakespeare Theater (RST) in Stratford was leaps and bounds superior to the one we saw at the Globe several days later.
Now, I know every theater has both good and bad productions. But the RST’s rendition of Julius Caeser was the best I’ve ever seen. The Globe’s rendition of Twelfth Night….well, they tried to turn it into a pop-musical. That’s three hours of my life I’ll never get back.
That to say, it’s worth blocking out an evening in Stratford to see a show at the RST. After all, a trip to Shakespeare’s hometown isn’t complete without watching one of his works on stage!
Some of the world’s best Shakespearean actors make regular appearances there. The theater itself is in the round, like the Globe, but it’s a modern building, with seats for everyone and air-conditioning. Which, after a full day spent walking all over Stratford, are god-sends.
It’s easy to spend a full day experiencing Shakespeare in Stratford upon Avon! This short trip from London to a charming, fascinating town is absolutely worth.
How to Get There:
By train: The Stratford’s rail station is just a 10-minute walk from the town center. From London, Chiltern Railways runs a direct service from Marylebone station to Stratford-upon-Avon three times a day. The trip takes about 2 hours and average ticket prices are £30 (as off December 2018).
By car: Stratford-upon-Avon is a 2-3 hour drive from London via the M4, M25, M40, and A46 roads.
By bus: National Express runs three coach trips each weekday from London’s Victoria Coach Station direct to Stratford’s Riverside Station. The trip takes about 4 hours. Tickets are usually around £5, but use the company’s fare finder for the cheapest rates.
Need a place to stay in Stratford-upon-avon? Check out this Georgian mansion!
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