This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, making Stratford-Upon-Avon a perfect destination for 2016. The city has always honored its most famous son, but the atmosphere feels even more celebratory these days.
While I was in the Cotswolds this spring, I decided to take a day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to check out the festivities.
Henley Street, Jester Statue
The Jester Statue at the top of Henley Street is a great place to start your journey. Erected in 1994, the statue was created by James Walter Butler and celebrates the jester (or fool), a common character in Shakespeare’s plays. One of his most famous fools is Puck, the jester to Oberon in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. In many other plays, the nameless jester appears briefly as comic relief, such as the gravediggers in Hamlet. (The gravediggers share that scene with another jester, Yorick, or at least what remains of him.)
The Jester stands precariously on the plinth, waving his comedy marotte at the crowds walking by. (A marotte featuring the face of tragedy is hidden behind his back.) Take a few moments to get into the Shakespearean spirit by reading the quotes inscribed along the base before heading down Henley Street.
Spend enough time in England, and you’ll come across an inn, pub or restaurant that claims that Shakespeare slept, drank or ate there. But only one place can claim to be the site of his birth.
This sixteenth-century half-timbered building was owned by John Shakespeare, William’s father. It served as not only the family’s house but also a place for his father to carry out his glove making and wool trading enterprises. William lived here as a child, but by the time he inherited it from his father, he owned another house in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Before you head to the house, visit the Shakespeare Center, the home to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and an educational center. The bulk of exhibition space and learning opportunities are in this building, so don’t rush through. (Tip: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust offers a few different passes that provide access to the various houses in the Stratford area associated with Shakespeare family. Advance tickets can be purchase online at a discount.)
You’ll exit into the gardens at the back of the house. When I visited in April, a storm had just passed through. The skies were still a bit gray and the tulips were covered in raindrops, but the garden was lovely just the same. Take a turn through the flowerbeds, take a seat and enjoy your surroundings. (There aren’t places to sit inside the house, so if you need a break from being on your feet, this is a good place to stop.)
Through a side door, you’ll enter the house. The furnishings are sparse, and customed guides are available in various rooms to talk about the historic context of the dwelling. You’ll see samples of handmade gloves (in different steps of the process), learn why Shakespeare left his wife the second best bed in his will (the best bed was reserved for guests; the second best was the marital bed), and spy graffiti scratched in an old window by visitors of yore.
Once you’ve reached your Shakespearean limit, head back out to Henley Street. This pedestrian-only street offers some great restaurants and shops, so grab a bite to eat and window shop, continuing down Bridge Street until you reach Bancroft Gardens.
The Gower Memorial
William Shakespeare sits high on his pedestal, looking out over some of his most unforgettable characters — Price Hal, Hamlet, Lady Macbeth and Falstaff. Sculpted by Ronald Gower, the memorial was first erected outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but was moved to its current location a few years after the theatre burned down.
Before heading on, enjoy the gardens. You might consider taking a boat tour of the River Avon. There are a few different companies to choose from, and some offer the ability to book tours online in advance. (The weather was unpredictable the day I was there, so I decided not to chance it with a river cruise.)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and dedicated to William Shakespeare, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre offers a variety of activities — free exhibitions, restaurants, an observation tower and (of course) a gift shop. If you’re very lucky, you can catch a performance of one of the Bard’s plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Swan Theatre, or the nearby The Other Place. Exhibitions and theatre offerings change, so be sure to check the Royal Shakespeare Company website to see what’s on and to book tickets.
Make your way to the River Avon and walk along the riverside path until you reach our next destination. If you interested in exploring the other bank, you can take a hand-cranked chain ferry across the river for just a pound or two. You can even try your own hand at the crank!
Holy Trinity Church
Approaching from the riverside, you’ll walk through the lovely churchyard to the entrance of the Holy Trinity Church. No matter how many English churchyards I’ve been to, I never tire of them. They are incredibly quaint and full of history.
This churchyard is perhaps overshadowed by the gravesites inside the church. William Shakespeare, along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandson-in-law, are buried in the chancel. Legend has it that Shakespeare feared being moved after burial, so he placed a curse on his grave to ward any would-be grave movers. (There are also rumors that his skull was stolen by grave robbers at some point, but these claims are unsubstantiated.)
Part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Hall’s Croft was once the house of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, and her husband Dr. John Hall. There’s an exhibition on Jacobean luxury and a medicinal garden featuring herbs once used by Dr. John Hall to treat ailments. If you’re feeling a bit peckish, enjoy an afternoon snack at the café.
Shakespeare’s New Place
New Place was the Stratford home of the adult William Shakespeare. The house is no longer standing, but the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is currently renovating the site to include a new exhibition center and knot garden. Sadly, New Place was not open yet when I visited this year, but is promises to be a great stop on your Shakespearean journey in the future.
Where you go next to up to you. If you want to do some shopping, there are plenty of shops along High Street and Bridge Street, as well as the surrounding side streets. Or stop in for a drink at one of the pubs. You’re in Shakespeare’s hometown, so enjoy it!
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm
There are two additional Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties outside of town: Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife, and Mary Arden’s Farm, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother. If you feel like you haven’t experienced Shakespeare overload yet, or you’re spending another day in the area, both sites are worth the visit. Children might especially enjoy Mary Arden’s Farm, which is a living museum of a working Tudor farm.
If you’re traveling by car (as I did), I recommend parking at the Stratford Park & Ride and taking the bus into the town center (on Bridge Street). It costs just a few pounds and is much easier than driving around Stratford trying to find a parking space.
Have you visited Stratford-Upon-Avon? What was your favorite site? Do you have other recommendations?