Blogger blogger, wherefore art thou blogger?
A question that’s been thrown to me a few times (albeit in more contemporary linguistics) over the last few months, culminating eventually in a Boxing Day pep talk from my Dad.
“Don’t give up your blog. You had a passion for writing & it would be a shame to throw that away.”
Coming from a parent, even at this age, it had the potential to veer into borderline nag territory (had it not been for the fact that Dad, as is often the case, was SPOT ON.)
If my pull towards creative writing couldn’t be reignited in the home of one of the greatest playwrights the world has ever known, then perhaps it did signal the final nail in the coffin of my ailing blog.
Such morbidity, thankfully, can be cast aside and reserved for the great Shakespearean tragedies of yesteryear; for within 24 hours of returning from the great playwright’s birthplace, I found myself putting pen to paper for the first time in months.
A Trip down Memory Lane
It was circa 1991 that I last set foot in Shakespeare’s town, squashed into the back seat of a car next to my Mum and sister. My Grandad – Baba as we affectionately knew him – took prime position in the passenger seat, as Dad navigated (and navigated again) the winding pretty streets of Shottery, searching (with mixed success) for Anne Hathaway’s cottage.
For my Grandad, an English graduate and lawyer raised in the colonial era of the British Raj, visiting the home of Shakespeare was nothing short of a whimsical dream. Pipedream really, since he never could have envisaged any such reality.
Yet, somehow, there he was, somewhere between his 70th and 80th years of life, wandering around a Warwickshire street doing just that, the younger of his two boys playing chauffeur for the day and the elder of his two girls feeling more car sick by the second.
For my sister and I, our English A level A grades and our in-depth high school analyses of King Lear , Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s dream paled into insignificance compared to Baba, a man who had read every Shakespeare play he had ever got his hands on, something that boggled my mind, boggles my mind, given English was his second language and given this was small town India in the 1930s.
Still, none of his highly intellectual background made much difference to two hungry little ladies on that long drive to Stratford, my sister, on eventual arrival at Anne Hathaway’s cottage so dismissively querying why we’d “driven around all that time to see a house with a carpet on top?!”
And therein lay a quaint 1500s thatched cottage described in the observant and succinct language of a six year old. My only standout memory of the place was a pin badge of the cottage I had somehow acquired, rather telling I fear, of the fact that the highlight of all these cultural forays we had with Baba, was invariably the gift shop. Ah, the fickle mind of the child!
A Weekend in Stratford upon Avon
Still, what I lacked in interest in my youth, I more than made up for on this visit, where we Shakespeared our hearts out on a three day escape between Christmas and New Year, breaking up our Shakespeare hop only with the tantalising taste of seasonal produce cooked to perfection, warm scones with lashings of cream and unashamedly lazy 10am lie ins.
Where to Stay
We parked ourselves at Hotel Indigo, a boutique hotel in the heart of the old town , brand spanking shiny and new having been open under a year at the time of writing this & with an on site car park (with a cost.)
Home to one of the most popular restaurants in the town, The Woodsman, and in easy walking distance to all of the old town’s key attractions, we loved its Shakespearean themed rooms, its outdoor garden and the British botanical toiletries.
Even setting foot inside the lift is sure to transport you back in time and what would a Shakespeare town hotel be without a batch of Shakespearean titles awaiting your perusal in the lobby.
What to see and do
Walking Tour of the Old Town
First time visitors (or almost first time visitors like myself) would do well to turn up to one of the daily walking tours of Stratford upon Avon that provide a comical, informative and engaging introduction to the town fascinating historical heritage. This tour runs every single day of the year – yes, including Christmas day, apparently attracting up to 50+ guests on some Christmas mornings!
Booking isn’t required and for only £6 a head, we found this to be one of the best value tours we’ve ever been on and if you thought this town is only famous for good old William S, wait till you hear about its Teletubbies and Iggle Piggle connections… But if history isn’t your jam, hop on board one of their evening ghost walks instead and prepare to be spooked. Rather you than me though – if there are ghosts floating around inches away from my hotel room, I’d rather not know about them, thanks very much.
I would recommend doing this tour earlier rather than later during your visit to help set the scene of the streets you stroll and to allow you to get your bearings.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Attractions
If you’re wandering about the old town in search of Shakespeare’s birthplace (and I’m not talking about the town in general, I’m now referring to his actual place of birth), you needn’t bother with Google maps. Just glance around for the building that invites all the selfies and the queues of people awaiting their turn for that must-have picture.
Should you purchase a ticket for entry inside (and if you’re only going to buy one attraction ticket in this town, this needs to be it,) you will be rewarded with glimpses of first folios, the interiors of Shakespeare’s birth home, his father’s glove workshop, the room he shared with his siblings.
Do spare a moment to read through the list of phrases displayed on the wall that we can attribute to Shakespeare. I was startled as to just how much of my day to day conversational phrases stems from the words of this literary genius.
Aside from the birthplace, other affiliated Shakespeare Birthplace Trust sites include Hall’s Croft (the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna and her husband, Dr John Hall,) Mary Arden’s Farm (closed in winters), Shakespeare’s New Place and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.
Although it is possible to buy individual tickets for each, if you have plans to visit more than one of these sites, then it makes financial sense to purchase the Full Story ticket, which represents excellent value for money, allowing entry to all of these sites as many times as you wish for a year.
Many of these sites also have free guided talks and tours and we managed to catch these at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Hall’s Croft, where we were lucky to be the only people up and about on a Sunday morning, eager to learn but if you think us nerdy, perhaps we better refrain from declaring how fascinating we found the exhibit on urine analysis of days gone by at the history of medicine exhibition at Shakespeare’s New Place. I guess you can take the doctor out of her office but…
A notable Shakespearean attraction not included within this ticket (and that we didn’t end up visiting this time) was a visit to Shakespeare’s school so bear in mind that the Full Story ticket isn’t an all encompassing ticket for the full town attractions.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
I should point out (in case it wasn’t alarmingly obvious) that in this neck of the woods, we’re all about Anne Hathaway of Shakespeare’s wife fame rather than Anne Hathaway of Devil wears Prada fame. Apparently, this is something some tourists genuinely misunderstood?!
The fairytale-like cottage is part of the Shakespeare birthplace trust too but I allocate it a paragraph in its own right not just because it lies a couple of miles away in the tranquil Warwickshire village of Shottery but also because, if I ever did tire of city life, my mood board for the ultimate rural abode would be this cottage a thousand times over.
Even more than Shakespeare’s birthplace, it was Anne Hathaway’s cottage that seemed to attract the most tourists with coaches pulling up in the parking bays even late into the afternoon. When you arrive, you will see why and even those on a clock would be advised to include this adorable cottage on their Stratford itinerary.
Shopping for Souvenirs
I’m not referring so much to the ample nodding plastic Mr Beans on offer (though whatever floats your boat) but the side of the Stratford shopping scene that tugged at the (usually disinterested) shopper within me were the thoughtful, independent boutiques and gift shops, many of which featured locally made crafts and tempting calorific treats. From handmade pottery, glass jewellery, crumbly fudge and the retro old English sweet shops that further evoked youthful replays in my mind.
Had we been beckoned to Stratford in the summertime, we may well have been cajoled into one of the Rosie and Jim canal boats which, should your heart desire, can transport you all the way to London or Liverpool. For the majority however, a shorter boat trip around Stratford or even a lunch river cruise over the Avon river is a more realistic goal but having learned our lesson with the freezing boat ride we took during an Oslo winter, this particular English winter day, we stuck to a simple under-umbrella amble under the slowly setting sun.
Watch a Shakespeare production at the RSC’s Swan Theatre
It was upon that riverside stroll that we found the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, the performance venue that draws in so many theatre-buffs to the town. Watching a Shakespeare play in Shakespeare’s home town was our absolute highlight of the trip, particularly at such a cosy and atmospheric venue that seats just over 400 people.
There were a couple of other (non Shakespeare) productions on offer during our visit but after much deliberation, we decided it was a rite of passage to embrace the spirit of the town and watch the new production of King John that had recently taken to the stage here.
Unless you’re particularly well versed in the great works of Shakespeare or happen to have a natural affinity towards the lingo of the land that was commonplace in the 1500s (I certainly don’t), my top tip would be to read up on the synopsis and plot prior. King John was a completely unfamiliar play to both of us and a brief half an hour spent delving into the plot and synopsis made the world of difference to our ability to keep abreast of the immersive and exhilarating contemporary production that we were privy to that night.
A little note on tickets: Pumpkin and I are known in our circles for being ridiculously last minute with our travels (this particular break being booked all of 5 days in advance.) However, last minute mayhem is not very conducive to nabbing Shakespeare tickets in Shakespeare town. So, after two unsuccessful evenings on the website with no tickets left (except two single tickets nowhere near each other), we gave up….or did we?!
Not so long ago, I had the same issue with Spice Girls tickets, when they all sold out in minutes & Twitter was full of people bemoaning the crashing ticket sites. I had no tickets either but I wasn’t going to let a silly thing like logic get in the way so I left the Twitterati to their moaning, went back online 2 days later & behold, a pair of tickets to Spice Girls at Wembley had appeared – a method that worked its identical genie magic yet again with King John tickets in Stratford. It’s always worth checking, even popping into the theatre on the day if you’re visiting because there are often return tickets up for grabs.
Where to Eat and Drink in Stratford Upon Avon
For such a small old town and a total population of around 30,000 people, we were so impressed with the quality of the food establishments that fill the streets of Stratford.
Tucked away in tiny, low-ceilinged rooves of the many Tudor and mock Tudor buildings that fill the town, are an abundance of restaurants offering some of the best cuisine I’ve tasted in England, featuring seasonal ingredients, local produce, hearty food and displaying the best of British culinary talent.
If particular restaurants catch your eye and you only have a weekend at your disposal, it would serve you well to book ahead. We were able to get tables at a day or two’s notice but we did find that many popular time slots had been taken and bear in mind that the pre theatre and post theatre slots at some of Stratford’s most popular eateries book up quickly in a town where the theatre is such a central part of its appeal.
The most “fine dining” of all the eating and drinking we did in Oxford, Loxleys is one of the most popular and well reviewed options in Stratford upon Avon and with good reason. We went for a pre theatre meal ahead of King John and had a choice between the pre theatre set menu and the a la carte menu.
In the mood for vegetarian cuisine, I savoured the delicate flavours of the saffron and pea risotto with walnut pesto and mint oil and was blown away by my starter of black pepper goats cheese with filo, butternut squash, honey and pickled beetroot.
Four Teas Tea Room
In case the pun-tastic wordplay hadn’t been spoiler enough, this particular one of Stratford’s many tea rooms is 1940s themed with photographs, forties paraphernalia and snippets of history from the peri World Ward Two end, dotted around all over the tea room.
Expect ration card menus, kitsch tablecloths, vintage style teapots and staff in floral frocks. Also expect warm sultana-studded scones with dollops of clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam lathered on top.
And in an utterly joyous twist I had never previously come across, they even had cream tea boxes to take away, stacked with four homemade scones, a pot of cream and a jar of jam to take away. If only my stomach hadn’t still been full of Christmas day roast and Boxing Day leftovers.
We chose the room only basis for our stay at Hotel Indigo but that just meant we still had a good excuse to turn up bright and early (ok, I guess 10.45 isn’t all that early!) to try Will’s brioche French toast with poached pear and creamy Greek yoghurt, dusted with pistachio and shamelessly dunked onto house made banana bread.
As you can imagine, in a week of Christmas excess, our appetites weren’t amenable to each meal being a fat-drenched heavy one and with that in mind, after a long, snack-filled and traffic-laden drive from the South, our first meal in Stratford upon Avon was one of light bites and delicious cocktails at Veeno, an Italian-inspired bar with bar food and a must-try for all you winos (not whinos, though both may do well from a glass of wine.) With sharing boards and platters of bruschettes, charcuterie boards, cheese platters and a vast array of cocktails plus my first try of a non alcoholic Pornstar Martini.
If dinner and a movie is your dream date night, this is also the perfect pick, since right next door is Stratford’s branch of luxury cinema chain, Everyman. Unfortunately, the only two seats left for that night’s viewing of Little Women were two sofa seats on opposite ends of the cinema – not exactly the most romantic seating plan so we made a bee line for dessert instead.
That there were long lines of people ordering gelato sporting wooly hats and gloves, no less, even at the end of December, is reflective of the popularity of this local gem of a gelateria. The aptly named Hooray gelato (because that’s really one of the only words you’ll be thinking when you step inside) offer a huge array of gelatos and sorbets, waffles, “mini” ones too, crepes and baked goods, catering to all your dessert needs.
The Garrick Inn
Whilst I wouldn’t normally recommend you trust a teetotaler recommendation of a pub, you’ll have to forgive me on this occasion because both beer-guzzler and sparkling-water sipper alike will revel in the homely antiquity of the Garrick Inn, a nugget of Stratford upon Avon that has been present since the 1400s with an undeniably gorgeous external facade.
Still reading? Hearty handshake if so but if you can stomach a blog post this length, you will no doubt have no trouble meandering your way through the sonnets and prose of Shakespeare’s great literary works. And if that whets your appetite to visit the town of his birth or you already know it well, feel free to leave a note below with your highlights and recommendations.