Stratford-upon-Avon is a small city big on charm! With its Elizabethan streets, hidden alleyways and points of interest at almost every turn, Stratford is perhaps best seen on foot. Alternatively get your bearings by taking an open top bus tour with Guide Friday.
While many cities have specific districts, given the size of Stratford-upon-Avon it is arguably its individual streets that characterise particular features or moods:
For shopping look to Bridge Street, Stratford-upon-Avon’s central street packed with a combination of old and new buildings. High street names include British Home Stores (with its two floors of family clothing, home ware and lighting), Jaeger for chic tailoring and Marks & Spencer. Additional shopping can be found in High Street and Wood Street, home to the department store Debenhams and individual shops such as Britain’s oldest cheesemongers, Paxton & Whitfield, and shoe specialists Jones Bootmaker.
For eateries, inns and pre- or post-theatre dinner go west of Bridge Street to Sheep Street, a delightful mixture of shops and intimate restaurants. Look out for Café Rouge for a taste of France or Thespians specialising in Bangladeshi food, Northern Indian dishes and Kashmiri Baltis. For a traditional English pub there is the Rose & Crown, a former hostelry dating back to 1596, or the Garrick Inn resplendent in olde worlde charm, at the top of Sheep Street in High Street.
Henley Street, at the northern end of Bridge Street, is headily reminiscent of days gone by and marks the heart of all things Shakespearean. The Shakespeare Centre, which houses early editions and originals of the Bard’s work, is here as is Shakespeare’s Birthplace – the very house in which the great man was born.
The Bancroft Gardens on the southern edge of the town centre, with its impromptu street performers and The Gower Memorial (depicting Shakespeare and four of his best loved characters), indicate that this is an area in which you are bound to be entertained. The great bastions of dramatic art are all here: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, home to the world famous Royal Shakespeare Company, the galleried Swan Theatre on Waterside and The Other Place in Southern Lane.
Head out of town in any direction, either by car or by public transport and you will find Stratford-upon-Avon’s outlying villages:-
Shottery: A small village to the west of Stratford-upon-Avon that draws visitors to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.
Wilmcote: A quintessential English village, home to Mary Arden’s House and the Shakespeare Countryside Museum.
Wellsbourne: Set to the east of Stratford-upon-Avon and renowned for the Wellsbourne Watermill, this small town neighbours some of Warwickshire’s finest countryside.
Welford-on-Avon: A traditional English village to the west of Stratford-upon-Avon famed for its white washed thatched cottages. For idyllic out of town accommodation why not consider Bridgend Guest House in its stunning riverside setting?
For visitors who use Stratford-upon-Avon as a base from which to explore Shakespeare Country and Warwickshire, or even further afield to the edge of the Malverns or the Cotswolds, then a car is essential. Your reward? A plethora of picturesque towns and villages rich with historical charm and much, much more.
Alcester: A market town lying c.10 miles west of Stratford-upon-Avon boasting a picturesque high street with half timbered buildings filled with small shops and tea rooms. If you find yourself here look out for Ragley Hall, one of the finest stately homes in the area.
Warwick: Rich in heritage and architecture, Warwick is a must for antique, craft and gift shopping or bookshop browsing. If time allows, a trip to the ‘finest mediaeval castle in England’ – Warwick Castle – is a must.
Leamington Spa: A short distance north east of Stratford and renowned for its stunning array of regency and Victorian terraces, the recently refurbished Royal Pump Rooms have added to the town’s impressive character.
Henley-in-Arden: Another delightful market town well worth a visit for its Heritage Centre and for those of us who cannot resist prize winning ice cream at Henley Café!
Mickleton: Stop off here en route to the Cotswolds, to the south west, and savour the delights of thePudding Club (for lovers of great British puddings) in this most traditional of English villages.
Evesham: Famed for its fine fruits and home to one of the top 10 hotels in the British Isles, the Evesham Hotel, this historic market town lies to the west of Stratford along the River Avon.
Broadway: A delightful Cotswolds town that is within striking distance of Stratford-upon-Avon. Its main street is a mixture of flower-strewn cottages, country pubs and individual shops. If you have time on your hands take a look at Broadway Antique Clocks or turn back time to memories of childhood and visit Broadway Bear & Dolls.
Whichever area you choose be prepared – The Heart of England captures the hearts (and minds) of all who visit, making a return journey a necessity!
History of Stratford-upon-Avon
Stratford owes its existence as a thriving market town to an early bridge which provided an excellent crossing point of the River Avon, thus enabling trade to flourish from Roman times. The town grew greatest in prosperity, however, during the sixteenth century with the granting of its charter by Edward VI in 1553 and a boom in agriculture and cottage industry. To this day cattle and street markets survive, and indeed remain an important part of the local economy, but it is of course the Shakespeare Industry that is responsible for much of Stratford’s current wealth.
William was born into the prosperous family of John and Mary Shakespeare in an upstairs room of a large house on Henley Street, known today as ‘The Birthplace’. It is this attraction and the many other sites sharing a place in the history of the Bard’s life which draw tourists in their thousands, and upon which the livelihoods of many have been built. The town is full of references to the great man: from the Shakespeare Bookshop to the Shakespeare Hotel, from the face staring out from a thousands of postcards to the t-shirts piled high bearing lines from his plays, there is no escape from the name and visage of England’s finest writer.
Besides the birthplace, other famous sites in and around the town include: Nash’s House and New Place, the latter building being the property Shakespeare bought in 1597 and where he is said to have died; Mary Arden’s House in Wilmcote, the pre-marital home of Shakespeare’s mother; Hall’s Croft, where Shakespeare’s daughter and her husband, Sir John Hall, lived; and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. This latter site is located a mile west of the town, in the village of Shottery, and also offers a prime example of a traditional country cottage garden. All these properties are fully open to the public, whilst Holy Trinity Church and the King Edward VI Grammar School, also with Shakespearean connections, still maintain their primary functions and so access (to the latter especially) is restricted. The school buildings drip with history, and many of the fifteenth century examples are still in use today. The church is where Shakespeare was buried on 25th April 1616, two days after his death, and his gravestone bears his famous curse designed to protect this final resting place against desecration.
Despite Shakespeare’ss death, however, it soon became apparent that he would be eternally associated with the town, and remembered by it. The rebuilding of the Town Hall in 1767 led circuitously to one of the finest actors this country has ever seen, David Garrick, establishing a festival in honour of the Bard that is continued to this day. The Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations began as a Jubilee in 1769, organised by Garrick after he had been asked to provide funds for a bust of Shakespeare to be placed in an empty niche of the new town hall. The initial festivities lasted for three days, and in modern times the event usually takes place on the weekend nearest to the 23rd April. Tourism was responsible for the later tremendous growth of Stratford’s Shakespeare Industry, and the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1860 brought trippers from the nearby populous industrial cities of Birmingham and Coventry, as well as Warwick and the many other West Midlands’ towns, so helping the town’s wider economy grow.
Such a success was Garrick’s jubilee that it later led to the establishment of the Shakespeare Club and a desire for a permanent theatre to be set up, worthy of putting on the plays of the town’s most famous son. First came the New Royal Shakespearean Rooms in 1844, which were modernised to become to Theatre Royal in 1869. That building was demolished, however, just three years later to make way for gardens for New Place and it was 1879 before the new and ornately Victorian Memorial Theatre was opened. But that too was to be relatively short-lived, most of it burning to the ground in 1926 and its successor, built in 1932, is the building we now know as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the banks of the Avon.
Stratford’s long history will forever be bound with that of Shakespeare, yet few in the town seem to mind. Not, at least, for as long as tourists flock here in their droves to witness one of the country’s most attractive and fascinating sites, a living and working monument to one great man.