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Did You Know … ?
- Avon is a Celtic word meaning river.
- In the 1560s, when Shakespeare was born, only one in three children survived to adulthood.
- The first Shakespearean festival was organized by actor David Garrick in 1769.
- Shakespeare’s Birthplace was purchased as a national memorial in 1847 for £3,000.
- The Hathaway family occupied Anne Hathaway’s Cottage until 1892.
The Shakespeare business
William Shakespeare happened to a 16th century market town called Stratford-upon-Avon. In those days, Stratford had fewer than 2,500 people, but now it is perhaps 10 times that size — and its world-famous native son is its business.
The town boasts charming half-timbered houses and other buildings dating from the 16th century or earlier. They and the placid River Avon could well have provided the occasional 21st century visitor with charming scenes and a pleasant day’s activity even had the playwright been born elsewhere.
As it is, many of Stratford’s historic houses, including Shakespeare’s Birthplace, are associated with the bard or his family. These houses are must-sees, but sightseeing itineraries also include a grammar school that Shakespeare almost certainly attended and the Holy Trinity Church, where he is buried.
As if for variety, another fine 16th century house is linked to John Harvard who was Harvard College’s first major benefactor. Finally, it doesn’t hurt that a few of the town’s pubs and inns are period pieces, too.
Tourists flock to the town to see the places associated with the master, but they also come for the living theater. It has been more than 200 years since the first Shakespeare Festival here, and these days, it is effectively festival time in Stratford for as long as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s season is under way, from spring until well into the fall. Visitors come to the company’s newly upgraded theaters or may see performances in other spaces or outdoors. In addition to Shakespeare’s works, choices include productions showcasing playwrights of several eras — and even experimental theater.
Predictably, the town that hosts first-rate theater and attracts sightseers in droves has plenty to offer in the way of inns, restaurants and pubs. It also offers boating activities on its famous river and a number of alternative attractions (the pewter museum and butterfly farm come to mind) that have nothing to do with the bard or theater.
Most visitors, including those who can’t follow Shakespearean dialogue, find the town appealing. Indeed, that fact translates into Stratford’s biggest drawback: The streets can be awfully crowded with other tourists.
Things to do for Venturers
- At Shakespeare’s Birthplace, get into the act. Interact with actors who take on the persona of various Shakespearean characters and perform some of the playwright’s best-loved scenes.
- Make it your business to sample the charms — and the ales — of Stratford’s pubs. A few in town and others nearby are so old they predated Shakespeare. The Old Thatch Tavern, more than 500 years old, has the town’s last thatched roof.
- Attend the area’s summertime GlobalGathering, an annual dance music festival.
- Strike out in the area with a jaunt to Warwick Castle. Walk along its walls, and stay on for a tour of the castle dungeon after dark, followed by dinner “if you still have the stomach for it,” your hosts warn. They call this “the ultimate evening of scarily good entertainment” and warn further the event is not suitable to those with “a nervous disposition.” Seriously, participants must be 18 or older.
- Take to the field in the springtime Rotary Shakespeare Marathon or Half Marathon.
- Approach Shakespeare outside the theater — on the streets during the April Birthday Celebration. See street theater, a procession through Stratford’s streets and the laying of flowers at the bard’s burial site at Holy Trinity Church.
Things to do for Centrics
- Buy tickets for Stratford’s hop-on-hop-off tour which also takes you to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife) and Mary Arden’s Farm (his mother’s childhood home) outside of town.
- Take a ferry across the Avon for a quiet riverside walk away from the crowds (generally crowds of tourists).
- Sightsee from the air. Sign on for a scenic flight in a Cessna over Stratford and the area, flying from Wellesbourne Airfield, which is four miles outside of town.
- Have a picnic lunch on the grounds of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.
- Create your own brass rubbing, working with images of people of Shakespeare’s time, at the Brass Rubbing Centre.
- Stay at the College Arms in Lower Quinton outside Stratford. The 16th century pub and inn was originally owned by Henry VIII.
Things to do for Authentics
- Take a walking tour of Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s Birthplace and his burial site; Hall’s Croft where his daughter lived, and Harvard House, among other points of interest. Free tours depart daily from the Bancroft Gardens.
- See one or more Shakespeare plays presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
- Admire hundreds of colorful butterflies at the Stratford Butterfly Farm. Other options include the Caterpillar Room to observe phases of the butterfly’s lifecycle; Insect City, to watch the creatures behind glass (or, touch them at a Meet the Minibeasts session!), and Arachnoland, to —safely — view the black widow and other death-dealing critters.
- Take a short cruise on the River Avon for a new way to look at Stratford.
- Time your visit so you can shop in Stratford’s Christmas markets, open on the four Thursdays before Christmas.
- See the Museum of British Pewter (in Harvard House) and then buy pewter to take home.
For more information, consult Visit Stratford-upon-Avon at www.visitstratforduponavon.co.uk