LIKE many children educated in Britain I grew up with Shakespeare, loving and occasionally loathing his works depending on the play and the exam result. Fortunately, school life ended on a high Shakespearian note, with Hamlet and a modest prize for literature. The die was cast.
I’ve seen some wonderful productions since, stage and film, classic and modern interpretations. But last year was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Shakespeare Company, probably the world’s premier classical theatre company, so it was impossible to resist attending an anniversary performance (albeit Merchant of Venice and Macbeth, not Hamlet) at Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the Bard.
Best way to arrive: Stratford is 170km northwest of central London and less than 40km from the sprawling Midlands metropolis of Birmingham, yet is situated in one of those swaths of English countryside that on a gloriously sunny day (which actually can occur during the summer), is picture perfect. There are fields of waving corn splashed with the red of poppies; thatched, timber-framed cottages; narrow country roads with high hedgerows; and thick, dappled woodland.
There are regular main-line trains from London to Birmingham, much less regular services to and from the local railway station.
Best orientation: A hop-on, hop-off open bus tour is still one of the best ways to get an overview of the city and its surrounds, and also means you can visit the main sights without needing a hire car. The red double-deckers may seem incongruous manoeuvring narrow country roads and inner-city streets but you do get a bird’s-eye view and the commentary includes fascinating titbits, particularly about how many of our modern words and expressions owe their origin to Shakespeare.
Depending how long you are staying, consider investing in an all-in ticket that combines a bus tour and entry to a number of the main sites as this can mean a substantial saving. More: city-discovery.com/Stratford.
Best entertainment: All roads, and footpaths, lead to the RSC, which has returned to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan Theatre on the western bank of the River Avon after their pound stg. 112 million renovations. This is the best address in the city; there’s a new rooftop restaurant and bar with views, a riverside terrace cafe and a colonnade linking the two theatres. Despite a modern brick-and-glass exterior, the interiors retain something of the intimate feel of the original. Every seat has a good view of the action, just at different altitudes. It’s worth shelling out for a seat in the stalls where, in some performances, you will find yourself in the thick of the action.
This year the company is leading the World Shakespeare Festival (May 18-July 7 in Stratford), part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, so expect an exciting and varied repertoire. More: worldshakespearefestival.org.uk.
Best site: All the main sites connected with Shakespeare are well maintained, fun and informative with excellent guides who somehow manage to dress in period clothes without looking silly. One of the best is his mother’s childhood home, Mary Arden’s House and Farm, about 5km from the town centre, which has been maintained as a working farm where you can watch people living the life of the period. It’s also possible to help with crafts such as basket-weaving as well as the chores of bread-making and threshing. Rare old English breeds of livestock, including chickens and pigs, wander around and there are displays of traditional Tudor pastimes such as falconry during main holiday periods. There are some beautiful local walks in countryside virtually unchanged since a young Will roamed the area while visiting his maternal grandmother. Reopens on March 19. More: shakespeare.org.uk.
Best free fun: Walk around compact Stratford enjoying the atmosphere, admiring the heritage architecture, in particular the houses associated with Shakespeare. There’s his birthplace in the centre of town, where he grew up and spent the first five years of married life; Hall’s Croft, a Jacobean house belonging to his daughter Suzanna and her doctor husband; and Nash’s House, the Tudor home of his granddaughter adjacent to New Place, which is the foundations of the house owned by Shakespeare and in which he wrote most of his plays. Inquire about a money-saving Shakespeare Five House Ticket, which covers all the sites mentioned above. More: shakespeare.org.uk.
Thirsty? Try the gnarly-beamed Garrick Inn on the High Street, reputedly the oldest pub in Stratford, dating back to the 1400s, and which has a variety of intriguingly named local ales such as Old Speckled Hen. More: garrick-inn-stratford-upon-avon.co.uk.
Best dining: There’s plenty of choice from the ritzy Arden to more informal cafes, most of which offer early sittings for theatregoers. For out-of-towners it’s always a punt but I enjoy the laidback setting of Carluccio’s, one of the eponymous restaurants run by the Italian-born television chef. It features good food, great setting on the Waterside, a minute’s walk from the RSC, and is very reasonably priced. More: carluccios.com.
Best afternoon tea: Sounds twee but the tea room at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in the village of Shottery, just outside Stratford, serves a perfectly brewed cuppa and suitably decadent cake selection. It does the whole high tea thing, too, if that’s your fancy.
Best gastropub: The Dirty Duck at Waterside is situated looking out to parkland and the River Avon and is a few minutes’ walk from the RSC. Food is your average pub grub but it’s a lovely setting and because it’s so close to the theatre actors hang out here after performances (its Actors Bar features photos of many performers who’ve visited). Try to snag a table on the outside terrace for optimum people watching. More: dirtyduck-pub-stratford-upon-avon.co.uk.
Best experience afloat: The River Avon flows through the heart of Stratford and was once the main trade route for the town linking to what became the Midlands canal network. Its business now is tourism, and traditional canal boats have been converted into all manner of vessels, including floating restaurants and hotels, some fixed, some offering canal trips. For less than a fiver you can have a quick tour on a very basic motor launch, feeding the magnificent swans and geese and stickybeaking at some lavish waterside homes. If you’re energetic and romantically inclined, hire a rowing boat and croon Elizabethan serenades to your beloved as you drift in and out of the trailing willow fronds. Just watch out for the weir. More: avon-boating.co.uk.
Best curse: Turns out Will had a bit of a thing about the common practice of his day wherein every year graves were emptied and the bones burned (hence bonfire) to allow room for the new incumbents of the graveyard at the pretty Holy Trinity Church graveyard. His grave is inscribed, spelling errors and all: “Good frend for Jesus’ sake forbear, to dig the dust encloased heare. Bleste be ye man th spares thes stones, and curst be he that moves my bones.” Whether it was the strength of the curse or just his fame, the Bard’s bones stayed put and his grave, alongside that of his wife, is a top tourist attraction. More: stratford-upon-avon.org.
Best souvenirs: A ticket stub from any show. But for those who can’t secure a seat there’s always a T-shirt, appropriately themed with quotes from the Bard — “Prone to Mischief” from Henry VIII is among the most popular.
Best nearby attractions: Stratford is an ideal base from which to explore Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire (the Cotswolds) and Worcestershire; Blenheim Palace, the Malverns, Warwick Castle and Henley in Arden are all within an hour’s drive.
Australia’s Odyssey Travel has an escorted World Shakespeare Festival tour from June 7 to 15 covering London and Stratford, with special events and insider access, tickets to three RSC performances and open-air theatre shows in London’s Regents Park, accommodation, breakfasts and selected meals; $3990 twin-share; air fares extra. More: 1300 888 225; odysseytravel.com.au.
This article first appeared in the Travel section of The Weekend Australian