Following the Bard in Stratford-upon-Avon takes in some gruesome medical facts, glorious gardens and scrummy cakes along the way
Next time you’re running a temperature, try lying down with a freshly-killed pigeon stuck on each foot. According to medieval physicians, giving your tootsies the bird was a marvellous cure for a fever. It rates up there with blood-sucking leeches and an explosive cocktail of senna, castor oil and rhubarb root as state-of-the-art medical practice in William Shakespeare’s day. There’s plenty to entertain the whole family as you uncover some of the more colourful aspects of Elizabethan England on a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.
On a weekend in the Bard’s hometown we were told about bizarre medical procedures by our enthusiastic guide at one of the five restored properties run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Hall’s Croft belonged to Shakespeare’s son-in-law, a doctor, and here you can see his typical 17th-century consulting room and some intriguing tools of the trade, from pill-making gadgets to fearsome-looking surgical instruments.
We called in at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, which has some wonderful old four-poster beds (with drapes to keep the rodents at bay), beautiful painted cloth wall-hangings and a recreation of his father’s glove-making workshop. Nash’s House was once home to Will’s granddaughter and the adjoining site of New Place, where he died in 1616, boasts a splendid Elizabethan-style knot garden.
Time for lunch and we headed for the Garrick Inn, one of Stratford’s oldest pubs and another timber-beamed gem, before jumping on a Bancroft Cruisers boat for a leisurely 45-minute meander along the River Avon, chugging gently past the theatre and out into the Warwickshire countryside. For a different kind of tour, the guided Stratford Town Walk helps unravel the Shakespeare story as you stroll along the river to Holy Trinity Church, where the playwright is buried, and hear stories of plague, medieval cures, flood, fire and ghosts along the way.
It’s the Shakespeare link that draws tourists year-round to Stratford, but there’s plenty more to enjoy. For a splash of colour, try the art galleries located on a narrow boat at Stratford’s Canal Basin and at the Leisure and Visitor Centre – or visit the Butterfly Farm where you can stroll through a tropical rainforest and see hundreds of dazzling flutterers. No swatting allowed!
Wandering around Stratford’s 16th-century buildings is a real delight. From our town-centre base at the suitably historic Mercure Shakespeare Hotel (double rooms with breakfast from c£103) we went shopping in everything from pottery and silk studios to cheesemongers and patisseries.
Diners can choose from a variety of restaurants by the river or canalside, or in more Elizabethan surroundings. But save room for a cream tea. There are some naff tea-shops here, but at the award-winning Crabtree & Evelyn Tea Room smiling waitress dispense the scrummiest cakes and scones in town.
Back on the Shakespeare route, we joined a City Sightseeing hop-on hop-off open-top bus to tour the town and visit the other properties linked to the great man. A 24-hour ticket saves on shoe leather and petrol and costs £11 (children £5.50, families £27).
Just outside Stratford are Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and its glorious garden (you’ll recognise it from countless chocolate boxes) and the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. Her house and the neighbouring farm remain a Tudor time capsule where you can trace 500 years of farming in rural Warwickshire. Youngsters were dressed up in period costume as we watched an owl and kestrel swooping across the grounds in a falconry display. Families following a nature trail through the orchard and wildflower meadow can see the Longhorn cattle and rare-breed farm animals similar to those kept by Mary Arden’s family. Money can be saved by buying a multiple ticket covering all five Shakespeare properties for £15 (children £7.50, families £39.50).
Stratford is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company and it’s worth taking in a show. The main theatre, currently being redeveloped, is due to re-open in 2010, but performances continue at the nearby Courtyard Theatre. Julius Caesar and As You Like It are among productions for summer 2009, when the RSC also stages fun events for children. Livelier souls than us can end the night at the Chicago Rock Café, where they have a DJ and live bands, and there’s more music and a comedy club at Cox’s Yard.
You can certainly eat well in Stratford. We enjoyed Singapore Slings and Malaysian food to a piano accompaniment in the colonial-style Georgetown, where a four-course meal with a cocktail and wine cost around £30.Decent food and beer is also available in historic pubs like the Garrick Inn and the Black Swan. The latter, commonly known as the Dirty Duck, is a popular evening haunt with actors once the greasepaint comes off. It’s hungry work following the Bard.
Where to stay
Apart from the Mercure Shakespeare Hotel, other accommodation options range from the inexpensive and central riverside Holiday Inn, from c£69 a night for a double room with breakfast, to historic Ettington Park, six miles outside Stratford, from c£115.