Famed for its ties to William Shakespeare and its romanticized Tudor architecture, Stratford-upon-Avon is a market town packed with history and heritage. Of all the things to do in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace is the star attraction. The renowned poet and playwright lived in the town and you can walk in his footsteps at his childhood residence
When I was at Univesity I had spent three years living close to Stratford-Upon-Avon but had never really explored it. So, it was about time to put that right. We planned a full-day looking around this small town in Warwickshire slap bang in the middle of England.
Stratford is most famous, at least for visitors, as the home of William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust oversees five properties associated with the playwright, including his birthplace, a garden and a museum at Shakespeare’s New Place.
We had already visited Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street, so we then wandered the short distance to what is known as Shakespeare’s ‘New Place’. This is the site where William Shakespeare built a substantial new house for his family from the wealth he had earned as a playwright. Sadly, his family line ended and 1670 and ownership passed to a new family who demolished the house and built a new one. Today, the site is a garden and a small museum that tells the story of the New Place.
By 1592, William Shakespeare was an established player and playwright in London and author of at least seven plays. In 1594 he helped to found the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and held shares in the company. Five years later he had amassed sufficient wealth to afford a new family home back in Stratford-upon-Avon, known as New Place, bought from William Underhill for about £120 in 1597.
‘New Place’, or ‘the Great House’ was a medieval house built in the 1480s by Hugh Clopton in Chapel Street (opposite the Guild Chapel) and described by John Leland (librarian to Henry VIII) as being ‘a pretty house of brick and timber’.
New Place was the largest house in the borough, and the only one with a courtyard – a significant purchase for the 33-year-old Shakespeare in 1597. There were ten hearths, which means it had between 20 and 30 rooms, plenty of space for the whole of Shakespeare’s family. Towards the back of the courtyard stood a large, late-medieval Hall, the main gathering point of the Shakespeares’ family life.
The re-imagined site gives an impression of the scale of New Place and its relationship to the surrounding buildings, such as the neighbouring King Edward VI School and the Guild Chapel. Both of which would have been familiar to the young William Shakespeare.
Specially-commissioned artworks throughout the site evoke a sense of family life and hint at Shakespeare’s major works that were written during the 19 years he owned New Place.
To the rear of where the house once stood, you can discover the Great Garden. Once part of Shakespeare’s estate, this tranquil and beautiful garden displays sculptures inspired by Shakespeare’s writing. There is also the recently restored Knot Garden, based upon garden designs that Shakespeare himself would have known.
Planning your visit to Shakespeare’s New Place
22 Chapel St, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6EP
Trains from London Marylebone with Chiltern Railways (chilternrailways.co.uk) take two hours, less if you change at Leamington Spa. It’s 40 minutes from Birmingham Moor Street/Snow Hill with London Midland (londonmidland.com).
National Express Coaches (nationalexpress.com) connect with cities such as London, Coventry and Bristol, but while cheaper, journeys are longer.
Transport links are not great so driving, sadly, could be the easiest way to arrive. But there are coach links and a railway station and you could always walk or cycle the 146-mile Shakespeare’s Way (shakespearesway.org) from Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
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Best time to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon
April 23: Shakespeare’s birth and death day, week of the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival stratfordliteraryfestival.co.uk and early in the RSC’s Summer Season, when the town is stuffed with actors, the river looks gorgeous and everyone is fresh after winter.
Other things to do in Stratford-Upon-Avon
1. SHAKESPEARE’S BIRTH PLACE
The birthplace of William Shakespeare is a modest tudor house in the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon. William Shakespeare was born in this house and grew up here with his parents and siblings. He also spent the first five years of his marriage living here with his wife Anne Hathaway.
2. ANNE HATHAWAY’S COTTAGE
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage was originally a farmhouse. It was built in 1463 of cruck construction, when the building would have comprised of just three rooms. Anne, later Shakespeare’s wife, was born in the cottage in 1556.
3. ROYAL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE
The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened on our site next to the River Avon in 1879, after local brewer, Charles Flower donated the land and launched a campaign to build a theatre in the town of Shakespeare’s birth.
After the original theatre was destroyed by fire, the New Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened its doors on an adjacent site in 1932, designed by Elisabeth Scott.
The Royal Shakespeare Company was founded in 1961 by Peter Hall, based in Stratford-upon-Avon and the theatre was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
4. WARWICK CASTLE
Of the many castles still around in the UK, Warwick Castle is the closest to my heart. I spent four of my most formative years at the University of Warwick – which is actually closer to the city of Coventry, but still I spent a lot of time in the town of Warwick and the castle was a constant backdrop to many of my happier memories of my youth.
5. CHARLECOTE PARK
The home of the Lucy family for over 700 years, the mellow brickwork and great chimneys of Charlecote seem to sum up the very essence of Tudor England. There are strong associations with both Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare, who knew the house well. The early Victorian interior contains many objects from Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey and, outside, the balustraded formal garden opens onto a deer park landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown.
Where to stay
1. YOUTH HOSTEL ALVESTON
Although it is referred to by the Youth Hostel Association as the ‘Stratford-Upon-Avon’ hostel, it is actually in the village of Alveston, which is about 5 miles outside of Stratford. So, getting in and out of town will mean you will need a car, or alternatively take public transport or a taxi!
This is low-cost accommodation and also works for backpackers! We actually had a private ensuite room – which was tiny but comfortable – with a set of bunk beds. The property is beautiful with lovely grounds. There is an onsite restaurant or you can self-cater.
2. SHAKESPEARE’S VIEW B&B
Shakespeare’s View is a 5-star bed and breakfast in Stratford-upon-Avon, surrounded by pretty grounds and a fruit orchard. Each bright room has free WiFi and views of the surrounding countryside.
Guests can sample a locally sourced breakfast whilst admiring commanding views over the Avon Valley. Shakespeare’s View boasts a dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking its one acre of garden and orchards.
The pretty village of Snitterfield is a 5-minute walk away and includes a pub, local shop and golf course.
Free parking is available, with Stratford’s centre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre just a 10-minute drive away.
3. MIDSUMMER HOUSE
Set in Stratford-upon-Avon in the Warwickshire region, with Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company nearby, Midsummer House offers accommodation with free WiFi and free private parking.
The bed and breakfast offers a à la carte or Full English/Irish breakfast.
Where to eat
Being a tourist hub there are plenty of places to eat in and around Stratford. Of course, these cater for the masses, but if you are like us, vegan, the options are more limited. We did discover a small cafe in the centre of Stratford, the Plantarium, that is completely vegan. So, no need to think! It is a quaint place and the food was amazing – we recommend it highly.