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Shakespeare’s England – Stratford-upon-Avon:
The Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon must be one of the best places in the UK for a weekend break. I was there to find out more about Shakespeare’s England – explore Shakespeare’s birthplace, visit the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company and take in a play at The Swan Theatre. All this whilst enjoying a little luxury staying in one of the town’s finest hotels and of course, making sure to fit in a quintessentially English afternoon tea.
The Arden Hotel
The Arden Hotel is a charming 45 bedroom boutique hotel in a Stratford-upon-Avon situated a just a stone’s throw away from the Holy Trinity Church and wonderfully close to the waterfront. What makes it such a special location is its extremely close proximity to the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company’s stunning theatre – the perfect place to stay if you are a Shakespeare aficionados or a theatre lover like myself.
We were met in the private car park by Peter who took our bags and escorted us to the sophisticated reception where we were greeted with a cordial welcome into the warmth of this refined hotel. In addition to the decadent rooms, The Arden Hotel also hosts a glamorous champagne bar and a snug afternoon tea lounge as well as its celebrated Waterside Brasserie.
Named after Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, and situated so wonderfully close to theatre-world, it pays tribute to the many actors who have trodden the boards at the RSC over the years with portraits of famous faces, hung in pride along the hotel walls.
We found our deluxe room through a labyrinth of corridors. Elegant and spacious, with a luxurious cosy seating area. it was decorated in cream with soft furnishings in hues of moss green and ochre. The majestic bed was remarkably comfortable; combined with the gloriously peaceful surroundings we had all the ingredients for a blissful nights sleep.
Fresh coffee and tea was available to make for yourself in the room and the small fridge was supplied with fresh milk. It was quite big enough to keep your own drinks cold, a great idea which I much prefer to a mini bar, especially if, like The Arden, the hotel offers great service so you can order drinks quickly and easily to your room
The bathroom was palatial, with a large bath, luxurious walk-in shower and with soft fluffy towels and gowns at our disposal.
On our first evening, we had dinner in the hotel’s Waterside Brasserie where we sampled the delights of head chef Abhijeet Dasalka’s creative menu. Right by the waterside, with al-fresco tables available, I imagine it is an especially wonderful setting during the summer months.
But, at this time of year, we were grateful to be seated in the warmth of a comfy booth in the open plan restaurant.
We started the evening with a bottle of Cuvée Paul Bocuse, a crisp white wine with refreshing acidity and citrus notes. Accompanied by a good selection of chunky fresh bread and olives it was a great way to take the edge off our appetites.
I chose to start with a tasty, well-portioned charcuterie meat platter with olives feta and sourdough, while my friend enjoyed the firm, fresh sweet cured herring, served with a seasoned potato terrine, crème fraiche and salad leaves.
My pan seared sea bream and haricot cassoulet with curly kale was absolutely delicious – the fish was lovely and crisp on the outside with soft flaky textured flesh, which was complemented by the fresh tender kale, the creamy lemony flavours of the cassoulet and the tart edge of capers.
My companion’s wild mushroom ravioli with shaved Parmesan cheese was perfectly al dente with an earthy mushroom filling.
For dessert I had my forever favourite, vanilla crème brûlée. I wasn’t disappointed, the filling was rich, smooth and creamy with a sweet crispy topping with a small crunchy homemade shortbread on the side.
My friend enjoyed the light and fluffy Earl Grey sponge with a lemon and earl grey sauce.
The Waterside Brasserie offers great food in a lovely setting. After a pleasurable dinner and a long working week, I was more than delighted to be able to climb the stairs and lay my head down on the plump pillows in our superb room for a peaceful night’s sleep.
The next morning after a good breakfast in the hotel dining room we set out in the cold winter air to discover a little more about Shakespeare’s birthplace. First stop was a tour of the town, taking in Shakespeare’s houses, school and place of burial.
The Stratford Town Walk
The Stratford Town Walk is the brainchild of John and Helen who got the idea when they visited Cornwall and joined a walk around the small Cornish village of Fowey. Both fiercely proud of their historic hometown they decided to do the same on their return home and set up the Town Walk over 15 years ago in 2002, providing visitors and locals with a daily opportunity (even Christmas day) to find out more about this historical birthplace of William Shakespeare.
It helped that Helen our tour guide; on this bright crisp Saturday morning was a delightful, witty and highly knowledgeable personality. We started at the RSC theatre and heard a little of the history of this building, urged by Helen to make sure that taking in a show is on our life’s bucket list of must do’s. Helen provided a full background to the building’s history, however for more about the RSC and its attractions please look out for my next post.
As we set off on our walk, Helen drew our attention to a very fine memorial statue of the great Bard himself, which is well positioned in Bancroft Gardens looking out to the bridge. The stunning statue of bronze and stone features the great man seated in repose clutching a manuscript. On each corner of the memorial is a character depicting the works of Hamlet, Prince Hal, Lady Macbeth and Falstaff; Philosophy, Tragedy, History and Comedy respectively.
Although the tour is intended to provide a fascinating insight to the town’s history and stunning architecture ranging through the centuries, it also includes a full account of the rich and glorious life of the man that put Stratford on the map, William Shakespeare.
We stood outside the home in Henley Street, where William was bought up as a child and where he bought his wife to live after their marriage; the great bard was just eighteen and Anne (Hathaway) a mature twenty-six while Helen told us more.
We hear how the home shared with his parents was made out of over 60 trees from the nearby Forest of Arden and held together with daub and wattle. We imagine the life they lived, sitting upright in beds due to poor chests from breathing in smoke from the open fires, playing games on the ‘board” used as a table, possibly the origin of board games! We hear all about his father’s glove-making business and success in becoming the Town’s Mayor. William was clearly from a wealthy and distinguished family.
Helen pointed out a building opposite (now the home of Crabtree and Evelyn), where Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith lived with her husband, Thomas Queeney. Apparently, Shakespeare disapproved of this union, something we gather from the little he left her in his will. It is suspected that the disapproval was linked to the tale of the curse put on the couple by the mother whose daughter died in childbirth, that child named as that of Judith’s husband. And, that curse is said to have resulted in all three sons born to Judith dying early. We hear how Hamnet, Judith’s twin and Shakespeare’s only heir to continue the Shakespeare name, died at the age of 12. We are later taken past Halls Croft, the home of Shakespeare and Anne’s elder daughter Susanna who despite two marriages remained childless.
We continued onwards and sought refuge from the sunny but chilly autumn day, to sit in the Guild Chapel, an important historic building dating back to 1269. As we sit in the in the soft elm pews surrounded by the lime wash walls and medieval wall paintings, Helen tells us how these historic etchings had been covered up on orders to Shakespeare’s father following the Reformation, when he was the Chamberlain of the Corporation of Stratford. Luckily they have been rediscovered and provide a perfect backdrop as we continue our journey gaining insight into Shakespeare’s life and influences. Helen informs us that we are about to visit the school building where Shakespeare was Educated. The stunning Victorian building is still a grammar school today and it is incredible to imagine a young Shakespeare learning Latin and Greek in the same building that from the outside looks unchanged. We suspect that despite doing well Shakespeare was a reluctant scholar:
Then the whining school- boy, with his satchel
And shining- morning face, creeping likes a snail
Unwillingly to school
(W. Shakespeare – As You Like It)
That could so easily be Shakespeare describing his own feelings and explain why despite doing well he didn’t go on to Oxford or Cambridge like so many of his peers.
The Guild Chapel sits opposite the New Place, once the final home of Shakespeare and by far the grandest. Sadly this was torn down by its last owner, frustrated with the constant flow of tourists visiting the site. Of course, the demolition didn’t stop the flow of eager visitors wanting to see where Shakespeare spent his final years and after being thoroughly excavated the site is now devoted to beautiful gardens containing a number art pieces inspired by the archaeologist’s findings.
The tour meandered through the streets of Stratford, passing Puck, a statue of the mischievous pixie in Twelfth Night, taking us past the beautiful houses associated with Shakespeare and his family. Although the tour itself doesn’t stop to go into the homes, Helen and John offer discounted vouchers to visit all the historically rich and interesting places associated with the man that made Stratford famous, attracting visitors from all over the world.
Our last resting place was fittingly where Shakespeare himself rests, in the warm, welcoming and beautifully adorned Church of Holy Trinity. William Shakespeare was baptised here on April 25th, 1616. The church still possesses the original Elizabethan register showing his baptism and burial and the font where he was baptised that was found disused in a local garden nearby, restored and reinstated in its rightful place. At pride of place in the 15th-century Chancel lays the graves of Shakespeare, his wife Anne, and his eldest daughter Susanna. It was his prominent position as “lay rector” of the church that would have secured his burial spot in the Chancel rather than any claim to fame as a play writer and poet.
Above Shakespeare’s grave is an epitaph said to put a curse on anyone trying to remove the bones from within the grave, as was customary in those days 15 years after the interment to make room for further burials. Shakespeare is thought to have insisted this would not happen to him, hence inscribed on his stone:
Good friend for Jesus sake forebear,
To dig the dust enclosed here
Bleste be ye man yt spares these stones
and cursed be he yt moves my bones.
We learnt that there is more to the town than the great man himself. The stunning Garrick Inn is reputed to be the oldest pub in Stratford, a half-timbered Elizabethan building built in 1718. The pub is named after the great Shakespearean actor David Garrick who also lends his name to the famous Garrick theatre in London.
Wandering around the theatre quarter of the streets of Stratford you can also have fun trying to the spot the variety of lampposts that have been donated to the town from other counties as well as overseas. Most are in keeping with the towns Elizabethan and Victorian architecture but there is a particularly jaunty one from Israel adorned with characters from Shakespeare’s plays situated by the RSC.
This is a very informative and entertaining tour and well worth checking out if you are planning a visit to Stratford.
Afternoon Tea at Hathaway’s Tea Room
As you can imagine no trip to Strafford would be complete without a quintessentially English afternoon tea. We chose to go to Hathaway’s Tea Rooms, which is situated in a Grade II listed building on the High Street. Established in 1931, with Tudor beams and leaded windows it provides the ideal period setting for an authentic afternoon tea experience.
According to deeds now held by the Shakespeare Archives on Henley Street, in 1728 the property was known locally as The George Inn and was owned by Daniel Yeates of Hampton Lovett who purchased number 19 and 20 High Street for £160.
In 1738 ownership was passed to a bookseller, and 1752 to 1803 the property took on a medical role, serving first as an apothecary and later combining a surgery.
From the mid-nineteenth century, a boot and shoe manufacturer occupied the property. Finally, in 1931, it became known as Hathaway Tea Rooms.
During our visit, we had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Rick, who clearly has invested his heart and soul in making this the perfect venue to provide locals and visitors with traditional homemade lunches and teas. During the summer months, there’s the added bonus of specially made picnic baskets to while away sunny afternoons by the Avon.
But on this cold winters afternoon, pots of hot steaming tea and a selection of magnificent cakes, sandwiches, and scones with clotted cream and jam were just what we fancied. We tucked into a feast of generously filled sandwiches from a range of all the old favourites. We chose the delicious smoked salmon and cream cheese, plump Marie Rose prawns and creamy egg mayonnaise and cress.
The homemade scones were large enough to be eaten as a stand-alone treat, they were light and fluffy and served with plenty of cream and jam. We didn’t have much room left for cakes, but what we couldn’t eat Rick kindly offered us to take home.
Hathaway’s felt like a real step back in time, offering a delicious and hearty cream tea in a very English setting.
As darkness fell over Stratford, I was struck by just how pretty it looked as we stepped out of the tearooms into the festive High Street, adorned with sparkling Christmas lights, and made our way back to the comfort of our hotel.
Please follow my part 2 of my trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I will be writing all about my visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Arden Hotel:
Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 6BA
Phone: 01789 298682
Stratford Town Walk – Daily Town walk, Mon – Fri at 11 am Sat & Sun at 11 am & 2 pm. Christmas Day at 10.30 am
19 High Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 6AU
Phone: 01789 264022
Thank you to Shakespeare’s England for arranging such a fantastic trip to Stratford-upon-Avon – for more information check out their website
If you are thinking of visiting yourself, why not pin this post for later