1:35pm Saturday 11th December 2010
My overriding memory of Shakespeare’s birthplace was one of brilliant white buildings – even McDonalds was stripped of its signature red and yellow – and a somewhat sleepy atmosphere.
And, The Bard’s own Juliet was somewhat bustier and more curvaceous than the script would have you believe. At least that was the case in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s take on those young star-crossed lovers all those years ago.
This time round, with two young ones in tow, Shakespeare’s works took more of a backseat but his presence was felt around almost every corner.
The journey from York to Stratford upon Avon was easy and uneventful, enabling us to arrive by midday.
We found a roof-top car park where an elderly attendant in tweed directed us to the last available spot. We then ambled at a toddler’s pace around the centre, which was a hive of activity with shoppers, tourists and buskers – unlike the “sleepy” Stratford I’d remembered.
One of the first landmarks we spied was the 36-metre high tower of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre beside the River Avon, which has just undergone a multi-million pound redevelopment.
Our first spot of sightseeing was done leisurely by boat with Bancroft Cruisers up and down the river, passing the theatres and Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.
We then retraced the route on foot, passing through the leafy riverside Bancroft Gardens to see the great man’s simple grave along with that of his wife’s, before strolling back towards the centre along quiet, quaint streets featuring timber buildings, some leaning with age and oozing charm.
We couldn’t fail to note how many shops, restaurants and guest houses paid homage to the town’s most famous son, with names like Othello, the Taming of the Brew and Will’s Place.
We enjoyed window shopping and couldn’t resist diving into one shop dedicated to the festive season, emerging sometime later with glittery snowball candles.
With daylight fading, we went in search of our hotel. We were guests at The Menzies Welcombe Hotel Spa & Golf Club, just outside Stratford.
The tree-lined drive wound its way up to the entrance of an impressive Jacobean-style country house hotel, built in 1866.
Inside, it boasts many historical features including 19 th century antiques and oil paintings.
The walls are oak panelled, the ceilings high and ornate featuring large chandeliers, while the lounge featured deep-seated sofas by a grand open fireplace.
Our room was at the top of a wide, open staircase.
Once inside, it stretched ahead of us, leading to a large bay window with far-reaching views across the hotel’s gardens and countryside beyond. The hotel has 157 acres of parkland including landscaped Italian gardens, water features and a helicopter pad.
The room itself was lovely, with a four poster bed, impressive fireplace, elegant sofa and solid oak wardrobe while the bathroom had a tub large enough for our eldest to swim in, and two sinks.
We dined in the hotel’s award-winning a la carte restaurant, overlooking the terrace and views beyond. Both boys were on their best behaviour, enabling us to indulge in a delicious three-course meal from a menu of English and European dishes.
The following morning, breakfast was an equally impressive affair with a healthy choice of self-service hot and cold buffets.
As it was raining, we lingered in the hotel, enjoying the crackling log fire in the lounge before spending an hour in the Spa pool, and braving the outside chill to reach the deliciously warm Vitality Pool. There were also saunas, steam rooms and treatment rooms for those with more time, and no children in tow.
With the rain worsening, we spent the afternoon in the Butterfly Farm in Stratford, where stunning butterflies happily fly and feed around the visitors, and all manner of creepy crawlies are on view including a giant millipede that was happy to be handled.
Sadly, the visit was marred by the number of people who picked up the butterflies, or even prised open their wings for a better look, despite the “Don’t touch” signs.
After a wet walk to the centre, we sought refuge in Shakespeare’s birthplace, which was also his home during his early years, and saw where his father ran a glove-making workshop. Stomachs rumbling, we were spoilt for choice, with many appealing eateries from all corners of the globe. We settled in at The Garrick, reputed to be Stratford’s oldest pub, where we nursed mulled wine, and tucked into traditional favourites – homemade steak pie, fish and chips, and a burger and chips.
On our third and final day we visited Warwick Castle en route home. I suspect we failed to do justice to the attraction, which boasts nearly 1,000 years of history, however we managed to meet headless spirits roaming the Great Hall, saw Merlin casting spells on the mound, took the obligatory photo of Miles with Henry VIII and dared to venture deep down to the Gaol.
Our whistle-stop trip to Stratford revealed how much I’d forgotten since my first visit, and left me with a lasting impression of a not-so-sleepy, charming town, full of character with plenty to see, eat and do.
For accommodation, brochures, special offers and more information, visit the official website shakespeare-country.co.uk or phone Shakespeare Country on 0870 160 7930.
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