Shakespeare’s England for the Great Bard’s birthday

Ahead of Shakespeare’s birthday tomorrow, we explore his home county of Warwickshire, one of the UK’s most historic and picturesque destinations

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A pretty street in Warwick, with the towers of Warwick Castle in the background. Credit: Travel Pictures Ltd

In the picture-postcard and chocolate-box markets, one photogenic property has worn the ‘quintessential England’ crown for years: Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Shottery, Warwickshire. With its thatched roof, dark timber beams and leaded windows overlooking an enchanting garden of roses, sweet pea, hollyhocks, delphiniums and scented honeysuckles, it oozes nostalgia and romance. What could be more delightfully appropriate than this pretty rural setting forming the backdrop to the real-life version of Shakespeare in Love?

While the 18-year-old William had to traipse a mile or so over fields from his home in Stratford-upon-Avon to court Anne at her family’s cottage – then called Newlands Farm – today’s visitors typically arrive by car or on the sightseeing bus. Most are quickly seduced by the old farmhouse as they explore the low-ceilinged bedrooms, climb the worn stairways, and view the so-called Wooing Seat where Anne and her much younger beau may have cuddled in front of the parlour’s huge inglenook fireplace.

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A narrowboat on the River Avon with Shakespeare’s burial place, Holy Trinity Church, in the background. Credit: iStock

The two married in 1582 and baby Susanna was born six months later. For the next five years the couple lived with William’s family in Stratford in the half-timbered building now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace on Henley Street. Of the five properties owned and managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is undoubtedly the most intimate and homely, but the most visited is Shakespeare’s Birthplace, where performers in period dress bring domestic Elizabethan routine to life.

For those on the Shakespeare pilgrimage trail, the Trust has another three sites to visit – Hall’s Croft, where Susanna lived with her apothecary husband; Nash’s House and neighbouring New Place, the site of the house where William spent his final years; and Mary Arden’s Farm, the family home of his mother. There is also Holy Trinity Church, where William, Anne, Susanna and her husband are buried in the chancel. The right to a final resting place in the chancel was granted by virtue of William’s status as a lay-rector rather than his virtuosity as a poet and he lies beneath a grave slab inscribed with the warning: “And cursed be he that moves my bones”.

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Kenilworth Castle. Credit: D A Taylor-Hughes

The great poet’s last theatrical line can be read just a stone’s throw from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST), another huge magnet for visitors, whether or not they intend to take in a performance. It is a vast edifice, rising up from the west bank of the River Avon, with a fascinating history. This story is best understood by joining one of the daily tours of the building; the enthusiastic guides can satisfy most queries, including statistical details, architectural history, and the secret stagecraft techniques used for some of the Bard’s most gory scenes. Depending on stage design and rehearsal schedules, the tours usually take in the actors’ ‘quick change’ spaces, wigs and make-up areas, the auditorium with its new thrust stage, and the technical control room, as well as the public areas.

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Nash’s House and New Place garden. Credit: Neil McAllister/Alamy

Although all visitors are free to wander around the public areas, most of those who don’t join the highly recommended tours probably overlook some of the building’s most interesting features and quirks. Who, for example, would recognise the elevated aluminium ticket box in the fabulous Art Deco foyer if it weren’t pointed out to them? Who would grasp the significance of the three chairs looming above diners in the roof-top restaurant? And who would appreciate that the battered-looking floor boards in the main public circulation area are the very stage boards so well trodden by the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and many other famous thespians?

For a small fee, a trip to the RST can include an escalator ride to the 32-metre-level of the tower to enjoy a view that might, on a clear day, reach beyond the nearby National Trust properties of Charlecote Park and Baddesley Clinton and the award-winning art gallery at Compton Verney (all very worthwhile places to visit in the vicinity), and out across the county into Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire.

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The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Credit: Peter Cook/VIEW PICTURES LTD

With wide public spaces, gardens and lawns on both banks, an old-fashioned lock opening into a marina filled with cheerfully painted narrowboats, a bandstand, an old chain ferry and two photogenic bridges with no fewer than 26 arches between them, the town’s riverside is a lovely place to promenade and explore. There’s also the chance to hop on a short river cruise, hire a rowing boat, punt or canoe, play some crazy golf or simply seek out a shady bench beneath a weeping willow and watch the world go by. It can be a busy world at times, especially in high summer or during festivals or special events… just watch out when the rumbustious and totally potty charity raft race rows this way each June.

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