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Happy birthday Will! – Stratford’s Shakespeare celebrations

By Roger St. Pierre with Hazel Kempster

Given that this is the year n which the world is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Noble Bard’s passing, it’s appropriate that a core chunk of the Midlands’ region known to us as The Heart of England now markets itself more specifically as Shakespeare’s England.

Judging by the happy throngs of Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern and American tourists currently filling the streets of Stratford-Upon-Avon to overflow levels, it’s a sales ploy that’s been working exceptionally well – not that the saga of the great playwright is the only good reason for visiting this delightful area; far from it, for there are myriad counter attractions with which to fill the days.

For starters there are the nearby Cotswold hills, the verdant slopes of their lofty sheep-dotted escarpment etched into by chocolate-box pretty little villages and self-important market towns, hewn from the ubiquitous honey-coloured local sandstone – with must sees including antique-shop packed Broadway and Moreton on the Marsh, the gourmet haven of Stow on the Wold, riverside Burford, venerable Stanway, Bourton on the Water and the sleepy but oddly named Slaughters – hamlets that in reality could not possibly be more peaceful.

Then, both of them to be found just a short drive from Stratford, there are the Georgian watering hole town of Leamington Spa and the history drenched Warwick, whose mediaeval streets are overshadowed by a truly awe-inspiring castle (0871 222 178; www.warwickcastle.com) that hosts a year-round programme of colourful special events.

Here you can witness the meticulously restored 19-metre high, 22-tonne Mighty Trebuchet, the world’s largest mediaeval siege engine, as it is fired twice daily, or take a guided theme walk in the 60-acres of the Capability Brown designed gardens.

The castle’s Time Tower attraction takes visitors on a journey through history, from 914 to the present, witnessing historical events and meeting legacies from the past.

Another mediaeval bastion to visit hereabouts is the once mighty but now largely ruined Kenilworth Castle (020 7973 3529; www.english-heritage.org.uk/kenilworth), with its connections to Henry VIII, his daughter Elizabeth I – ‘Good Queen Bess’  – and her favourite, the mercurial Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

But, of course, it’s the Shakespeare connection that’s the biggest draw of all in these parts.

A frantic cross-country drive got us to Stratford with literally five seconds to spare to be in time for curtain-up on a superb production of Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s newly redeveloped riverside campus (0844 8001110; www.rsc.co.uk), a venue that now houses two thrust stage auditoria – the 1,000-seater Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the 450-seater Swan Theatre – and offers guided tours, free exhibitions and, in its light and airy Rooftop Restaurant, some freshly prepared classic British cuisine.

The five homes now administered by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (01789 201 806; www.shakespeare.org.uk) are scattered in and around town, so you’ll need a car to take you out and about, with each property having its own fascinating tale to tell and each of them worthy to take up more time than you will likely have allowed for.

This year, Shakespeare’s classroom at King Edward VI school is being opened to the general public for the first time while a re-imagining of New Place, the residence where the literary genius lived for the final 19 years of his life, sees the opening of s reconstruction of the original house which had been pulled down way back in 1759 by the then owner, The Reverend Francis Gastrell, because he was being annoyed by the constant flow of visiting Shakespeare enthusiasts.

For a scene-setting orientation before hitting this history trail it will pay to take a guided Stratford Town Walk (01789 290 478; www.stratfordtownwalk.co.uk) or a round town coach tour. It’s also pleasant to see Stratford from the water on a leisurely canal barge outing or an Avon riverboat cruise (01789 295 173; www.canalandrivertours.com). There are several operators to be found at the downtown landings.

In the heart of town, the small but multi award-winning Tudor World Museum (01789 2998 0870; www.tudorworld.co.uk) does not rely on artefacts or period furniture for its appeal but instead colourfully recreates different areas of Tudor life, interwoven with gripping stories of the building’s rich history.

The unique, endlessly fascinating, and hands-on MAD Mechanical Art & Design Museum (01926 865 839; www.themadmuseum..co.uk) exhibits around 60 ingenious and in many cases highly sophisticated examples of handcrafted pieces of mechanical art.

Head out of town to Gaydon and next door to the ultra-busy modern factory that produces the fabulously successful ranges of Jaguar, Range Rover and Land Rover cars you’ll find the recently lavishly upgraded British Motor Museum (www.britishmotormuseum.co.uk; 01926 645 03200) – formerly known as the Heritage Motor Centre.

Here in a futuristic building of hanger-like proportions is the world’s largest collection of historic British motorcars, including exciting prototype, racing and production models from the renowned Jaguar Heritage Collection, along with a vast array of motoring artefacts.

If Stratford’s history-laden ambience puts you well and truly into retro mode then indulge your nostalgia – and good food – cravings at the delightful The Fourteas 1940s Tea Room (01789 293 908; www.thefourteas.co.uk) where the authentic World War II ambience showcases breakfasts, lunches and the highly recommended Ivor Novello Afternoon Tea deal – finger-sandwiches, scones, cakes and big pots of tea – meticulously served by girls in period costume, with nary a tea bag in sight as the tea brews correctly. And don’t worry, you will not need to present a ration card.

Not surprisingly, Stratford-upon-Avon can offer a wide selection of culinary options, from quaint teashops like the Fourteas to Michelin-quality fine dining experiences. There’s a wide range of recommendable accommodations too.

Our choice was the smartly contemporary The Arden (01789 298 682; www.the ardennhotelstratford.com), conveniently located just a few steps across the street from the Shakespeare theatres.

The 45 white, soft grey and pastel-shaded stylishly contemporary bedrooms and suites have flat-screens, free Wi-Fi, DVD players and mini-fridges, plus marble bathrooms and tea and coffee-making facilities. Upgraded rooms and suites add comfortable sitting areas.

Boasting its own dedicated Champagne bar, the hotel’s 95-seat Waterside Brasserie is a popular meeting spot and has a pleasant terrace for al fresco pre-dinner drinks and nibbles – a delightful place framed by a beautifully landscaped Elizabethan knot garden.

On our second evening in town we dined at The Stratford (01789 271 000; www.qhotels.co.uk/thestratford) a large, rather imposing property in the late Victorian traditional grand hotel mould but offering a friendly and not overbearingly stuffy if still a tad formal ambience. Yes, it is a place where you will enjoy dressing-up for dinner,

Besides the main dining room here there’s the elegant Quills Restaurant, with its top-end modern British fayre.

Starter offerings when we were there included our choices of red mullet and seared scallops with saffron rouille sauce and basil cress and pressed ham hock, pickled vegetables, piccalilli dressing and pea shoots, while our mains were duck breast with rosti potatoes, wild mushrooms, pomegranate and kale and rump of lamb with spring greens, watercress purée and herb fondant. Delicious!

Stratford is ideal for short breaks and has enough of substance on offer to make you wish you had a full week or more to spare and its not only the aforementioned masses of tourists who have been drawn to pay homage to Shakespeare in the town of his birth. History records visits by such other great literary icons as Charles Dickens, John Keats, Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy while it also remains to this day very much in favour among the rich and famous, so you can play games of ‘Spot The Celeb’ as you stroll the streets an peruse the procession of designer label outlets strung along the bustling shopping streets.

For further information on Stratford and its environs, go to www.shakespearesengland.co.uk

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