Shakespeare House (c) G Lofthouse

Weekends Away: Stratford Upon Avon

Weekends away: Stratford Upon Avon

As the birthplace of Shakespeare, the Warwickshire town is perfect for a cultured weekend away, but there’s plenty more to discover, too

Inevitably the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Stratford is its connections to Shakespeare. Devotees will not be disappointed: there is his birthplace: a suitably creaky timbered home (pictured top); you can see where he spent his school days; there’s the pretty thatched cottage that was home to his wife Anne Hathaway; his family home New Place –  long since demolished and now a commemorative garden; Hall’s Croft, which was home to Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna and husband Dr John Hall; Mary Arden’s Farm, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother, and Holy Trinity where he was buried. The list goes on.

His birthplace is a good place to start. Rather incongruously, this handsome and modest house sits not among other 16th century buildings, but on a modern shopping street. You can’t miss it. It is wonderfully atmospheric and the exhibition brings to life the story of young William, one of eight children, whose father became mayor. 

Of course, you can also take in a play: Stratford being home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which focuses on works by Shakespeare, other renaissance dramatists as well as contemporary writers. 

This summer, the RSC will be performing As You Like It – which is believed to have been written when the Bard was staying down the road at Billesley Manor. This was to be our base for the night, and it is a stunning. There has been a manor house on the site since the Norman Conquest, made originally from wood, and later in stone. Today, the grade II listed building houses a hotel and spa, peacefully set within 11 acres of Warwickshire countryside.

Billesley Manor plays on its Shakespeare associations with its As You Like It lounge – a fun family room where books are suspended from the ceiling. The rest is high-end country retreat: dark timbered panels, grand stair cases and ornate mullioned windows. Guests can enjoy cocktails beside a crackling log fire in the lounge, before enjoying serious cooking in the grand dining room. Here we enjoyed starters of curry cured salmon (a surprising success!), a beetroot terrine (wonderful texture – a touch more acidity would have made it even better) and an intensely flavoured main course of venison.

The hotel works for all weathers: you can stroll around the grounds, which include a delightful topiary chess set, and play tennis, or stay indoors for the spa, and the swimming pool – a hit with family guests. Also for families, there are interconnecting bedrooms. They’re generously sized and extremely comfortable, in a contemporary style. 

Nearby is All Saints’ Church. It is possible that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway there – and records note that his granddaughter, Elizabeth Nash, was married there in 1646.

Images: Stratford upon Avon (c) Lorentz Gullachsen / Shakespaw Cat Cafe (c) T Lofthouse
Images: Billesley Manor

It is an easy 10 to 15 minute drive from here to Stratford, and the town is a pleasant place for a wander. We enjoyed the market by the river selling arts and crafts and with a street food section where you can pick up some snacks to enjoy in Bancroft Gardens.

We checked out ShakesPaw Cat Café (over 10s only) which is home to eight friendly rescue cats. They have names such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Bottom, and it’s very endearing to see them wandering between the two floors of the quaint tea room. Cats being cats, don’t expect them perform to order, unless it is treat time or you can coax them to play with one of the many toys on offer. They are inquisitive and quite happy to be stroked 

We also took a visit to the Museum of Mechanical Art & Design, with everything from the Bayeux Tapestry recreated as a clockwork wooden model to a mechanical spider designed to move as realistically as possible. Impressive stuff.

Had the weather been better, we would have taken a boat trip along the River Avon, where you can potter along the water on a self-drive motor boat, punt or rowing boat. There’s a butterfly farm too, with hundreds of them flying around inside a tropical environment. They also have animals from the rainforests of Central America, including ‘Kenny the Spectacled Caiman’.

There’s plenty to see and do in this compact town, as well as on its doorstep. Had we more time, then we would have headed to the British Motor Museum in Gaydon, or to Warwick Castle – on previous visits, we loved the display of the mighty trebuchet and the gory dungeon. Stratford also makes a very civilised spot to take an overnight break on a long road trip north and south.

More weekend inspiration: the spa city of Bath.