Play­ing around in Shake­speare’s Strat­ford

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel - Rick Steves

To see or not to see? Non­lit­er­ary types might find Eng­land’s Strat­fordupon-Avon to be much ado about noth­ing, but Shake­speare’s home­town is blan­keted with op­por­tu­ni­ties for bar­dola­try. It’s an easy side trip from Lon­don, but an overnight stay is best to take in a per­for­mance of the world’s best Shake­speare en­sem­ble.

Within Strat­ford’s com­pact old town, you can walk eas­ily to most sights. The River Avon, which flows right through town, has an idyl­lic yet play­ful feel, with row­boats and swans; there’s also an old, one­man, crank-pow­ered ferry just be­yond the Royal Shake­speare The­atre. If you’ll ever en­joy a Shake­speare per­for­mance, it’ll be here; even if you flunked English lit.

The prime sight in town is Shake­speare’s Birth­place, a half-tim­bered El­iz­a­bethan build­ing where the play­wright grew up. This is also the house where Shake­speare and his bride, Anne Hath­away, be­gan their mar­ried life to­gether. I have to ad­mit that I find the birth­place it­self a bit un­der­whelm­ing. It’s as if mil­lions of vis­i­tors have rubbed it clean of any­thing au­then­tic. Still, the house makes for a good in­tro­duc­tion to the Bard, largely thanks to its en­ter­tain­ing mod­ern ex­hibit (which you see at the start of your visit) and the help­ful, well-versed (and of­ten cos­tumed) do­cents. With some imag­i­na­tion you might get the sense that Shake­speare’s ghost still haunts th­ese halls.

To get a sense for the play­wright’s early ed­u­ca­tion, visit Shake­speare’s The pic­turesque River Avon runs through Strat­ford-upon-Avon, home­town of Wil­liam Shake­speare. The Hath­away fam­ily cot­tage in Shot­tery is where Shake­speare’s wife, Anne, grew up. The cou­ple’s courtship be­gan on the prop­erty, which fea­tures a sculp­ture gar­den.

School­room and Guild­hall. You can test a quill pen and play Tu­dor games in his class­room from the 1570s, and ex­plore a guild head­quar­ters and chapel to learn about so­cial in­fra­struc­ture in Shake­speare’s day.

Shake­speare spent most

of his ca­reer in Lon­don, where he taught his play­go­ing pub­lic about hu­man na­ture with plots that en­ter­tained both the high­est and the low­est minds. His tool was an un­ri­valed mas­tery of the English lan­guage. He re­tired — rich and fa­mous — back in

Strat­ford.

Noth­ing re­mains of the house the Bard built when he made it big (it was de­mol­ished in the 18th cen­tury). But the at­mo­spheric man­sion grounds, now adorned with mod­ern sculp­tures and tra­di­tional gar­dens, form an­other tourist sight: Shake­speare’s New Place. It’s fun to con­tem­plate him writ­ing “The Tem­pest” in the place he called home for nearly 20 years. Next door, the house of Shake­speare’s grand­daugh­ter (and her hus­band) hosts ex­hibits, in­clud­ing a large-scale model of Shake­speare’s house, do­mes­tic ar­ti­facts and pe­riod cloth­ing.

Hall’s Croft, the old Ja­cobean former home of Shake­speare’s daugh­ter, is the fan­ci­est of the Shake­speare-re­lated houses. Since Su­sanna mar­ried a doc­tor, the ex­hibits here are fo­cused on 17th-cen­tury

medicine. There’s lit­tle here about Su­sanna’s dad, but the do­cents there can help bring the plague — and some of the bizarre reme­dies of the time — to life.

Along with Shake­speare’s birth­place, my fa­vorite of the five main sights is Mary Ar­den’s Farm, the girl­hood home of Wil­liam’s mom. The farm is in Wilm­cote, about 3 miles from Strat­ford, just two train stops from Strat­ford’s sta­tion and a five-minute walk from Wilm­cote’s sta­tion.

Built around two his­toric farm­houses, this at­trac­tion is an open-air folk mu­seum de­pict­ing 16th-cen­tury farm life, and it hap­pens to have ties to Shake­speare. It’s an ac­tive, hands-on place with pe­riod in­ter­preters in Tu­dor cos­tumes go­ing through the day’s chores such as milk­ing the sheep and cut­ting wood to do re­pairs on the house.

Anne Hath­away’s Cot­tage is the 12-room farm­house where the Bard’s wife grew up. (It’s a mile out of town in Shot­tery — a

30-minute walk from cen­tral Strat­ford, a stop on the hop-on, hop-off tour bus or a quick taxi ride from town). Wil­liam courted Anne here — she was 26, he was only 18 — and his tac­tics proved suc­cess­ful. (Maybe a lit­tle too much, as she was sev­eral months preg­nant at their wed­ding.) The Hath­away fam­ily lived here for 400 years, un­til

1911, and much of the fam­ily’s 92-acre farm re­mains part of the sight.

The pic­turesque thatched cot­tage looks cute enough to eat, with tran­quil gar­dens (along with a charm­ing sculp­ture gar­den). It’s fun to imag­ine the writer of some of the world’s great­est ro­mances woo­ing his fa­vorite girl right here dur­ing his for­ma­tive years.

Shake­speare’s grave is in the river­side Holy Trin­ity Church, back in town, where he had been serv­ing as a rec­tor in his last years. While the church is sur­rounded by an evoca­tive grave­yard, the Bard is in­stead en­tombed in a place of honor, in­side the church and right in front of the altar.

Shake­speare’s home­town is sev­enth heaven for English ma­jors and ac­tors, but Strat­ford-upon-Avon’s half-tim­bered charm, with col­or­ful canal­boats and punts ply­ing the river, make Strat­ford a fun stop for any­one. You might even come home with a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the en­dur­ing im­pact made by his­tory’s most re­mark­able play­wright, Wil­liam Shake­speare.

Rick Steves

(www.rick steves.com)

writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at

and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

steves.com [email protected]

CAR­RIE SHEP­HERD/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

CAMERON HEWITT/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

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