As one might imagine, London is January is dreary, cold, and damp. While these characteristics do not detract from the city’s quirky red busses and gothic spires, they do, unfortunately, make for shit pictures. However, there was one spectacular day when the sun did come out and I was finally able to trade in my polka-dotted wellies for my more stylish pair of brown boots with a three inch heel. Fortunately this magnificent weather corresponded with a day trip I took to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, located in the county of Warwickshire.
Suburban and quaint as all English towns tend to be, Stratford-upon-Avon is approximately 75 miles northwest of London, which equates to a two-and-a-half hour train ride from London Kings Cross. Train tickets can be a bit pricy at £51 (or $82.62) one way. However, if you are willing to sacrifice some sleep and pay for your ticket in advance, it is possible to take the 6:17 a.m. train for only £6 (or $9.72). Tickets for roundtrip journeys must be purchased separately, so planning ahead and price shopping on the National Rail website could end up saving you money that you would rather spend someplace else (like on lunch, or on your spring break trip to Barcelona). In addition to taking the train, many university student unions sponsor subsidized bus trips. At University College London (UCL), the student union hosts “Give-It-A-Go” jaunts to various cities, attractions, and regions in the United Kingdom, including Cambridge, Stonehenge, and Wales. Ticket prices vary depending on the trip; however, tickets for the Stratford-upon-Avon bus had cost me only £16 ($25.92).
Stratford-upon-Avon is perhaps most famous for being the town in which William Shakespeare lived and died. The town’s tributes to the bard range from Shakespeare inspired coffee houses and bridal shops (aptly named “The Bard” and “Shakespeare in Love,” respectively) to the Gower monument, which features a statue of Shakespeare overlooking his most memorable creations—Lady Macbeth, Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Hamlet. The Royal Shakespeare Company is also headquartered in Stratford, with the troop’s home theater located on the banks of the sparkling Avon River.
The most historic buildings associated with the playwright have been preserved through the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and are open to visitors year round. The buildings include the house in which Shakespeare was born; the home of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, which is now a working Tutor farm; and Hall’s Croft, the house of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna. Shakespeare purchased his final home, New Place, in 1597 after establishing himself as a playwright in London. This house is believed to be the site at which he penned The Tempest, and is also the place in which he died in 1616. The house was demolished in 1759 and, over the past year, has been the site of an archeological dig sponsored by the University of Birmingham. Through this dig, treasures such as jewelry presumably owned by the Shakespeare family have been unearthed. The foundations of New Place, as well as the adjacent house of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, are also open to visitors.
The cottage of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (no relation to the woman who recently “Dreamed a Dream,” I assure you), is located about a mile outside of the town’s center. While it is possible to get there by car, those looking for a more scenic experience may want to take the narrow footpath that winds through people’s backyards and across grassy fields. In one such backyard, I was surprised to discover two ponies, casually grazing. The dog walkers and mothers with small toddling children who also frequented the path were incredibly friendly and willing to give me directions when I thought I was lost. Although the grounds were surprisingly lush for mid-winter, Hathaway’s thatched roof cottage is surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens, which I have been assured are most beautiful during the spring and summer months. The lavender maze, which has been the site of many a marriage proposal, is also a fragrant, highly sensory experience recommended for anyone who is not too allergic to pollen.
A ticket to tour all five sites cost £19.35 if purchased online and will grant you unlimited access to houses owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for twelve months.
Although not associated with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Church of the Holy Trinity, at which Shakespeare was baptized, married and buried, still stands on the banks of the Avon. Built in 1210, the chapel’s grounds are covered in grave markers dating back to the seventeenth century, offering a morbid yet fascinating testament to how long the church has been a staple of Stratford community. The church is still heavily used by the townspeople, and there are portions of the chapel sectioned off for private prayer, bible study, and Sunday school.
Rather charmingly, the door leading into the church has a clearance of only 5 feet, forcing even the most petite visitors to duck inside (three inch heels were not the most appropriate for this one). While there may be something unorthodox about charging people to enter any church, the fee to enter Holy Trinity, being only 50 pence for students with a school ID, is negligible and, as I repeatedly told myself, should not warrant a complaint. Inside, visitors will find a facsimile of the church register recording Shakespeare’s baptism and burial. In the chancel at the very end of the aisle lie the tombs of Shakespeare, his wife Anne, his daughter Susanna, and her husband John Hall.
Adjacent to them is the Shakespeare’s funerary monument, which features a wooden carving of the playwright with a Latin inscription that translates to “A Pylian in judgment, a Socrates in genius, a Maro in art. The earth buries him, the people mourn him, Olympus possesses him.” Perhaps to the people of Stratford, and, in many respects, to the entire English-speaking world, Shakespeare was an Olympian resident on earth who was more in tune with the Greek Muses than anyone else ever will be.
Although Shakespeare’s presence is keenly felt throughout the town, those who are less excited by the playwright’s life will find Stratford-upon-Avon delightful for its tiny china- and tea-shops and its attractive cafes. The Avon is also a picturesque river filled with swans and other wildlife, and it is perfect for both rowing and long scenic walks along the banks. This tiny town, with its literary heritage and distinctly English architecture is worth a visit for either a day or a weekend and will not disappoint those looking for a slower-paced way to spend some time outside of bustling London.