Feel free to debate, but aside from religious figures, surely the English playwright William Shakespeare is the most famous person ever to have walked this earth. His works feature on the curriculums of schools across the globe and his plays are acted out everywhere from tiny village halls to Hollywood. And what better way to introduce your children to the Bard than to take them to his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, a historic town about two hours by car or train from central London?
Before you arrive, be sure to book tickets to see a play at one of the many Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) theaters in Stratford-upon-Avon. Once you get there, here is how to really get under the skin of the town and experience Shakespeare’s 16th-century lifestyle. Start at the very beginning, Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
The house where William Shakespeare was born and grew up is bang in the center of town. And with its gabled roofs and exposed timbering, it is pretty much as you would imagine his pad to be, although possibly larger — Will was born into a pretty wealthy family. Wander into each room and meet costumed guides who explain what his day-to-day life was like. We still laugh when we think back to being told that to own a pair of gloves in Shakespeare’s time was like having the latest iPhone!
Next stop: Shakespeare’s school. You will be amazed to find that the King Edward VI school still exists and operates. The bit you go to visit, though, is in the Guildhall, where Shakespeare’s schoolroom would have been. Take part in a typical Tudor lesson, where the schoolmaster takes no nonsense, and expect to be set some homework!
We didn’t actually get to go to Mary Arden’s farm, named for Shakespeare’s mother, because it closes for the winter and reopens in mid-March. This might be one reason to make a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring, summer and fall months. If you do manage to visit, you will get to see a working Tudor farm in action. Meet the animals, follow the costumed guides as they do their farm chores, try goose herding and see a falconry display, all part of life down on the farm.
This is the cottage where Mrs. Shakespeare, formerly known as Anne Hathaway, grew up. A visit to her cottage takes you back to the very beginning of their love story. We met Anne herself here on the eve of her wedding, and she revealed to us the rather scandalous secret that she is carrying. She also told us about the wedding feast and then invited us to explore her beautiful garden, which is far prettier now than it would have been then.
Upon returning to the present day, we learned that Anne’s descendants lived in the cottage right up until 1911, and much of the original furniture still remains in the property. We were looking at the chairs that the Bard could have sat on!
Shakespeare’s New Place is now quite old. Well, actually, it’s not even there anymore, but you can walk around in the beautiful art-filled gardens that replace it and then get to hear the story of Shakespeare’s flash new pad, where it’s thought that he wrote The Tempest. We felt so immersed in the Shakespeare experience by this point that we even began dressing the part!
Next it’s on to the Jacobean home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall, the local doctor. Here you will discover rather gruesome medical procedures that were prescribed at the time and some weird and wonderful medicines too. If you spot some rather unusual fabricated poppy creations in the garden, they might just be ours — we made them at the arts and crafts station that was open on the day we arrived, Remembrance Sunday.
Ready to branch out a little from Shakespeare? It’s time to step into Tudor World. Here we tried our hands at writing with a quill pen, were quizzed to see if we were witches and got a taste of what a hearty meal looked like in Tudor times. For the brave, a ghost tour takes place here in the evenings.
You are probably all historied out by now. Don’t worry, there are quite a few other more modern activities on offer in Stratford-upon-Avon. The MAD (Mechanical Art and Design) Museum is one of these. It’s a whirl of whizzing marbles, clicking levers and spinning balls. The crazy mechanics on display will leave you in awe and the marble maze wall is addictive.
Just across the River Avon, which crosses the town, you can step into a tropical wonderland full of beautiful butterflies. Watch as these incredible creatures flock to fruit or stand mesmerized in the nursery as you watch the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly.
Aside from Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, which is a 5-minute drive out of town, all of these activities and the RSC theaters are within walking distance in the town center. If you’re looking for a centrally located family friendly place to stay check out The Arden Hotel — it’s literally on the theaters’ doorstep.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Anna Tobin except where noted.
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