TO VISIT OR NOT TO VISIT: Stratford-upon-Avon – it’s not all about Shakespeare
Few will dispute that Stratford-upon-Avon is all about Shakespeare. But what if you’re not barmy about the bard? Is a visit to the English town dedicated to the birth, life, death – and legacy – of the world’s greatest playwright worth the time? To visit or not visit, that is the question.
The answer, of course, is yes, for despite its reputation, the charming market town is one of Britain’s most tourist-centric destinations, and not because there’s much ado about nothing.
From its lively pedestrian mall to bucolic parks and river vistas, and a host of activities that definitely will not re-ignite any past terrors of English studies in high school, there is plenty to engage, or distract, even the most disinterested literary visitor.
Consider these suggestions for a Shakespeare-less visit to Stratford:
Walk-about: With a compact, walkable core, Stratford boasts 16th-century half-timbered buildings; a bustling pedestrian zone on Henley Street (often featuring street performers) with shops such Roly’s Fudge, The House of Spells, and The Teddy Bear Shop; and lively riverside park in front of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which can include a pop-up outdoor food and craft market. And just down the street from the RST is The Dirty Duck pub, with outdoor seating, to enjoy a cleansing ale.
Punting on the Avon: Group boat tours from Avon Boating offer a relaxing sightseeing excursion (including gin tasting tours) with audio guides through town along the River Avon, but visitors can also do it themselves by renting a rowboat, canoe, paddleboard, or even a motorboat.
Ghost Walk: The award-winning Stratford Town Ghost Walk features professional entertainer guides who escort visitors around Stratford-upon-Avon to discover its “haunted” streets and hear “true tales” of ancient creaky buildings seeping with tales of ghosts, witches, murder, and misery.
Butterfly farm: Across the River Avon, the Stratford Butterfly Farm is home to exotic butterflies and some of the world’s largest and camouflaged caterpillers.
Shakespeare Distillery: Located on the outskirts of town, the Shakespeare Distillery crafts spirits with a twist of history. Taking inspiration from the Tudor herb garden, they fuse together complex, and often forgotten, botanicals with modern distilling equipment to produce exceptionally smooth real craft gins. The distillery is open to the public for tours, as well as a weekly ‘Gin School’ where visitors can distil their own unique gin.
Mad Museum: For kids of all ages, this interactive “mechanical art & design” museum, located in Henley Street, promotes various scientific disciplines through a kaleidoscope of colours, unusual sounds, flashing lights, and movements. More than 90 pieces of kinetic art and automata on are display from inventors from around the world.
Cycle tour: Stretching for 9 km from the centre of town, the Stratford Greenway follows a former rail line and is part the national cycle route. The traffic-free route meanders through a host of green space that can be explore on foot or by bike, which can be rented at Stratford Hire. The trail has picnic spots and abundant wildlife.
Warwick Castle: About 20 minutes from Stratford, the magnificent medieval castle features attractions and live entertainment for all ages with highlights including the scenic view from atop the Conqueror’s Fortress, the largest working catapult in the world, and 25 hectares of exquisite landscaped gardens.
The S word: Of course, Shakespeare, who was born and lived in Stratford, is omnipresent about town, and really ought not be ignored (even if one could). Skeptics should note that though the Bard may be the draw, many sites are interesting in their own right as focus points for history, social studies, and architecture.
Holy Trinity Church, for example, is a lovely setting beyond the attraction of Shakespeare’s grave, while Shakespeare’s home (‘New Place’) boasts beautiful gardens in the back. And Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is a stunning example of a half-timbered Tudor structure and gardens, while the top-rated Royal Shakespeare Theatre also puts on productions from playwrights besides Shakespeare.
Visitors will certainly discover countless references around town both to and from Shakespeare that they may not have connected to him, perhaps even prompting a new and unexpected appreciation. Such as the timeless wisdom imparted on one of his statues that reminds us that “Foolery, Sir, doth walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”
To that end, if I may venture, it would be foolery to skip Stratford due to disdain, or even simple lack of interest, in Shakespeare. There is much to see and do in this Cotswold enclave, and, after all, as the playwright once penned, “All’s well that ends well.”
First published at Travel Industry Today