Stratford-Upon-Avon is known as the birthplace of Shakespeare and home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s a charming, very walkable town. I stayed two nights at Stretton House, one of the many bed & breakfasts on Grove Road in the center of town.
Walking around town, I came across the Shakespeare Memorial Fountain and Clock Tower (aka the American Fountain), a large monument presented to the town during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 by American newspaperman George Childs. It may have started out as a fountain, but I didn’t see any water.
Purely by coincidence, my visit was during the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, traditionally celebrated in late April as the actual date is unknown. The town throws a huge birthday parade on Saturday, lining the streets and cheering. It was fun to get lost in the crowd and do some people watching.
I had dinner at the Old Thatch Tavern, built in 1470 and boasting the only remaining thatched building in Stratford-Upon-Avon. (Thatch roofs were banned in the 16th century because of fire hazard.) The tavern is exactly what an American would picture as the perfect pub: warm, full of happy people eating and chatting. The menu is filled with traditional British pub fare. The homemade beer battered haddock and chips with garden peas were delicious. Since I didn’t get my afternoon tea that day, I had tea served in a cute polka-dot cup and saucer with a bright red teapot.
When in Stratford-Upon-Avon, it’s kind of a must to see a Shakespearean play. The Royal Shakespeare Company operates a Globe-style theater in the round experience. There are two narrow levels of graduated seating above the main floor. (Vertigo can be an issue because those seats in the back rows of the balconies are more like tall highchairs, leaning forward precariously.)
The place was packed, but I was fortunate to get a seat on the main level of the Swan Theatre for a showing of As You Like It, starring Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann. You know how, when you’re watching Kenneth Branagh perform Shakespeare, it starts to sound like modern English because he emphasizes the right words and it suddenly makes sense? It was like that. Really well done, great performances, great staging…just a great time.
The biggest nearby attraction is Warwick Castle on the river Avon, a quick taxi or bus ride away. Did you know “Avon” is derived from the Celtic word for river, making “river Avon” translate to “river River?” Now you do.
If you’re looking for a pristine, untouched medieval castle, Warwick is not it. Of all the castles I saw in the UK, Warwick was possibly the most commercial. (I think it’s a tie with Tower of London.) When I was there, they had a stage show based on the Merlin television series and I ran across several “medieval characters.” The outdoor speaker system reminded me of a theme park, playing music and announcements most of the time.
The castle is in excellent condition and full of interesting things to see. Being that this version of the castle dates back to the 12th century, there are stairs and uneven bits of ground. Available activities include watching the operation of a trebuchet or climbing 530 steps to walk the towers and ramparts. I enjoyed the historic tour explaining how the castle remained standing and in such good condition. (Can you say advantageous alliances?)
The castle is surrounded by a dry moat. It’s easy to imagine it full of dirty sludge and water, the only way in or out through the entry tunnel with a portcullis at either end. The tour guide explained the standard defense method was to leave the inner portcullis closed and allow the enemy into the tunnel, then lower the outer portcullis, trapping them inside. After that, it was relatively easy to pick them off from the ledge above. Many would-be invaders died in that tunnel.