Stratford-upon-Avon

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, and Shakespeare's hometown certainly puts on a superb show about its most famous son. Emma Knights explores Stratford-upon-Avon.

When A little boy named William Was Born in a Warwickshire town four-and-a-half centuries ago few could have foretold he would become one of England's most prized literary treasures – and that his hometown would become a mecca for those wanting to find out more about the man behind the world-famous poetry and prose.

But this glove-maker's son went on to pen plays and sonnets celebrated across the globe, and over the centuries millions of people worldwide have flocked to Stratford-upon-Avon, a town bursting with pride at its connection with the Bard.

There are references to Shakespeare almost everywhere you look in this pretty town full of historic buildings mixed in with charming little cafes and shops with quirky names such as the As You Like It Cafe and the Mistress Quickly traditional English eatery.

Among the centuries-old properties are five with connections to Shakespeare that are now carefully preserved by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


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They unlock windows into Shakespeare's world, giving visitors insightful snapshots into the life and times of the great writer from his cradle to his grave.

All are easily accessible by walking or the convenient hop-on-hop-off City Sightseeing bus, and at every venue there are enthusiastic guides dressed in period costume eager to share with you their vast knowledge of Shakespeare, his family and the time in which they lived.

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Our sightseeing started where it all began, at Shakespeare's Birthplace, the family home where the young William lived as a child.

Situated in Henley Street, in the centre of Stratford, it has been visited by about 27 million people over the past 150 years, including the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

Great care has gone into re-creating how the house would have looked in the 16th century, and it is wonderful being able to walk through the rooms imagining the young Shakespeare growing up and learning to write there.

In nearby Wilmcote the farm belonging to Shakespeare's grandparents, and now named after his mother Mary Arden, re-enacts 16th century rural life and shows visitors what the farm would have been like when Shakespeare was a boy.

While in Shottery the picture-perfect Anne Hathaway's Cottage, the childhood home of Shakespeare's wife and the very place where the teenage Shakespeare would have courted his love, looks back at the history of Anne and the Hathaway family.

Back in the centre of Stratford is the site where Shakespeare's final home, New Place, once stood. Now the site of the archaeology project Dig for Shakespeare, it is next to Nash's House which belonged to Thomas Nash, the husband of Shakespeare's grandaughter Elizabeth Hall.

The last one of the Shakespeare Houses is Hall's Croft, the home of Shakespeare's eldest daughter Susanna and her physician husband John Hall, and it is near Shakespeare's final resting place.

The dramatist's grave, simply decorated with a poignant vase of red and white roses, is in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church alongside the graves of some of his family members, and a bust has been put up there in his honour.

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, and Shakespeare's hometown certainly puts on a superb show about its most famous son.

emma Knights explores Stratford-upon-Avon.

Of course when it comes to commemorating Shakespeare's literary legacy the play's the thing, and every single day in Stratford his perfectly-crafted verse and prose are brought to life, be it in the superb polished performances of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) or the wealth of outdoor theatre in the town.

During our stay we watched an RSC production of As You Like It, Shakespeare's comedy of banishment, love and concealed identities set in the Forest of Arden.

The show was Shakespeare at its finest – a spectacular performance with superb acting, wonderful costumes and an ingenious yet simple set design.

It left both myself, a big Shakespeare fan, and my boyfriend Oli, who usually prefers fishing to theatre, equally enthralled as we were drawn into the antics of the banished forest-dwellers and watched the young Rosalind, disguised as a boy called Ganymede, try to test the strength of the lovesick Orlando's feelings for her.

The show was performed in the RSC's temporary theatre, The Courtyard Theatre, as its main venue, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST), along with the smaller Swan Theatre, is undergoing an impressive �112.8m revamp in time for the RSC's 50th birthday.

Due to reopen next month with the first performances scheduled for early 2011, the newly-designed RST aims to bring the audience closer to the action with no seat more than 15 metres from the stage. Part of the project also includes a 37-metre theatre tower offering wonderful panoramic views of Stratford, as well as a rooftop restaurant and a riverside walkway.

Our hotel for the weekend was directly opposite the RST on Waterside and just a stone's throw from the Courtyard Theatre and many of the other main tourist sites.

The Arden Hotel is a 45-bedroom boutique hotel that offers the ultimate in luxury and is a great place to stay if you want to make your trip to Stratford extra special.

Recently taken over by the Eden Hotel Collection which has gone into partnership with the RSC, the Arden reopened in July following a �6m refurbishment that earned it the accolade of being named one of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

Each room is named after a tree, and our room, Ash, was spacious and simply beautiful.

Like the rest of the hotel it had a classic yet contemporary feel with a touch of sophisticated opulence and there were lots of little luxurious touches.

The food at The Arden was superb – for breakfast we enjoyed a full English along with pastries, cereals and fruits, while for dinner we savoured a delectable three-course meal of English and French cuisine – and the hotel bars were wonderful for post-show evening drinks.

We also sampled a number of other eateries in Stratford, most notably the charming Vintner cafe and wine bar and the Dirty Duck, a traditional pub with heaps of character. The pub is said to be the favourite haunt of the RSC actors and it has a vast gallery of pictures and autographs on its walls of the many famous faces who have frequented the watering hole.

While most people visit Stratford for its connections to Shakespeare, there is a host of other attractions to enjoy in the area too.

We also explored Warwick Castle with its thousand years of history, while back in Stratford we had a spooky time hearing about ghostly goings-on from the town's unofficial wizard Dave Matthews, of Where Magic Begins, which is based in one of the town's most haunted buildings a few doors down from Shakespeare's Birthplace.

Stratford is also home to what is said to be the UK's largest Butterfly Farm, an enchanting experience surrounded by 2,000 butterflies from across the world.

A visit to Stratford could not be complete without a trip along the river, and so we went out with Bancroft Cruisers to take in our final views of this beautiful town by boat while wishing we could stay a while longer and explore some more.

For, just as Shakespeare's Celia simply says in As You Like It, 'I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.'

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