x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

My Kind of Place: poetic splendour in Stratford-on-Avon

Matthew Brace's hometown pleases lovers of Shakespeare and simple Anglophiles alike.

A view of Clopton Bridge on the Avon. Famous as Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford attracts more than three million visitors annually. Photolibrary.com
A view of Clopton Bridge on the Avon. Famous as Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford attracts more than three million visitors annually. Photolibrary.com

Why Stratford-upon-Avon?

Whether you are a Shakespearean scholar or discovering his work for the first time, there is nowhere like Stratford to set the Elizabethan scene. Although Shakespeare wrote most - if not all - of his plays in London, Stratford was his home town and where he spent his childhood and adolescence. The town and its surrounding countryside is undoubtedly where he got much of his inspiration. Even if Shakespeare does not excite you (don't mention that to the residents), it's still a very pretty English town in which to relax for a few days and admire crooked cottages, fragrant public gardens and the graceful River Avon with its signature swans and weeping willow trees.

A comfortable bed

Stratford has been offering beds to weary travellers for more than 800 years. Today, thanks to its fame as William Shakespeare's birthplace, it welcomes more than three million visitors every year and has a clutch of luxury hotels and scores of B&Bs and guesthouses. To do Stratford in style, the best bet is the four-star Menzies Welcombe Hotel (www.welcombehotelstratford.co.uk or www.menzieshotels.co.uk; 00 44 178 929 5252; double rooms from £140 [Dh840] per night, including taxes but excluding breakfast). It is a five-minute drive or 30-minute walk out of town, surrounded by pastoral Warwickshire countryside and a championship golf course. There's a well-marked path across the Welcombe Hills to Stratford's Maidenhead Road that leads downhill straight to the Shakespeare Birthplace.

If you'd rather be at the centre of town, try the recently refurbished Falcon Hotel (www.legacy-hotels.co.uk; 00 44 844 411 9005; double rooms cost from £110 [Dh660] per night, including breakfast and taxes). The 16th-century timber-framed, black-and-white building sits opposite New Place, the site of Shakespeare's former house, and is a three-minute walk from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the river.

Melita is a good guesthouse option (www.melitahotel.co.uk; 00 44 178 929 2432). Standard double rooms cost from £88 (Dh530) per night, including breakfast and taxes.

Find your feet

Stratford is 35km south of Birmingham and 160km north-west of London. The town has preserved many of its old buildings, including several which would have been standing in Shakespeare's day. Most famous is the Shakespeare Birthplace in Henley Street, by far the best first port of call. Whether or not he was actually born here is in dispute but it was undoubtedly his family home and where he spent the first five years of married life with his wife, Anne Hathaway.

No trip is complete without a visit to one of the three Stratford theatres, to see a performance or just to take a tour. The main theatre has recently been rebuilt but the best experience is to be had at The Swan next door, a modern take on the traditional Shakespearean theatre of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a wooden-framed structure where most of the audience sits high up and stares down at the stage.

A good one- or two-hour stroll starts at The Swan, follows the Avon west through public gardens, past Holy Trinity Church, across a bridge and then back along the south bank to the Boat Club and the red-brick footbridge, offering photo-perfect views of the theatre. If you want to cut it short, there's a small hand-cranked ferry stationed about 200 metres beyond the theatre that will glide you over the river in a minute. Ask the ferryman nicely and he may let you do the cranking yourself.

Meet the locals

The most famous resident has been dead for nearly 400 years but don't let that stop you paying a visit to Holy Trinity Church where he is buried. As a fellow son of Stratford, I feel duty-bound on every trip home to drop by and say "hi" to the Bard. For livelier conversation, head to the Dirty Duck restaurant and pub, nicknamed the Actors' Pub. If you can tear yourself away from the autographed photographs on the walls, you may spot members of the current Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsing their lines.

Book a table

Most restaurants offer a pre-theatre meal from 5pm, handy if you have tickets for a play. Sorrento (www.sorrentorestaurant.co.uk), on Ely Street, has been a Stratford favourite for years and is still turning out excellent Italian cuisine. An average two-course evening meal costs £40 (Dh240) per person, £17.50 (Dh105) per person for a three-course lunch. Best for good coffee, cake and free Wi-Fi is the Box Brownie cafe on Henley Street near the Shakespeare Birthplace.

Shopper's paradise

Part of Stratford's charm is that it has resisted turning itself into a designer-label town; instead it favours high-street brands such as M&S and H&M. Shakespearean souvenirs are, as you might imagine, omnipresent.

What to avoid

Union Street and Greenhill Street on a Saturday night, which can get rowdy.

Don't miss

The Shakespeare Birthplace and the archaeological dig that is going on at New Place. It's expected to give us a few more clues to how the Bard lived. Drop by and see what they've found.