TRAVEL: Trip to Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon is a labour of love

Top attraction: The birthplace of William Shakespeare on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. Picture: Robert Gledhill

Top attraction: The birthplace of William Shakespeare on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. Picture: Robert Gledhill

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Shakespeare’s words on love are immortal. So with that in mind, Robert Gledhill embraced romance in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Romance is in the air at this time of year and so where better to spend Valentine’s Night with your loved one than in the home town of England’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare?

Reflections on the Bard: Holy Trinity Church where William Shakespeare was baptised and is buried. Picture: Robert Gledhill

Reflections on the Bard: Holy Trinity Church where William Shakespeare was baptised and is buried. Picture: Robert Gledhill

“If music be the food of love, play on,” the Bard wrote in Twelfth Night and noted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”

Just a couple of quotes lifted from the quill of Britain’s Elizabethan literary genius and dramatist, who could so easily have been ignored by his own townsfolk without the single-minded efforts of one man.

Certainly, Falstaff would have raised a flagon to toast Charles Flower, for without his generosity it is doubtful if the stage’s most famous comedic drunkard would have ever have trod the boards in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Nor would the town have been able to celebrate and build a thriving tourism economy around the playwright – the ‘The Bard’s Walk’ arcade and ‘Shakespeare in Love’ bridal boutique certainly using his name to advantage.

For, despite public apathy at the time and an unwillingness to dip into their pockets, Flower, from the famous brewing family, commissioned the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1875, leading to its opening in 1879 before it was badly damaged by fire in 1926.

The Flower family promptly raised funds for the New Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, designed by Elisabeth Scott and opened in 1932.

In 1961, the name was changed to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; in 1986, the Swan Theatre was created from the shell of the 1879 playhouse and in 2007 both adjoining Royal Shakespeare Company stages were closed for a four-year reconstruction programme.

The results were stunning recreations of what are believed to be Shakespearean playhouses, blending Mediaevalism with Elizabethan elements, the thrust stages going out into the audiences and looked down on from the wooden balustraded galleries.

The 1,000-seater Royal, cleverly built around the original Art-Deco Scott building, has almost a mini mirror-image in the 400-seater Swan and both are back in full swing with The Other Place – a smaller venue which gave a first airing to the musical version of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic Matilda – a short walk down the river bank.

The Tempest had just set sail for London from the main theatre when we arrived for our Winter’s Tale two-day break so, after a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the RSC in the morning, we enjoyed a performance of ‘The Rover’ as part of a full house at night.

A belly-laugh of an anarchic restoration bawdy comedy otherwise known as ‘The Banish’d Cavaliers’, it was penned by Aphra Behn – possibly England’s first women’s libber who turned to writing when King Charles II declined to make payment for her services as a spy!

The main difference between today’s theatre-goers and those in days of yore are that the more expensive seats are now where the poorer audience members, the ‘groundlings’, would have stood around the stage, at the mercy of the elements while the better off would watch from the sheltered balconies.

Our own location to the RSC literally could not have been closer or more comfortable for The Arden Hotel – Shakespeare’s father John married Mary Arden before Will was born in April, 1564 – is directly opposite the Swan, which tends to focus on non-Shakespeare productions. The main theatre is gearing up for a new season of the playwright’s four political thrillers set in and around ancient Rome, starting with Julius Caesar, followed by Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus.

The multi award-winning Arden itself is an elegant red-brick 45-bedroom boutique hotel with views from the restaurant out across the Avon.

A special Valentine Day’s dinner can be booked at £42.50p per head and the really romantic can splash out £375 for a classic room, Champagne, chocolates and dinner in the renowned Waterside brasserie.

The Arden is also a great base from which to walk up to Shakespeare’s birthplace and museum on Henley Street; New Place, now a garden but where Shakespeare spent his later years after returning from making his fame and fortune in London, and other Mediaeval attractions dotted all around the town, such as the Creaky Cauldron museum.

Away from the bustle of the centre – even in mid-January thronged by coachloads of tourists – cross the Clopton Bridge built in the 1480s and detour to the nearby exotic butterfly farm.

Then continue on a delightful circular walk along the Avon and over and around to the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised and finally buried after his death aged 52 in April, 1616.

Ten minutes out of town there is Anne Hathaway’s home, the 500-year-old thatched cottage where the Bard courted his bride-to-be, whom he married at 18.

For those enjoying a longer break, Warwick Castle is around 18 miles away and is among a host of other attractions including Royal Leamington Spa.

To go or not to go? No answer required.

Robert Gledhill was a guest of The Arden Hotel, which offers an array of packages and can be found on info@theardenhotelstratford.com

For more information and holiday ideas about ‘Shakespeare’s England’ visit www.shakespeares-england.co.uk and www.facebook.com/ShakespearesEngland or on Twitter @ShakespearesEng