Friday 20 May 2022

Shakespeare Adventure

Anne Hathaway's Cottage
Train Trip to Stratford-upon-Avon


I have long wanted to undertake a rail tour of the English west midlands, and Warwickshire in particular. Warwickshire has some wonderful, softly-rolling countryside and spectacularly gorgeous towns and although I have passed through by road and by rail many times I have never really stopped there. In the event this year we went not for a tour but to stay in one town which repays a decent amount of time (and money!) spent there: William Shakespeare's birthplace and burial place, Stratford-upon-Avon. The rail station is handy for the town centre and all the Shakespeare-related sites are easy to find and accessible on foot. If you get on with it, it is possible to "do" the Shakespeare stuff in one day, but we wanted a longer break and to get to know the town properly, so we booked three nights in a town centre hotel with a rough plan of what we would do, flexible enough to cope with the variable weather of an English springtime.

First I booked the hotel through, choosing the Hotel Indigo, historically and locally known as the Falcon Inn, much extended to the rear but still with a Tudor frontage on Chapel Street in the town centre. This allowed free cancellation in case of very bad weather. Then much nearer the date I booked the train tickets, Advance Standard Class tickets between our home station in Stamford and Birmingham New Street and then Anytime Standard Class tickets between Birmingham Moor Street and Stratford-upon-Avon. Advance research showed that an open-top sightseeing bus was available that would visit all the places we wanted to see and provide a commentary. River and canal trips were available and there was no shortage of places to eat and drink, including the hotel where we were staying. In addition, some friends had recommended the Edward Moon restaurant, just along the street from our hotel, and we determined to visit that on one evening.

The train to Stratford-upon-Avon

It is always exciting to get the suitcases ready and begin choosing our clothes for a trip - and much flexibility was needed on this trip because of the expected weather: one wet day but mostly warm, sunny weather, and particularly warm on the day we were to come home. I did wear a long-sleeved shirt the first day, which was not so warm, and even a tie, plus a light raincoat over my light jacket: layers, but none of them especially thick, so these could be peeled off if the day turned out warmer than expected!

So off we went to the rail station at noon with our packed lunch and boarded the train for Birmingham. It was wonderfully sunny and the raincoat saw no action after the walk to Stamford station. The refreshment trolley soon came by and we bought Prosecco to get the holiday off to a good start. What could be more relaxing than gliding swiftly through the sunlit springtime countryside with a (albeit plastic) glass of sparkling wine? This was not quite the standard of the Pullman service on our previous trip, but was more than OK and went well with the lunch we had brought.

As the train approached Birmingham it was interesting to spot the work being done to construct the new high speed line from London which would pass to the east of Birmingham with a line across to a new terminus at Curzon Street, on the site of the original city centre terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway; this line would approach the city centre parallel to our own approach from Nuneaton and Coleshill and I knew there would be sites (and sights) to see from our train. Much work had been done, and much, much more was still to be done - I look forward to following progress each time I pass this way over the next few years. I shall personally have little if any use for High Speed Two, but it is intended to free up capacity on other north-south routes for more stopping trains, so maybe I shall benefit from that - although that would be more likely if the eastern leg were still in the project plans.

In Birmingham we walked through the Bullring Shopping Centre to Moor Street station where we waited for our connection to Stratford-upon-Avon via Shirley, which was on time. Unlike our train from Stamford, this much more modern train had USB charging points for our smartphones and more detailed information displays, although I soon had enough of the announced warnings and minding the gap and getting off carefully at every stop. The countryside on this leg of the journey was leafier and hillier than on the first leg, so greener but with less to see. Once outside the city we were in the territory of tiny villages with request-stop stations and fantastically pretty farms, and then before long the train arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon and we made our way onto the platform and, navigating by smartphone, found our way to the front door of the hotel. 

The Falcon Inn (or Hotel Indigo)

It took a while to locate the reception counter which was by the back door, where the car park is, off a side street (never mind the front door, eh, only losers come on foot ...), inadequate signage and a non-intuitive route making what should have been simple into a complex mission! However, once signed in by the obliging staff we were taken to a fabulous little room overlooking the site of William and Anne Shakespeare's marital home, the New Place. Timber-framed and with lattice windows it was just the atmosphere we wanted, but with modern conveniences in including a refrigerator with complimentary fizzy drinks and bottled water as well as real milk for our hot drinks. The fridge was handy, as we had decided, given the dinners we anticipated enjoying, not to include breakfast in our booking but rather to buy items from local shops and have a light breakfast in our room. 

We went for a stroll around the town and took in the atmosphere, deciding to begin the activities in the morning at the Visitor Information Centre by the river, which was also the terminal for the tour bus. Rain was expected in the morning, so taking the tour bus may be an activity for later ... then we prepared and went to dinner as we had promised ourselves at the recommended Edward Moon restaurant: so good it was that we decided we would return for our last evening, too.

The Royal Shakespeare Company and the River Avon

We had not expected the opportunity to see a play while we were in Stratford, for they tend to book up fairly well in advance, but when we went to the Visitor Information Centre and asked about things to do on wet days we were recommended a guided tour of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and so we did see the theatre although not a play. I queued at the box office in the theatre but although I was but third in the queue I had time to create an online account, log in and buy the tickets using my smartphone before I had even reached second place in the physical queue! Tickets safely filed on the phone we went off for coffee and found a genuine Italian deli and café not far from our hotel and had coffee and pastries there while we awaited our tour time. It was raining lightly but nothing beyond what a raincoat and umbrella could deal with, and by the time we had finished coffee the rain had stopped and we went to see Shakespeare's birthplace, having bought combined tickets from the Information Centre to cover the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's three currently-open sites, of which this was one. The other two, Shakespeare's New Place and Anne Hathaway's Cottage, requiring some outdoor activity, were best left until the reliably dry day to follow. 

We returned to the Italian café for a light lunch and then we returned dry to the theatre. The original, Victorian, theatre had burned down in the 1920s and was eventually replaced by the present stunning art-deco building designed in a competition by Elisabeth Scott. It is the first major building in Britain designed by a female architect. The tour included the new costume department in a former scenery store across the road; this was a working theatre department and the staff were going about their business of creating costumes for forthcoming productions. 

After a mug of tea in what was now quite bright weather outside a floating café at the canal basin, we took a short boat trip from the nearby mooring, cruising along the very pleasant Avon with a recorded commentary which told us about many of the places we passed - including the theatre we had recently visited.

That evening we dined at The Woodman restaurant in our own hotel: this was a very high standard of both food and wine and was very much enjoyed: we went early and without a booking and they were just able to fit us in before a later booking, so we were fortunate to have had the chance to eat there.

Bus Tour and more Shakespeare Sites

We were waiting at the stop for the first tour bus of the next morning, in bright and sunny weather, if still a little chilly. Once bought from the driver our tickets were valid for the whole day (two-day tickets are also available) and we could join and leave the buses, which are every twenty minutes, as often as we liked. There was an interesting recorded commentary, although part of the interest lay in its having been recorded many years previously thus now being somewhat inaccurate in places! The bus wound its was through the streets of the town, most of which we had already seen, and then set off to Anne Hathaway's Cottage on the edge of Stratford and for which the multi-site tickets we had bought the previous day were valid, so we left the bus here and visited the cottage. It is actually an ancient farmhouse and much bigger than the word "cottage" would suggest. It was Anne Hathaway's home when she lived with her parents before she married William Shakespeare, and where he will have visited her during their courtship, so not only is it not a cottage, it was not hers, either, but it was her home before her marriage.

We had coffee there before leaving Anne Hathaway's Cottage and decided to walk back into town, a much shorter route along footpaths than the road which the bus had to take! We visited the parish church in Stratford-upon-Avon where William and Anne Shakespeare were both buried along with several other members of the family, inside the building just in front of the Holy Table. We also visited the site of Shakespeare's marital home (the "New Place"), demolished by a subsequent owner and now an open space with Shakespeare-related artworks and a display about his home and family in the house next-door. Worth a visit, and included in the multi-site ticket, but obviously not as informative or redolent as the buildings which are still standing.

After lunch at the Boston Tea Party restaurant, we went back for another trip on the tour bus and this time stayed on board for the whole trip around which filled in more of the Shakespeare story, including a drive by the childhood home of Mary Arden, William Shakespeare's mother, which has not yet reopened following the Covid-19 pandemic closure. It had been a lovely day, the sunshine more than making up for the drizzle of the previous morning. A few more photographs were taken, and soon it was time for our last dinner in Stratford, back at the Edward Moon.

On our last morning we checked out earlier than originally planned and caught an earlier train from Stratford-upon-Avon, having decided to allow enough time in Birmingham to eat lunch there rather than buy a picnic and eat it on the train. This worked well: we had our morning coffee in Esquires coffee shop opposite the station entrance and then travelled back to Moor Street, this time on the route via Solihull and beginning with the deeply rural single-track section to the triangular junction at Hatton and finishing in the heart of Birmingham. We walked across to New Street station to seek somewhere different for lunch and finished up at Leon with seats overlooking the station concourse. After a little time around the Grand Central shops we made our way to the platform and boarded an early afternoon train home to Stamford. Again the weather was brilliant and we were back in good time for an early tea so that I could cycle over to the Stamford Welland Academy where I joined my friends and colleagues in the Market Deeping Model Railway Club in preparing for our annual exhibition (the first in three years) which began the following morning.

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