May felt like such a busy month for me, so once June rolled around and things seemed to be quieting down, I decided it would be the perfect time to get out of the city, do some exploring, and relax! I recruited one of my closest friends, Emma, who I met at university where we both studied English Literature, and we decided to head off to see the home of our good pal, William Shakespeare! Neither of us had ever visited the birthplace of the Bard, Stratford-upon-Avon, before. I’m quite surprised I’ve never made the trip actually, as I grew up just an hour’s drive from the town and with the name ‘Portia’, which my parents chose from one of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant of Venice. It seemed about time I went to visit. I found some super cheap train tickets and a reasonably priced hotel, and we headed off from London on an incredibly hot Saturday morning.
The city was supposed to reach 33 degrees Celsius that day, with sunny Stratford a slightly cooler but still sweaty 30 degrees. Suffice to say, we were very grateful for the train’s aircon and spent the two-hour journey drinking iced coffees and having a good natter.
We arrived around midday and started exploring straight away as our hotel check-in wasn’t for a couple of hours. We wandered around a bustling farmer’s market and then sought out a magical little cafe-shop-museum called Magic Alley & the Creaky Cauldron – no points for guessing what inspired that name! After browsing all the magical books and knick-knacks as well as chatting to the staff about unfulfilled childhood Christmas wish lists, we had a cold drink and headed over to our hotel. Despite our relatively low budget, we managed to bag ourselves a room in a lovely 4-star spa hotel close to the River Avon. Most importantly, it had aircon! We flipped that to the lowest temperature possible and cooled off for a while before heading back out into the heat.
Our main priority for Saturday was to visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust houses. First, we visited his birthplace, where we got to marvel at a First Folio – our little English Lit student hearts were very full! Then we headed to Shakespeare’s New Place which isn’t actually a house, but a garden full of commemorative sculptures on the site where Shakespeare’s home once stood. The gardens were beautiful but we quickly needed a break from the sun, so we headed to the last Trust house which is in main-town Stratford; Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, and her husband John Hall. The houses were really interesting, full of examples of how those in Tudor times would live.
Before heading for an early dinner, we had a wander around the shops. We had to pay a visit to Whittard of Chelsea, partly because I love their hot chocolate and they always have delicious samples but also because poor Emma left a bag of Whittards purchases on the train the other day – devastating, obviously – so we had to replace it! We also stumbled upon a little shop named Alohomora, full of Harry Potter merchandise, along with other fantasy series memorabilia.
We grabbed dinner at a pub along the riverside and had an ice-cold cider to cool off too.
After dinner, we headed to the Tudor Museum, for the thing I’d been most excited about for the whole trip – a ghost tour! I love anything supernatural and spooky, and I love to be scared! This wasn’t the kind of ghost tour where someone’s going to jump out and scare you though, it was far more serious which made it even more spooky. The building that’s home to the Tudor Museum is one of the most haunted places in the country and has been featured on loads of ghost-hunting television shows in the past. It’s said to be home to more than 40 ghosts, spirits, and poltergeists! Emma absolutely hates anything scary so it’s a true testament to her love for me that she agreed to go on this tour. We had the museum all to ourselves as no one else had booked on to our timeslot, and one of the lovely hosts named Scarlett Rose showed us around, lit by just a lantern, and told us stories of the spirits that supposedly haunt the building, including some of her own encounters. It was a fantastic experience and I’d highly recommend the tour if you’re ever visiting.
After being suitably spooked out, we headed back to the hotel for a couple of glasses of wine and a well-earned sleep!
We slept in a little on Sunday but our check-out time began to loom so we packed up and headed back into town for a full day of exploring. First, we browsed the Sunday Bridge Street Upmarket where a stall full of all flavours of fudge caught our attention. Then we found a little cafe where we could have scones – all the old Tudor places in Stratford had me really craving something traditionally English! That quickly turned into a rather heated debate about the merits and pitfalls of whether jam or cream goes first. It’s cream, by the way, and 81% of my Instagram friends agree. Sorry, Em.
Suitably sugared up, we headed back to the Tudor Museum for a normal day-time visit. It looked completely different in the daylight but everything still felt a little creepy after hearing all the stories on the previous nights’ ghost tour. It’s a great little museum though, and much more interactive than most, so we had a lot of fun there. Later, we took a long walk to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, about thirty minutes away from the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon in a village called Shottery. The house and the grounds were beautiful and a really interesting insight into Tudor life. The only one of the Trust houses we didn’t visit was Mary Arden’s House, the home of Shakespeare’s mother and a Tudor farm. It was much further away from the town though, so we gave that one a miss. Not fancying the walk back from Anne’s Cottage, we took a taxi towards town and grabbed some picnic food so that we could have lunch in Bancroft Gardens by the river.
By this point we were feeling very tired, having done a lot of walking over the weekend. Sunday was also a lot cooler than the previous day, almost a little chilly with the wind, so we decided to browse a few bookstores and then take a couple of hours in a cafe to relax before dinner. I read a little more of Pan’s Labyrinth, whilst Emma started a new book; Sweetpea by C. J. Skuse. Dinner was bowls of delicious pasta at Wildwood, followed by a long and sleepy train ride home back to London, finally arriving at my house just before midnight.
It was a wonderful weekend and I had so much fun visiting such a historical town. I’m also so glad I went with Emma, even if she did insist on dragging me out of every bookstore and crystal shop that caught my eye (my bank account is grateful but I still hold a grudge). We spent the first two years of our university time together most days and even lived together in our final year, so finishing university meant a huge change to how often we got to hang out. Exploring a real literary town was a great way to spend some quality time together and reconnect with our literature roots!
What literary adventures have you been on recently?