Before I go anywhere these days I check to see if there's anywhere nearby I can get in for free (or a discount) with my Art Pass because a) cheap days out are very good for my bank balance and b) I am determined to make the most of my year's Art Fund membership while it lasts (nerd that I am, I am totally keeping a tally of the money I've saved so far!
It turns out that Art Pass gets you free entry to the Shakespeare houses and gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon... Stratford is just 45 mins from Birmingham by train... and I'd never visited the town before... so (as you probably guessed from the title of this post) I decided to take a day trip :)
Thanks to laziness on my part plus one cancelled train & one delayed one, I got to Stratford-upon-Avon quite late in the morning. I'd not been sure exactly what to expect, apart from lots of old buildings, lots of tourists and lots of Shakespeare-y stuff - but I was pleasantly surprised!
I know that everywhere looks lovelier in the sunshine (and boy was it hot and sunny that day) but Stratford seemed to be a charming market town, with lots of nice shops and cafes and smart charity shops, and not nearly as overrun with coach-loads of tourists as I'd expected... though there are, of course, quite a lot of tourist-focused shops.
After an afternoon in Birmingham's busy city centre, walking through Stratford's streets felt quiet and peaceful and relaxing - especially away from the main street where Shakespeare's Birthplace is located.
There were lots of lovely black and white buildings dotted along the streets...
... and lots of nods to the town's Shakespeare connection - statues like this one, plus lamp posts decorated with characters from his plays.
You can walk to the oh-so-famous Anne Hathaway's cottage from the town centre but since I'd had a late start and didn't fancy a half hour walk there and another half hour back in the heat of the afternoon, I decided to give it a miss. Maybe another time?
Instead I started with a look round Shakespeare's Birthplace. As well as looking round the house and garden, there's a small exhibition to see here about Shakespeare's life, his plays and his time in Stratford-upon-Avon.
It was nice to see some actors performing bits of Shakespeare's work in the garden (they were apparently taking requests) and interesting to see the recreations of how several of the rooms would have looked when he lived there.
This house is fascinating simply because of the sheer number of people who have visited it over the centuries - there are a lot of famous names written in the visitors book. Before they had a visitors book, people used to etch their names onto the windows or write them on the walls! It's a slightly weird feeling when you visit famous places like this, being one person in a long line of people who have made a "pilgrimage" of sorts to that same spot.
After looking round the Birthplace I passed Shakespeare's Ghost (a street-performer, all in white and posing for photos), stopped for a bit of lunch and then walked a few minutes down the road...
... to Nash's House.
The bottom of this building is furnished as it would have been in Tudor times, while the upstairs rooms are an exhibition space. The Shakespeare connection here is that Nash's House was owned by Shakespeare's granddaughter's first husband... and the house next door, New Place (now demolished), was owned by the Shakespeare himself. It was apparently the second largest house in Stratford at the time, and very fancy (he kept his family home - the Birthplace - and turned it into a pub!).
Nowadays the space is a lovely garden (complete with an Elizabethan style knot garden), dotted with sculptures inspired by the plays and benches for weary tourists to sit and take in the view. The garden was looking pretty gorgeous in the summer sunshine and was a wonderful space in which to sit and think and generally take a break before moving on to the next bit of historical sight-seeing.
Just over the road from Nash's House is the Guild Chapel (on the left in the photo below, with the Guild Hall on the right) which is decorated with some wonderful medieval wall paintings.
Before my trip I'd printed off a handy walking guide to Stratford-upon-Avon and though I didn't follow the whole route it was great to be able to spot buildings as I walked and read a bit about them instead of just thinking "yup, there's another old building". I do love it when tourist boards take the time to put their free leaflets up online!
My next stop was Hall's Croft, the house where Shakespeare's daughter Susanna lived with her husband.
The rooms here are decorated as they might have been in a weathly home of the time, there's a small but pretty garden and you can also see the "consulting room" where Susanna's husband (a doctor) would have worked.
My favourite object in the house was this painting of a woman and her child - I was quite delighted when the nearby guide gave me lots of extra info about it, and even more pleased when I spotted a painting by the same artist in Birmingham's City Museum & Art Gallery a couple of days later. I do so love portraits from this era!
A guide also helpfully pointed me in the direction of the nearby Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. The leafy churchyard is quite lovely and the church has some very nice stained glass but I was starting to feel a bit worn out & didn't want to be too tired the next day for Blognix so I didn't stay long and decided it was time to head "home" (back to my hotel).
The church is right by the river, so I enjoyed a nice walk along the riverbank (where all the hire boats are named after characters from Shakespeare's plays)...
... bought a yummy icecream in town and then walked to the station to catch my train back to Birmingham.
P.S. I'll be blogging about my day at Blognix sometime soon :)