Stratford-upon-Avon, the oldest market town in Warwickshire, really needs no introduction. William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatic genius of the English-speaking peoples, was born and died here. His birthplace, and other buildings associated with his family, are preserved by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The Avon, a river navigable until the end of the 18th century, is Stratford’s greatest natural asset, Spanning the river with fourteen arches is the superb 15th century bridge whilst in a commanding position on the north bank is the 20th century Royal Shakespeare Theatre, built and endowed by Shakespeare lovers from all over the world, particularly Americans.
Although the town has suffered, like many other historic centres, from unregulated building in the last century, there are still many marvellous examples of Tudor houses, many of them timbered or half-timbered. Among these is Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street in which he also spent his early years. In Shakespeare’s time it consisted of two separate parts, the family home and an adjoining shop. The property has undergone careful restoration but its essential features remain unchanged.
The layout and names of Stratford’s streets have altered little during the last 400 years. High Street, the main shopping street, and its continuation, Chapel Street, are notable for their wealth of half-timbered buildings. A fine example of these is Harvard House, the home of Katherine Rogers, the mother of John Harvard who founded Harvard University in the USA.
One mile to the west of Stratford at Shottery is Anne Hathaway’s cottage, the home of Shakespeare’s wife before she married. It is a building of outstanding architectural and picturesque appeal which remained in the Hathaway family’s possession until 1892 when it was acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Another historic house now owned by the Birthplace Trust is Mary Arden’s House at Wilmcote. This was the home of Shakespeare’s mother and in many ways is the most fascinating house of them all. It is built of close-timbered oak beams from the nearby Forest of Arden and of stone quarried in Wilmcote itself.
Visitors to Stratford may find it difficult to park and they are strongly advised to head for the two-storied car park near the river, near the main road bridge. The Information Centre is only 50 yards from the car park and it is from there that the tour buses start.