Things to do in Stratford-Upon-Avon That Have Nothing to do with Shakespeare
For some, William Shakespeare was the greatest playwright of all time, the Great Bard. For others, his name conjures memories of torturous English classes, struggling with incomprehensible Old English and implacable old English teachers. If you are among those who think a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon sounds like a trip through Dante’s circles of hell, fear not. There is much more to Stratford-upon-Avon than Shakespeare.
The best place to start is the Stratford Historic Spine. Be forewarned, there will be legions of Shakespeare fans about! And while the focus of the Spine is Shakespeare, there are a number of attractions that do not slavishly cater to his memory.
There is Harvard House, formerly known as the Ancient House. Thomas Harvard, grandfather of Harvard University’s benefactor, John Harvard, built it in 1596. There is also Guild Chapel, which was originally used as a hospital by the Guild of the Holy Cross in 1269, then was rebuilt and became a chapel in the early 15th century. Just down the street is another Guild building, the former Guildhall. It is now a school and is believed to be the school Shakespeare attended. Ignore the top floor where Shakespeare’s Schoolroom is and focus on the half-timbered architecture of the 600-year-old building. Make sure not to miss the Guildhall Wall Paintings.
From the Guildhall, head south on Church Street, then left on Old Town to the final stop, Holy Trinity Church. The church, admittedly the final resting place of Shakespeare, is a treasure in its own right. It is Stratford-upon-Avon’s oldest building and occupies a lovely spot on the bank of the River Avon. The site dates back to at least the 8th century and the church itself, in one form or another, has been there for more than 800 years. There are many historical details to enjoy. One is the Chained Bible from the early 17th century. Another is the array of stained glass windows in the nave and chancel. And one place in the church that everyone should see is the Crossing, the oldest part of the church dating back to 1210.
Just south of Shakespeare’s Birthplace on Henley Street is the Mechanical Art and Design (MAD) Museum. The MAD Museum bill itself as “the country’s only permanent venue for mechanical art.” Its focus is on interactive pieces of mechanical art, particularly kinetic art and automata (i.e., robots). Because nearly everything is interactive, museum guests are encouraged to push buttons, pull levers, wind gears and in general to explore the museum tactically, not just visually.
For those who prefer a little less action and a lot more refinement, the Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park should fit the bill. The gallery is housed in a neoclassical mansion remodeled in the 1760s by Robert Adam. There are six permanent collections in the gallery: Chinese art, British folk art, Naples, Marx-Lambert, northern European art and British portraits. Additionally, there are a number of temporary exhibitions on display in the gallery. And finally there is artwork scattered throughout the surrounding park.
The gallery is set within 120 acres of parkland and lakes landscaped by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. His design for the park was as a series of viewpoints from which to view the gallery. Many of the art pieces in the park have turned that idea on its head and become locations from which an observer in the gallery can see the park. In addition to various pieces of artwork, the park includes blinds from which to view the birds on the lake, a forest school, orienteering courses and a newly planted labyrinth.
For nature enthusiasts there is the Stratford Butterfly Garden just over the Bridgefoot footbridge. Here you will find an unexpected collection of butterflies, spiders, caterpillars, insects and plants from all over the world. There is the Flight Area, a lushly landscaped tropical greenhouse where hundreds of butterflies roam free. Keep your eyes open for the numerous birds that call the Flight Area home, as well as the two iguanas that were donated several years ago. There is the Discovery Zone, where you can see all the stages of a butterfly’s life. The Emerging Case is where pupae imported from around the globe are displayed. And there is the Minibeast Metropolis which houses the other spiders, insects and reptiles.
If your historical interests are more Victorian than Tudor, Charlecote Park should not be missed. Charlecote Park has been the Lucy family home for over 900 years. The house on display was built in the mid-16th century and Queen Elizabeth I stayed in the drawing room. The house was originally Elizabethan in design, but modifications and alterations by successive generations of Lucys have resulted in a house that is emphatically Victorian. All of the recreated rooms open to visitors, like the Library, Billiard Room and Orange Bedroom, are furnished with goods brought back from the Lucys’ 1840s European spending spree. The Lucys still occupy one wing, but the rest of the house is open to visitors. Make sure not to miss the kitchen and outbuildings, where period actors recreate Victorian servants’ lives.
In addition to the house, there are expansive grounds to explore. “Capability” Brown inspired the parkland. It includes herds of Jacob sheep and fallow deer. There are also several gardens to explore; do not miss the formal parterre dating from the 1700s.
There are a number of other attractions in Stratford-upon-Avon that do not cater to all things Shakespearean. Places such as the Wellesbourne Market, Falstaff Experience and Cox’s Yard are all within easy reach. If you would like to explore around Stratford-upon-Avon, try heading nine miles northeast to Warwick Castle or another five miles north of that to Kenilworth Castle.
For those interested in discovering all that Stratford-upon-Avon has to offer, while avoiding the Shakespeare landmarks, check out our collection of England tours.