Who could say no to a weekend away in charming Stratford-upon-Avon? Certainly not Dan Howard and Nancy-Jane Maun.
I had to very sheepishly admit that I had, in fact, never been to Stratford-upon-Avon. "Really? Never?" came the incredulous reply from my other half. Yes. I'm ashamed to say, really.
So I was delighted at the prospect of discovering somewhere new (to me) in the UK, especially somewhere so steeped in our incredible history, heritage and culture.
A few weeks later we headed off on what we Brits do so well – a long weekend in the country, with an ancient town to explore, countryside to ramble and plenty of tea shops to visit along the way.
We approached the area through the ever-beautiful Cotswolds – gently rolling hills and sleepy villages full of honey-coloured cottages. Our home for the weekend was the stunning and fascinating Ettington Park Hotel, part of the Handpicked Hotels group. Ettington Park is a Neo-Gothic mansion house situated just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, hidden away in the Stour Valley.
The site has had continuous occupation since Roman times, and was the ancestral home of the ancient and noble Shirley family for hundreds of years. According to the Shirley Family Association, no place in England has been associated with one family as long as Ettington has been with the Shirleys, with evidence showing their occupation of the site pre-dated the Norman Conquest and continued up to 1904. They still have links to the estate today, as landowners and farmers in the surrounding area.
The hotel stands in 44 acres of land, and as we arrived in the golden light of a late afternoon in spring, it was postcard-perfect with lambs gambolling along the river bank and deer grazing the lawns.
We caught the last of the light to stroll around the grounds, discovering Shirley Chapel along the way – a working chapel amid the elegant ruins of an older one, surrounded by yew trees. No wonder this is a popular spot for weddings.
Though it was late April the moment the sun had started to set the warmth was gone, so we headed to the Drawing Room for an excellent pot of coffee (Davidoff blend) and freshly baked home-made cookies that melted in the mouth.
Dinner at Ettington Park was elegant and delicious. To begin with: canapés and G&Ts – the extraordinary and delicious Gin Mare with basil leaves and the equally delicious Hendricks with cucumber. 'De-constructed' kedgeree and beetroot and juniper marinated salmon for starters, followed by wonderful local lamb and a Gressingham duck in cherry jus with hazelnut and orange. Apple tarte tatin with mascapone ice cream and a pear and apple crumble served with an amazing saffron sorbet rounded things off very nicely.
Very well fed, we retired (read: waddled) to our room, the 'Kingmaker Suite', located in a mediaeval-style tower rising above the hotel.
As I'd never visited Stratford-upon-Avon before, we decided to do that most touristy of things: the sightseeing bus tour. Now, we normally avoid organised tourist activities, preferring to wend our own way around. However, we have also learnt from experience that a bus tour can be invaluable as a means of getting bearings in a new place, and to make a note of sights to visit later.
The tour was highly informative, interesting and well-structured. Stratford-upon-Avon is jam-packed with things to see and do, and the bus also takes you out into the surrounding countryside to key historical locations. Obviously, the main focus is on places and sights linked with Shakespeare – his birthplace, Anne Hathaway's cottage, Nash's House and Halls Croft to name a few. These ancient, tiny properties attract millions of visitors from around the world every year. There is a certain magic in seeing these places up close, and imagining the man himself going about his every day life all those centuries ago.
If you have limited time in the town, as we did, then make sure you get one the useful free guide maps available from the visitor centre – it really helped us plan what to see and do.
Moving with the times
While the historical sites are carefully preserved, Stratford-upon-Avon is also an evolving, living town. It's the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has an active and vibrant cultural scene.
The area around the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has recently been redeveloped, and is a lovely space to wander around among the canal boats and cafés.
We discovered the excellent Milking Parlour café, situated in – you guessed it – a beautifully converted old milking parlour. It's a lovely, light and relaxing space to be in, with exposed wood beams and a great view of the waterside area. We were served perfect cappuccinos and a home-made coconut and raspberry slice of epic proportions. The Milking Parlour also sells milkshakes (served in a milk bottle with a straw) and a huge range of quirky ice cream flavours: green apple, Baileys, Oreo cookie, toffee popcorn and many more.
Heading out of town, we decided to visit Mary Arden's Farm (the childhood home of Shakespeare's mother), run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The farm is a 'living museum' – a clever modern twist designed to bring its history to life. Staff are in character, going about their duties and activities as if it was the 1570s. It was good fun with lots to do and see, and the opportunity to ask the staff questions about life as it was back then. A real highlight was Jan the Falconer with his amazing collection of feathered friends, which he talked about and demonstrated enthusiastically.
A wide range of historically-correct produce is grown on the farm, and there's a diverse stock of rare breed animals too. Period cooking demonstrations are held regularly, the results of which the staff get to eat for their lunch.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
A trip to Stratford-upon-Avon wouldn't be complete without a visit to the RSC. The legendary theatre company is surprisingly modern, having been 'officially' founded in 1961. The imposing theatre building has recently undergone a comprehensive transformation into a world-class performance space, education centre and eatery.
We enjoyed a superb dinner in the new Rooftop Restaurant, a stunning architectural space with unrivalled views over the town. The sun had come out at the end of the day, so we were treated to a gorgeous sunset as we ate. The food was wholesome, very tasty and beautifully prepared, using locally-sourced ingredients where possible. I had a delicious blue-cheese and broccoli soup to start, and 'the other half' had a ham hock terrine. Mains were a perfectly-cooked corn-fed chicken and a delicate, expertly-prepared salad full of lovely flavours. Service was friendly and helpful throughout. Worth noting: gluten free options are clearly marked on the menu. A great experience and one we can highly recommend, especially in conjunction with a show; keep an eye out for discount deals.
When we were there we had a choice of plays – Hamlet or a new production called The Empress. I've seen Hamlet four times now – twice by the RSC in London – and studied it at school, so was understandably keen to see something new!
We therefore opted for The Empress, and I'm so glad we did. A wonderful, inventive, moving and rewarding play based on the real story of Queen Victoria and her Indian Servant ('Munshi'). The performances were brilliant, and the audience was almost a part of the amazing set, with the actors moving around and above you. As funny as it was sad, there was plenty of discreet eye-dabbing and nose-blowing at the end. Unfortunately the play is no longer showing at the RSC, but is apparently going on a national tour, so do look out for it.
We started our last day at Ettington Park with yet another excellent meal – we are Foody Travellers, after all. It's also worth mentioning here how friendly, helpful and informative everybody at the hotel was throughout our stay – they really went the extra mile. Breakfast was very good, and we were again pleased to discover how much of the produce was local and seasonal. The sausages were particularly fine, and the blackcurrant and sloe gin jam served with the toast was scrummy. Investigation revealed they were from Talton Mill Farm, adjacent to the hotel estate. Needless to say, once breakfast was over and we'd checked-out, we headed straight to the farm shop to stock up on goodies.
We decided to spend the day exploring the stunning countryside around Stratford-upon-Avon, and further into the Cotswolds. First, we paid a visit to Upton House, a National Trust property not far from the hotel. The estate is gorgeous, and the house is a fascinating mix of stately home grandeur and 1930s sophistication. Viscount Bearsted remodelled the house in 1927, largely to provide space for his growing art collection. There are some incredible works of art on display, by artists such as Hogarth, Stubbs, Canaletto, Bruegel and El Greco. If you go, make sure you check out the Art Deco bathroom, which has aluminium-leaf wallpaper. As usual for the National Trust, there's an excellent tea room with a good selection of food.
Finally, off into the green yonder to while away a few lazy hours in picturesque Cotswold villages. There are so many beautiful places – Bidford-on-Avon, Evesham, Honeybourne and Mickleton to name a few. However, our absolute hands-down winner was Chipping Campden. A remarkable place, almost unreal in its untouched English perfection – we found ourselves expecting to bump into Miss Marple any minute. Our final food stop was the charming Bantam Tea Room in Chipping Campden, where we enjoyed fresh coffee, a delicious lunch and a couple of excellent home-made cakes.
It was pretty much the perfect weekend getaway. A luxurious country hotel, consistently good local food, fascinating history, entertaining culture, plenty of sightseeing to do – all surrounded by truly beautiful English countryside. We couldn't ask for more.
For accommodation, special offers and more information visit the official website: www.Shakespeare-Country.co.uk or call Shakespeare Country on 0871 978 0800.
Ettington Park Hotel
www.handpickedhotels.co.uk/hotels/ettington-park-hotel / 0845 072 7454
Ettington Park Hotel is the Official Hotel Sponsor for the 2013 Stratford Food Festival, taking place on the 14th and 15th of September.
www.rsc.org.uk / Ticket Hotline: 0844 800 1110
The RSC runs a programme of events, themes and festivals throughout the year – check the website for details, and for special food and ticket offers.
NB: The RSC has relaunched the theatre's Rooftop Restaurant with a new set menu and the launch of a selection of afternoon teas. For detail of menus or to book at table visit www.rsc-rooftop-restaurant.co.uk