Shakespeare's home town: Stratford-Upon-Avon

Travelling with children? This charming English town has plenty to keep them active and interested, even if they are yet to appreciate the Bard, Jacqui Taffel writes.

We are at the Tourist Information office at Stratford-Upon-Avon, the small, pretty town on the River Avon, famous for producing William Shakespeare, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company and a magnet for tourists. My husband and I lived here for a while some years ago, and have returned frequently since then, visiting family who live nearby.

This is the first time we have brought our son, an energetic six-year-old, and our priorities are different. We need a playground, but have never noticed one here before. 

The Tourist Information ladies assure us there is one and show us on a map. When we get there, we find it's a cut above the average, with lots of energetic entertainment for children of all ages, from toddler swings to sandpit diggers to a flying fox. We also realise why we've never seen it. It's tucked away at the end of a long, winding car park, or accessed by foot from an old tramway path, and although it is near the river, it is not particularly visible.

This is the beginning of our rediscovery of Stratford as a great place for kids, with lots to do outdoors and indoors, and fun ways to connect to the history of the area. These are our highlights.

Royal Shakespeare Company

Since we were here last, the RSC has had a serious refurbishment that took three years. The outside of the building is still as ugly as Falstaff, but inside, it is a lot more child-friendly. The new 36-metre-high tower is no Centrepoint, but catching the lift up gives a good overview of the town and river. The building also hosts rotating family-friendly exhibitions such as Is this a Dagger?, an interactive display using different props from RSC productions. Each prop lies in a tray, which you carry to a central table and place in a slot. This triggers a projection, telling different stories for each item, such as how it was made and who used it. The skull of Andre Tchaikowsky, for instance, left to the RSC in the Polish composer and pianist's will, was used by David Tenant when he played the moody Dane in 2008. The RSC's Riverside cafe on the ground floor is also ideal for children, with pencils and colouring-in sheets provided, fresh snacks including carrot sticks and humous, and outdoor seating on the terrace overlooking the river. Family activities are run during school holidays, and a regular Shakespearean story telling session for young children happens once a month.

Stratford Butterfly Farm

A good distraction for a chilly, rainy day, the butterfly farm has been here since 1985 and is still owned by its founder, butterfly enthusiast Clive Farrell. The main flight area is landscaped as a small indoor tropical rainforest complete with waterfalls and, incongruously for Australians, lots of lantana, which butterflies love. On average, there are about 1500 of them flitting about each day. A good way to spot them is to stand still and see how many different ones you can count. The farm imports up to 250 species of butterfly from around the world, sustainably bred rather than caught in the wild. The delicate glasswing is the smallest, with its beautiful transparent wings, while the giant Owl butterfly's wing pattern resembles an owl's stare. We also spot parrots in the trees, including an Australian cockatiel, and tiny baby quail on the ground. The two resident iguanas, Princess and Stumpy, were rescued from a pet shop. The caterpillar room needs sharp eyes to spot the different species crawling around, and really sharp eyes to spot butterfly eggs. A display case behind glass has row on row of pupae, which, if your timing is good, will hatch a butterfly while you watch. More impressive for a six-year-old is the section devoted to insects, spiders, snakes, scorpions, frogs and lizards, including a lonely-looking blue tongue. See butterflyfarm.co.uk

MAD Museum

This unusual place is as much fun for adults as children. MAD stands for mechanical art and design, and the museum has more than 60 kinetic artworks created by artists around the world. Everything on show does something, with movement, sound or light, or all three, and most of them are activated by pressing a button, always a hit with kids. Highlights include several ingenious marble runs, including one using billiard balls that is powered by winding a handle. Some works are gently whimsical, like the cockatoo you wave at to make his crest rise. Some are eerily beautiful, like the small house frame containing gracefully flapping birds that lights up and rocks from side to side. My favourite is an ethereal and philosophical contraption that writes "That's It" in a bowl of sand, then erases it. My son likes the clapping machine, two hands that slap together to make you jump, activated by a clap. He is also mesmerised by The Kitchenator, made by Richard Simmons, the local businessman who founded the museum in 2012 after collecting kinetic artworks for years. Simmons has created a lively, noisy ball run from everyday kitchen items including a wok, a wooden spoon and a can of corned beef. It resembles a giant, culinary version of the Mousetrap game. Above our heads, model trains zoom along an elevated overhead track. It's very easy to while away at least a couple of hours here. See themadmuseum.co.uk.

Mary Arden's Farm

The childhood home of Shakespeare's mother is in the small village of Wilmcote just outside Stratford. Built 500 years ago, the property is still run as a working farm, showing what it was like to live and work here in the Tudor days, Mary Arden's time. In the kitchen, the farmer's wife and her maids make dishes from scratch from Tudor recipe books using an open fireplace and ingredients from the kitchen garden. We watch them make a vegetable stew called pottage, fish cakes and a spice tart. The farm's many animals include geese, cows, some incredible curly-haired pigs, and a large collection of birds of prey, flown in falconry displays. We see a beautiful but rather recalcitrant Eurasian eagle owl called Boyet put through his paces. Visitors are encouraged to pitch in with activities around the farm; in school holidays, you can also have a go at archery and Tudor games such as frog-flinging, and there's a playground and a good cafe. See shakespeare.org.uk.

Kenilworth Castle

The most famous castle near Stratford is Warwick, an enormous and well-restored mediaeval pile with a history that goes back to 1068. With towers, ramparts, dungeons, a great hall, state rooms, jousting tournaments and the largest trebuchet (catapult) in the world, which throws fireballs, it's one of Britain's big tourist attractions. Our pick of local castles, however is Kenilworth, with its romantic ruins and spicy history. The first castle here was built in the 1120s, and in various incarnations it has housed many royal residents, including John of Gaunt, who built the spectacular great hall in the 1300s. It is most famous for hosting Queen Elizabeth I, who granted it to her great favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Their unrequited romantic attachment - Dudley was married - was fictionalised by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, Kenilworth. Dudley did extensive renovations to host the queen, including the creation of an ornate Elizabethan garden that has been carefully reproduced. Viewing platforms in the now ruined private apartments show where the queen slept, and the views she enjoyed out over the countryside. This is the kind of castle small boys can run about in and climb walls and discover steep spiral staircases and roll down grassy banks. History doesn't get much better than this. See english-heritage.org.uk.

 

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Many international airlines operate flights from Sydney and Melbourne to the UK. We flew Singapore Airlines to London, see singaporeair.com. Stratford is about an hour and a half's drive from Heathrow Airport. Trains to Stratford leave from Euston and Marylebone stations in London, and National Express buses run every day. 

STAYING THERE

Number 47, 47 Kendall Avenue, Stratford-Upon-Avon, a stylish, well-appointed three-bedroom self-contained terrace with parking, a five-minute stroll from the centre of town. Prices start at $725 a week, see holidaylettings.co.uk/rentals/stratford-upon-avon/174995.

Moonraker House, 40 Alcester Road, Stratford-upon-Avon, a cosy, old-fashioned B&B run by a friendly Japanese couple. Rooms start from $120 a night, see moonrakerhouse.com.

SEE + DO

Take a walk along the Avon to Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried; go boating on the river; visit Anne Hathaway's cottage and the other well-preserved Shakespearean properties; see a show at the Royal Shakespeare Company; stroll along the canal path from the Stratford Basin in front of the RSC, to watch barges negotiate the locks. 

Stratford-Upon-Avon is on the edge of the Cotswolds area, with its hyper-picturesque villages. Drive to Broadway Tower, a folly perched high on a hilltop, with a colouful history, endless views and a nuclear bunker, see broadwaytower.co.uk.  

DINING THERE

RSC Rooftop Restaurant, Waterside, a chic modern menu and views over the River Avon, see rsc-rooftop-restaurant.co.uk.

The Windmill, Church Street, respectable pub grub in a lovely old building that was serving beers in Shakespeare's time. 

MORE INFORMATION

stratford-upon-avon.co.uk 

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