Travel editor Neil Sowerby enjoys Bard and Breakfast in Stratford-upon-Avon – and a few other local delicacies in between.
Pig's head‘FALSTAFFIAN’ fitted the bill for quite a few foodies parading their paunches by the Avon at this year’s Stratford Food Festival. Across the swan-thronged river the much-revamped Royal Shakespeare Theatre spoke of more cerebral pursuits than troughing like a trencherman.Yet our Will, of course, created the ultimate gourmand. The Fat One, who enjoyed himself just a mite too much.
Was it not Mistress Quickly, of the Boar’s Head Tavern who lamented Sir John Falstaff’s excesses thus: “He hath eaten me out of house and home, he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his”?
Queuing for victuals at the Lazy Cow beef stall for the third time, my own lovely companion, scenting a comparison, dubbed me Sir Lunchalot Gobbo. At which point we repaired for some cupcakes and ale. A man needs sustenance when he faces a theatre tour and a full-on RSC performance in the hours ahead. A Stratford-upon-Avon experience had never seemed so... well-rounded.
I really liked the food festival, nice and compact over a Saturday and Sunday – an antidote to its sprawling Manchester equivalent. It helped that there was a different set of traders and chefs to the usual suspects in the north west. A decided lack of celebrity chef wannabes was refreshing, too. Speaking of refreshment, Manchester’s beers have nothing to fear from their Warwickshire rivals.
My favourite sustenance was the sustainable fish (www.kingfisherbrixham.co.uk) being cooked on The One Elm stall. This is part of a small local pub chain, which practices what it preaches.Think Hugh’s Fish Fight without all the hype.
Mackerel featured prominently, along with whiting, pollock and a relative of theirs called pouting. I had it in a dish called papillote of pouting (ie baked in parchment), washed down with Purity UBU ale. This was also on hand pump at the pub itself, which we later visited for a breather from cheese, sausage and chutney sampling. The food festival’s allied markets spread around the town, so Sir Lunchalot wasn’t entirely rescued from temptation.
Still Stratford is meant to be about Shakespeare. En route for The One Elm, we visited Holy Trinity Church by the river to pay our respects to the great man’s grave and ambled onward though handsome half-timbered streets. We even toyed with taking in Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Windsor Street yet again (the garden is a delight), but it all looked too busy for quiet contemplation.
It’s hard to gauge how many folk visit in the various Shakespeare-related properties and then see a play at the RSC. One incentive this year is to peek the theatre itself, revamped at a cost of £112.8m. Closed for three years, its reopening has coincided with the RSC’s the 50th Birthday season.
The listed shell has been retained. Inside, the 1,400-seat art deco auditorium, designed by Elisabeth Scott in 1927, has been demolished, and replaced with what is intended to be a stage in the style of Shakespeare's day, but brought up to date. The RSC, formed in 1961, inherited all that theatre’s acoustic and sightline problems.
Now actors on the new thrust stage are about 15 metres, rather than 27, from the back row. No need for a Brian Blessed to bellow so much now!
We took a late afternoon guided tour in a party of 25 or so. It was absolutely fascinating watching the crew swap over sets from the matinee Midsummer Night’s Dream to the evening performance, The Merchant of Venice. The high-tech control desk high above the 1,000-seat auditorium was awesome, too, and the quick change dressing rooms backstage, in a different way. Highly recommended.
Shakespeare's GraveMore lightly spruced up is the adjoining Swan space. Used for more intimate productions, usually of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, it’s really the prototype for the new look main auditorium. We took in a riotously funny production of Philip Massinger’s The City Madam, where Jacobean drama is already lurching toward the Restoration.
Our hotel, the Menzie Welcombe is a couple of miles outside of town. With the prospect of booze sampling at the festival, we had walked in on paths through the attached 157 acres of parkland (part of which is an immaculate 18-hole championship golf course) and then along the Stratford Canal, returning by taxi after the play.
After dark, lit up, the hotel’s substantial bulk glowed invitingly. It’s a Victorian pile constructed in Jacobean style. Inside, the rooms vary considerably. We were extremely pleased with our vast, airy main house lodging with its four-poster and comfy sofa. The same scale carried on into the magnificent oak-panelled lounges below and the dining room. Food was aspirational and pricey. We enjoyed our set table d’hote supper and faultless service under pressure. The place was deservedly packed.
Superb leisure facilities, including a fine spa, gym and indooor swimming poll, completed the package. Now if only Falstaff could have worked out with a personal trainer!
The Shakespeare industry – what to see (without having to sit through King Lear)
1. Shakespeare's Birthplace in Henley Street retains the original floor he ran around on and where his father, John, plied his trade as a glover. More detail, much more detail in the adjoining Shakespeare Centre – or you cold buy a book in the Bard-realted bookshop across the road
2. Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susannah, remained a firm Catholic all her life despite general persecution and Hall's Croft, the home she shared with her physician husband, John Hall, is perhaps the most beautiful old house in the town. In the garden behind he grew the herbs and plants for his medicines. There's a lovely magnolia tree outside and gleaming flagstones inside.
3. Close by is Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. It's free to go in but there is a small charge to see the grave in the chancel. The Bard died in April 1616, aged 52, and the inscription reads: ``Good friend for Jesus sake forbear to dig the dust enclosed here, blessed be the man who spares these stones and cursed be he who moves my bones.'' The chancel itself is unusual because it is a weeping chancel. Walk straight in, stand by the font and look down the central aisle and you will see the other end with choir stalls is at a slight angle. This is said to represent the angle of Christ's head on the cross. Outside there’s a brass rubbing centre for those so disposed.
4. A mile out town is Anne Hathaway's Cottage, the family home of Shakespeare's wife and, further still, Mary Arden's House and Palmer's Farm at Wilmcote – thought for 70 years to be the home of Shakespeare's mum's family with millions shown round it by the National Trust. A document unearthed in Sussex in 2000 revealed the Ardens lived next door in Glebe Farm.
Imposing WelcombeMenzies Welcombe Hotel, Spa & Golf Club, Warwick Road, Stratford-Upon-Avon CV37 0NR. Standard rooms from £112 to £215 per night; executive rooms range from £152 to £255 per night; suites, which include a lounge, from £172 and £275 per night; four poster rooms from £212 and £315 per night. For more information visit www.welcombehotelstratford.co.uk or ring 01789 295252.
For details of the Royal Shakespeare programme or to book visit www.rsc.org.uk.
Guided Theatre Tours Theatre tours run throughout the year, but are dependent on production, rehearsal and technical schedules. Tours last approximately one hour and run daily at 9.15am, 11.15am, 1.15pm and 5.15pm, subject to availability, (10.15am, 12.15pm, 2.15pm and 4.15pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays). Starting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Cloakroom, you will learn about the history of the RSC and its theatres in Stratford, as well as exploring a production in more depth to learn about the theatre making process. £6.50 per person or £3 for under 18s and people with disabilities. There is a group rate of £117 for up to 20 adults.Tickets are available online, www.rsc.org.uk/buy-tickets/e/theatre-tour, or by telephone on 0844 800 1110. Advance booking is recommended.
Stratford-on-Avon District Council in partnership with Stratford-upon-Avon College recently opened a ‘Welcome to Stratford-upon-Avon' new tourist office at 62 Henley Street (just down the street from Shakespeare's Birthplace), which sells tickets to local venues. Telephone: 01789 264 293 or visit www.stratford-upon-avon.co.uk.
What’s on guide: www.visitstratforduponavon.co.uk/whats-on.
Website of the Stratford Food Festival: www.stratfordfoodfestival.co.uk.
Highly recommended for drinking and eating – The One Elm, 1 Guild Street, Stratford (www.peachpubs.com). Cosy inside with a secluded, leafy courtyard. Better than hanging out with the luvvies at the more central Dirty Duck.
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