Stratford-upon-Avon: To go or not to go
Nicola Brady has the best tips for a trip to the Bard's homeland
For lovers of Shakespeare, a visit to his homeland is something of a literary pilgrimage. It doesn't hurt that Stratford-upon-Avon, where The Bard was born, is a picturesque town in its own regard, filled with ramshackle Tudor buildings and wildflower gardens.
The interiors of these buildings may have changed since Shakespeare's day (you're more likely to be buying a chain-store coffee than a tankard of ale) but walking the old streets brings you as close as you can get to the man himself.
As one of the biggest tourist draws in England, the town can get crowded and occasionally tawdry - it's probably best to avoid any themed tearooms and medieval re-creations. Get beyond the crowds and you'll find plenty of intriguing and moving sights.
Start as the man himself did, in Shakespeare's birthplace. The staged performances might get a little grating, but the renovated house is like a shrine to the playwright and home to some interesting exhibitions, like the giant timeline of 38 plays.
A five-minute walk will take you from bedroom to classroom, at the newly-restored Shakespeare's Schoolroom (shakespearesschoolroom.org, £8.90/€11). Opening to the public this weekend, on the 400th anniversary of his death, Shakespeare's Schoolroom and Guildhall is set to offer a unique insight into his education and formative years.
Regardless of its famous former student, the building is impressive in its own right. Built in 1420, the guildhall is home to rare medieval wall paintings, as well as a charming exterior.
Another site getting a big renovation for the anniversary is the New Place, where Shakespeare spent the last 19 years of his life. While the house itself was demolished in 1759, the new heritage landmark will create a "re-imagination" of the site. Scheduled to open in July, you'll find artworks and exhibitions commemorating his legacy, as well as rarely seen artefacts on display.
No Shakespearian pilgrimage would be complete without paying respects at his grave. A handsome church on the banks of the River Avon, Holy Trinity (stratford-upon-avon.org, £3/€3.80) is Shakespeare's final resting place, and one of the most visited churches in England. His humble grave is inside the church, alongside his wife, Anne Hathaway.
Take some time to explore the villages, market towns and hamlets nearby, and you'll likely find yourself walking in Shakespeare's footsteps. One way to know for sure is to walk from the centre of Stratford out to the hamlet of Shottery, to Anne Hathaway's Cottage and Gardens. A pretty, mile-long footpath leads the way to her thatched farmhouse, amidst gorgeous gardens teeming with flowers and all the trees mentioned in his plays.
Of course, it would border on sacrilegious if a visit didn't include some theatre. The Royal Shakespeare Company (rsc.org.uk) is one of the world's most renowned ensembles, and their base is, of course, in Stratford. Whether you make it to a show or not, the location is well worth a visit - you can tour the theatres, climb the tower for amazing views or simply relax with a cocktail on the rooftop terrace.
But while Stratford is home to an abundance of Shakespearian sights, it's not the only place where you can get your fill. Shakespeare lived out his professional success in London, where he emerged as a poet in 1592.
As part of the 400th celebrations, numerous events are being held all over the capital, and not just on the anniversary weekend itself. The British Library (bl.uk) is hosting a landmark exhibition until September 6. 'Shakespeare in Ten Acts' explores the journey of his plays over 400 years, with theatrical costumes and rare items, like the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare's hand.
Shakespeare's Globe (shakespearesglobe.com) is a modern (and realistic) reconstruction of the Globe theatre, which stands a short distance from the original location. You can tour the theatres or take in a show, though the audience may be considerably less bawdy than they were back in his day.
While you're in the area, pop into The George Inn, a rickety pub frequented by Shakespeare, and drink a pint in the cobbled courtyard - Elizabethan plays used to be staged on this very spot.
Should a theatrical mood strike, you can even take to one of the pub's wooden balconies and recite a line or two yourself. It mightn't be met by the same rapture, but there's no surer way to embody the spirit of Shakespeare.
Getting there, staying there
* You can fly to Birmingham with Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com). Stratford-upon-Avon is a 30-minute drive away.
* Stay in the Church Street Townhouse (churchst-th.co.uk), a historic and quaint pub/restaurant just opposite Shakespeare's school. Rooms start at £110/€139 midweek, B&B.
* If you're planning on visiting a few different houses in Stratford, then buy the 'Town, Cottage and Farm Pass' at shakespeare.org.uk for £26.25/€33.
* For more information, see shakespeares-england.co.uk, shakespeare.org.uk and shakespeare400.org