Our children have hit a bothersome age. Instead of happily trotting along with us to museums and exhibitions, it can be a struggle to persuade them to come. We’ve yet to experience a place they haven’t enjoyed after getting past the grumbles. But I wasn’t sure if Shakespeare’s Birthplace, in Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, England, would have enough to capture their imaginations.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace: the history
William Shakespeare, the celebrated British playwright, was born in this large house on Henley Street, in 1564. His home is an imposing, timbered building that demands your attention, even in the picturesque streets of Stratford.
The size of the house demonstrates how fortunate William Shakespeare must have been as a child, and how he came to have the resources to write so many outstanding works of art. His father, John, was a relatively wealthy man who worked his way into the position of town Mayor. After his death he passed the house on to William, who lived there with his wife Anne Hathaway for the first five years of their marriage.
Stepping inside the past
You enter Shakespeare’s Birthplace through a building belonging to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, at the side of the house. As we walked through the dark corridor just past the reception desk, the customary grumbles sprang up from our children. The corridor opened out into a sombre, dim room, where early folios of Shakespeare’s works sat in glass cabinets. Fascinating for me and D; not so much for our two children.
But then, something at the end of the room grabbed them. A wall, covered in brass plaques, displaying scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. My daughter, still learning to read, began to spell out the names of the plays. And my son, who had read a couple of Shakespeare works adapted for children, became excited about spotting the plays he’d read.
With the grumble barrier passed, it was easy. The children’s interest quickened.
Out in the garden, Shakespeare Aloud were holding improvised performances of scenes from the plays. The audience sat on benches, or on the low stone walls bordering pretty beds of heather. The actors asked us to pick a play, and then leapt into character to play Othello, Henry V, Beatrice and Benedick, and more. The two men from the three-person troupe even treated us to a love scene from Romeo and Juliet, when the female member of the trio was on a break. (I enjoyed explaining to my daughter that this would have been common in Shakespeare’s time, as acting was considered an unseemly profession for women).
Despite the unfamiliarity of the language, the children were transfixed. The performances were a good prompt for discussing Shakespeare’s life as a whole: he was born in this house; he wrote plays so powerful that they’re still popular, over 500 years later; and here they are, being acted out with aplomb, right in front of you. It helped that my son’s school were part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival this year, with older children performing at a local theatre a couple of weeks after our trip.
Exploring the house
Inside the house, the Birthplace Trust had made efforts to help engage children. We arrived late in the day, so we missed the Tudor Tour that took place regularly over the half term holiday. But inside the house, a ‘Witches’ Familiar’ trail set out clues for the children to find creatures associated with witches (our visit was very near Hallowe’en). In each room, they had to find cats, rats, toads or ravens. The trail sheet gave some background to the history behind witches and witch-finding in England, and also explained how Shakespeare and his family would have used each room when they lived there.
After we’d walked through Shakespeare’s bedroom, the corridor-shaped room where his mother gave birth, and the section of house that was leased out and turned into an inn after Shakespeare inherited the building, we walked down to the workshop of William’s father, John. A glover by trade, he would have used a wide range of materials, including animal hide, which was laid out for visitors to touch and feel. There were even boxes with a smelly surprise inside. When you opened them, a waft of leather, manure or urine wafted out – all smells that would have been common in the workshop.
So, would I recommend taking children as young as five and eight to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace? My answer is, yes. It would help if they were a little familiar with Shakespeare’s plays beforehand. There are a few versions adapted for children, including a set by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross. The Birthplace doesn’t have enough to keep children occupied for longer than two or three hours, but I’d say it’s a crucial pitstop if you want to experience the wealth of history in this town. The other properties owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust are also good for a family visit. We went to Mary Arden’s Farm on this trip, and I’ll be writing about it in the next few weeks. It’s currently closed for the winter. There’s also Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Shakespeare’s New Place and Hall’s Croft, which no doubt we’ll visit and write about soon.
Stratford-Upon-Avon is a short drive from junction 15 of the M40, close to the M42 and M6 motorway networks. The town can be reached by road from London in under 2 hours. Direct rail services run from London Marylebone to Stratford-upon-Avon train station, which is a comfortable ten minute walk from the town centre. It’s also only a short journey from Leamington Spa, Solihull and Birmingham stations.
Adult: £17.50 (£15.75 online)
Child: £11.50 (£10.35 online)
Family: £46.50 (£41.85 online)
Concession: £16.50 (£14.85 online)
A ticket for admission to all the attractions owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust works out as good value:
Adult: £22.50 (£20.25 online)
Child: £14.50 (£13.05 online)
Family: £59.50 (£53.55 online)
Concession: £21.00 (£18.90 online)
We were guests of Shakespeare’s Birthplace as part of a press trip with Shakespeare’s England.
To read more about Warwickshire and Shakespeare’s England, read our other blog posts:
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