Will the real William Shakespeare stand up? England’s greatest wordsmith depicted some of the meatiest characters and episodes in history and legend – yet left us virtually nothing written in his own hand, nor little concrete knowledge about his own life. Instead, a series of clues in the shape of centuries-old houses, some revealing lines in his plays and sonnets, and the landscapes of the heart of England around Warwick, Kenilworth, Leamington Spa and Stratford-upon-Avon.
Exploring the scenes of Shakespeare’s early years, and the landmarks dotting his homeland, is spiced up this year by special events and attractions celebrating not only the 450th anniversary of the bard’s birth but also 1,100 years since the first fortification was built at Warwick.
The roll-call of attractions studding Shakespeare’s England reads like a shortlist of things children love best – mighty castles, funny shows, dressing up, tales of ancient battles, kings, knights and princesses, and the world’s largest catapult – with its central location and great accommodation making for an ideal family break.
Warwick Castle is everything an English fortress should be: looming towers flanked by imperious battlements, jousting tournaments, bird-of-prey displays and a huge trebuchet with an 18m-long arm – the planet’s largest siege engine. All attractions have been revamped for this anniversary year; try medieval glamping in pennant-topped tents.
Warwick Castle (01926 495421; warwick-castle.com; £30.60, child £25.80, family £107.40 including Merlin: Dragon Tower and Castle Dungeon, advance discounts available; open daily except Christmas Day).
Bard for life
For the juvenile Shakespeare, a visit to grandma’s meant a day on Mary Arden’s Farm. The Tudor homestead where the playwright’s mother grew up is populated with costumed characters, providing a snapshot of 16thcentury domestic life. Follow with a visit to Shakespeare’s Birthplace, where actors recite favourite scenes in the garden and special exhibitions celebrate the bard’s 450th birthday, Or visit the Royal Shakespeare Company where family activities take place throughout the year. Mary Arden’s Farm (01789 293455; shakespeare.org.uk; £12.50, child £8; open daily to early November); Shakespeare Five House Pass, covering all main sites: £23.90, child £14 Royal Shakespeare Company (0844-800 1110; rsc.org.uk)
Flights of fancy
The machinations of Iago and Claudius are nothing compared with the devilishly complex contraptions on show at the MAD Museum. Marbles tumble and figures perform pirouettes as kinetic artworks and wondrous automata clunk and whirr. More mechanical marvels can be found at the Heritage Motor Centre, tracing the evolution of cars over a century and more – discover how Britain’s history has changed the way we get around. Elsewhere, the mysteries of metamorphosis are revealed at the Butterfly Farm, where spiders, beetles and all manner of bugs join more than 1,500 free-flying butterflies.
MAD Museum (01789 269356; themadmuseum.co.uk; £6.80, child £5.50; open daily) Heritage Motor Centre (01926 641188; heritage-motor-centre.co.uk; £12, child £8; open daily) Butterfly Farm (01789 299288; butterflyfarm.co.uk; £6.25, child £5.25; open daily)
Getting there The M40 runs between Stratford and Warwick, providing easy access to both. Regular trains serve London (Stratford two hours, Warwick 90 minutes), Birmingham (Warwick 30 minutes, Stratford 50 minutes) and beyond.
Mercure Shakespeare (024-7709 2802; mercure.com) Doubles from £56, room only. The Stratford (01789 271000; qhotels.co.uk) Doubles from £107.10, w/breakfast. Legacy Falcon Hotel (0844-411 9001; www.legacy-hotels.co.uk) Doubles from £90. Alveston Manor Hotel (01789 205478; macdonaldhotels.co.uk) Doubles from £95. Ardencote Manor (01926 843111; ardencote.com) Doubles from £115, w/breakfast.
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