"Forsooth, good sir, couldst thou pass those fine vittles" – strange looks shot around the breakfast room – "and, perchance, fill mine cup with yonder dark brew?"
I felt it was important to set the tone early, even over the muesli. This B&B repast was fuelling the start of an educational ambulation. My boyfriend, Paul, two of my oldest school friends and I were in Stratford-upon-Avon to tackle the first section of Shakespeare's Way, a 146-mile trail from Stratford to London's Globe Theatre, through the heart of England. It's a bit spurious: even the guidebook calls it a "journey of imagination", confessing it's "the route the poet may have taken" on his journeys between home town and capital; there's scant proof. But, with this week marking the Bard's 450th birthday, and as the world still knows little about him (including his actual date of birth, which may or may not have been today), it seemed as timely and appropriate a way as any to celebrate.
With brains struggling to recall GCSE English, our merry foursome set off. We started at the beginning: Shakespeare's birthplace. This wattle-and-daub house on Henley Street is where he grew up and has long been ground zero for Will-grims: following a campaign (backed by, among others, Charles Dickens), the house was bought for the nation in 1847 and is now a museum. From here, we wended through Tudor Stratford, passing King Edward VI School (where William studied), the former homes of his daughter and granddaughter (Hall's Croft and Nash's House) and the remains of New Place, the grand mansion he built, which was demolished in 1759. By the time we reached Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was buried in 1616, we'd walked just one mile but covered his whole life, birth to death. What more was there?
A lot, actually. Even if no one knows whether Shakespeare travelled this exact path, we know he was inspired by the landscape of his youth. His works are rich in references to its flowers, animals and rural characters. Just after leaving Stratford, I noticed a glove, trodden into the mud; as Shakespeare's father, John, was a glove-maker, I liked to think it was a sign: we were going the right way.
In fact, there's evidence that Shakespeare stayed at Oxford's Crown Tavern en route to London, so the first 60 miles - the section we were tracing, along the River Stour and across the Cotswolds to the university city - are the route's most valid. After Oxford, Shakespeare's Way crosses the Chilterns and joins the Thames; it's unlikely that William followed the same course, but better to be inauthentic than hike alongside the M40.
Our first day was like an opening act, full of promise, setting the scene: ploughed fields, narrow lanes, village greens, steeples and old oak trees. We passed a man cleaning his leaded windows in handsome Halford, who asked what we were up to. He looked sceptical when we told him that we were following Shakespeare, but pointed us onwards, to cross the old Roman Fosse Way. Clearly, millennia of men have marched here before. Paul was our own Henry V, leading us unto the breach (being best at following our guidebook's often ponderous directions). We happy few, we band of brothers, strode behind him, enjoying the walk's simple pleasures: the roll of sylvan green; fields edged with swaying teasels; quaint porches framed by rambling rose.
Our first picnic spot, a grassy hollow beside the Stour, had an amphitheatrical quality, though there was no literary conversation - Talton Mill Farm Shop's lemon cake proved too distracting. And, later, when I started spouting Shakespeare, I turned to find the boys weren't listening, but lobbing conkers at each other instead. Just like being back at school, then.
On day two of our three-day tramp, I felt Shakespeare receding. In Whichford Wood I quoted some As You Like It ("Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court? ...Our life exempt from public haunt finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks"). But my words were drowned by three buzzards overhead. In Lidstone, we read of its former inn, which served travellers on the London Road; perhaps William stopped for a pot of ale? But no evidence remains in the sleepy hamlet.
We may not have found much of the Bard, but we did meet The King. Just off the route lay the Rollright Stones, a Bronze Age site that most of the world has forgotten. A man at a trestle table charged us £1 to view the 5,000-year-old stone circle (once described, unkindly, as "77 stumps and lumps of leprous limestone"), the Whispering Knights dolmen and the solitary King Stone. This place is beloved of dowsers and reputedly ripples with Mother Earth's energy. Just what we needed: we were 25 miles into our journey, still 35 miles to go.
On our third and final day we met Churchill. After entering the parkland of 18th-century Ditchley Mansion and joining a stretch of Akeman Street (once a key Roman road), Shakespeare's Way vaults into the vast grounds of Blenheim. Sir Winston Churchill was born here 140 years ago, and proposed to Clementine in the estate's Temple of Diana. The Way took us via the Column of Victory and landscaped lake, the Baroque palace an overwhelming presence to our side. We didn't go in, continuing instead through pretty Woodstock to Bladon church, where Churchill's simple tombstone stands.
It had been a walk of heavyweights, which made following the Thames into historic Oxford an apt ending. Less satisfying was our last stop: the Crown Tavern on Cornmarket Street. The 14th-century inn was once owned by Shakespeare's friend John Davenant, and William is known to have stayed (and possibly to have dallied with Davenant's wife). Sadly, it's now indistinguishable, squeezed above a betting shop behind an 18th-century façade.
However, that isn't quite the end of the story. Parts of the Elizabethan inn remain hidden here, and following discussions in January, the Oxford Preservation Trust is working towards opening these Painted Rooms to the public. Another fragment of the Shakespeare story revealed. For now, though – as with so much connected to this famous but enduringly mysterious man – we had to use our imaginations.
Macs Adventure (0141 530 1185; macsadventure.com) organises self-guided trips along the Stratford-Oxford stretch of Shakespeare's Way. Prices start at £375pp for five nights' B&B, baggage transfers and guidebook.
The Bell in Alderminster (01789 450414; thebellald.co.uk), an 18th-century coaching inn, serves great food and has characterful doubles from £95. It's hosting a Shakespeare's 450th Birthday Sleepover 26-28 April, with Bard-related events.
Shakespeare's Way Association ( shakespearesway.org); profits from guidebook sales go to Stratford's Shakespeare Hospice.
For more on Oxford's Painted Rooms, see bit.ly/OxfPres.