William Shakespeare's 450th birthday: Walking from Stratford-upon-Avon to the Globe Theatre

In celebration of the Bard's 450th birthday, Sarah Baxter and her band of brothers set off to walk the first section of Shakespeare's Way to Oxford

"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.

Getting there

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.

Staying there

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.

More information

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.

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living