One of the best known tourist destinations in England is Stratford upon Avon. The reason why so many descend on the town is well known especially this year as we celebrate 400 years since the death of one of the greatest writers who ever lived – William Shakespeare. But, I am off to look for the bits that are not in the guide books – Stratford’s hidden secrets.
And what surprises I find! Disused railway tracks converted to cycle tracks, a great community pub, a converted factory where half of England’s street signs were once made. It’s also the birthplace of the Telly Tubbies, ancient bicycles and Warwickshire Bananas.
Rather than drive into the town I decide to walk via The Greenway from Milcote (where there’s a free car park), about 2.5 miles outside of Stratford. Part of the National Cycle Network this five mile section follows a disused railway line, it’s a high quality surfaced path suitable for cyclists, walkers and horse riders.
It’s a flat, easy walk and before too long I reach the point where the river Stour joins the Avon where I cross the magnificent but somewhat tired Stannals Bridge. I was lucky enough to meet a gregarious lady whose 94 year old father was a former signalman with the Great Western Railway over whose tracks I now meandered.
This short section of railway line had three stations on it, one at Milcote, one alongside Stratford Racecourse (the walk takes you right alongside the race track) for race days. The last stations at the far end are where you’ll find two carriages, now used as a cafe and cycle hire depot.
Reaching the town I make a slight diversion to the cemetery in Evesham Road to pay my respects to the 97 Canadian Airmen who rest here. Stationed at nearby Wellesbourne they lost their lives there whilst training to fly the mighty Wellington bomber. There is a memorial unveiled in 1949 by the Canadian High Commissioner in recognition of their sacrifice and the maples that surround the garden are from Canada, a gift from the Ontario Horticultural Association.
This is also the resting place of novelist Marie Corelli, and of Edward Fordham Flower who started Stratford brewers Flowers many years ago.
After this sobering experience it’s a short distance to the Old Town area of Stratford, where you’ll discover a great pub, The New Bulls Head, if it’s too early for a pint, they do a very good coffee. A traditional community pub which also boasts an in-house shop which opens every morning from 8am for newspapers, bread and groceries.
Landlord Roger Hatch has produced a great little book with a brief history of Old Town and the pub is well worth visiting for the tremendous number of pictures of Old Town and the railway.
There is a modern mews development in college lane, but this was once the site of the Royal Lable Factory. Amazingly it was here that over 50% of all the road signs, street names and place names used in England were made. Made of cast aluminium many of them are still to be found. Look on the back of a street sign and if you see a yellow diamond with RLF on it, you’ll know it was made here, in Stratford.
Many of the town centre pubs have hidden gardens. Head to The Shakespeare Hotel, a five-star hotel where I drink a couple of cool beers. It’s rather expensive and quite posh but the garden at the rear is spectacular.
Not just the birthplace of Shakespeare, this town is also where the Telly Tubbies were born. Rag Doll Productions were based in Church Street and up until a few years ago had a shop. These days it is an optician’s store, but if you look up at the top windows there are two rag dolls waving a very sad good bye.
The Telly Tubbies were filmed at a secret location outside of Stratford – keep it to yourselves but it was the Welcombe Hills Golf Course.
You’ll find choosing a place for lunch quite difficult here as there’s a huge choice. Sheep Street known to locals as ‘The Eating Heart of Stratford’ is a good choice and a great little pub is The Vinter, where you can enjoy a bottle of red and a steak sandwich at a good price.
Afterwards head to The Chandlery down by the river, home to Pashleys Cycles, Englands longest established bicycle manufacturer. The Rolls Royce of traditional cycles can be bought or hired here so you can explore Stratford on two wheels in style. You can also hire a gondola; once afloat in Venice it was bought over by somewhat eccentric novelist Marie Corelli who would enjoy punting it on this river.
On the south side of the river you’ll find Warwickshire bananas growing on the banks of the Avon. Stratford Butterfly Farm opened in the 1980s and has become a popular destination for both children and adults. Butterflies from all over the world of all colours and sizes can be enjoyed flitting about in specially built houses with the climate of a tropical rainforest. You’ll find a lush landscape of exotic blossom and banana trees that regularly produce fruit. Any plans I had to sample them were dashed – only the day before a full bunch had been picked and eaten by a family who had assumed they were included in the ticket price.
Stratford offers a great day out and of course if you’re a Shakespeare fan, there’s even more to enjoy.