Poetry in motion: my car-free break in Shakespeare country

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Arriving in Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, Celia in As You Like It declares: “I like this place. And willingly could waste my time in it.” For a slow travel escape, Warwickshire is sometimes overshadowed by the neighbouring Cotswolds and Oxfordshire. But culturally, historically, geographically, it is Shakespeare’s homeland and England’s ancient heart. From Marylebone station, the train to Leamington Spa powers through the Chilterns in just under 90 minutes. Sheep-freckled farms slope up to grassy hill forts under circling red kites, and a fox runs through fields among white splashes of blackthorn blossom. The branch line for Stratford-upon-Avon signals a shift of tempo: Claverdon, Bearley, Wilmcote… the station names have an Elizabethan air.

Car free map

By lunchtime I’m climbing the Welcombe Hills, following part of the 625-mile Monarch’s Way, a long-distance footpath tracing the route of King Charles II as he fled Cromwell’s forces after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Eleven miles of the route, heading north out of Stratford, will bring me to the village of Wootton Wawen, with its regular trains and buses. I reach an apple orchard and buy a bottle of pressed juice. Lunch, soon after, is garden salad and gooey treacle tart at The Farm. The Monarch’s Way runs right past this popular shop and cafe, through fields of baby goats and highland cows, colourful plots of spring veg and a Gloucestershire Old Spot churning up a paddock ready for this summer’s sunflowers. The afternoon miles pass quicker. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus the peddler first arrives on stage singing a song about “the sweet of the year”, full of budding daffodils and tumbling in the hay, and exits with a verse about walking: Jog on, jog on, the footpath way / And merrily hent the stile-a / A merry heart goes all the day / Your sad tires in a mile-a.

A view from the Monarch’s Way.
A view from the Monarch’s Way. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

There’s often more of Shakespeare out here in the Warwickshire countryside than in Stratford itself, with its coachloads of tourists and models of Big Ben for sale. I dally along primrose-bordered paths, past banks of violets and starry yellow celandines. The last stretch of the route follows a canal-side towpath over an aqueduct and passes St Peter’s church in Wootton Wawen, with its Saxon core, statue of a bearded 15th-century knight and carved stone faces.

Spring lambs on the roots of an old oak.
Spring lambs on the roots of an old oak. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

Much Ado About Nothing is on this evening at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare theatre, four minutes’ walk from the Townhouse hotel, where I’m staying. Behind its castellated facade are 11 bedrooms and a maze of stairways. The Tudor and Georgian building overlooks Shakespeare’s timber-framed school (open every day except Christmas and Boxing Day, £10/£6.50 for adults/kids). Two pre-theatre courses in the Townhouse restaurant cost £15; crispy tempura veg and hearty pasta are welcome after my afternoon hike.

Strolling over cobbles to the theatre, I can hear a blackbird singing in the garden of New Place, Shakespeare’s family home for two decades (open from 26 March, £15/10.50 for adults/kids). The play itself is a triumph of spectacular style over subtlety (tickets from £16). There are live musicians, a gold fountain with real water, showstopping Afrofuturist costumes and a glowing Dr Seuss-style set. With some great moments (Don John’s demonic chuckle, Beatrice hiding behind a neon wheelbarrow), it’s a mesmerising night out.

Compton Verney House is an 18th-century country mansion at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, England. The gardens were landscaped by Capability Brown.RK98NR Compton Verney House is an 18th-century country mansion at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, England. The gardens were landscaped by Capability Brown.
Compton Verney House: classic Capability Brown. Photograph: Jim Monk/Alamy

Next day, I visit two Warwickshire landmarks, whose attractions could each fill a day. Compton Verney is an art gallery, landscaped park, folk museum and grand mansion all rolled into one (£17/free for adults/kids). Bus 77 from Stratford stops every couple of hours right by the wrought iron gates and all visitors walk (or ride the shuttle bus) through grounds that are classic Capability Brown: palladian bridges over a long lake, where shaded snowdrops are still drifting down to the water’s edge, paths winding through wild daffs near a thatched ice house, and stately cedars of Lebanon. Peter Hall filmed A Midsummer Night’s Dream here in 1968 with, among other now-famous cast members, Judi Dench as Titania.

Inside Compton Verney there are royal Tudor portraits, a nude Venus by Cranach, an elegant hall designed by British neoclassical architect Robert Adam, changing exhibitions, and the UK’s biggest collection of British folk art.

Strolling by a canal in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Strolling by a canal in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

Bus 77 goes on, past views of Edgehill (of civil war fame) and suburban roads with names like Banquo Approach and Laertes Grove, into Leamington Spa. There are frequent trains and buses to Warwick, but I stroll a couple of miles instead along the signed Riverside Walk that connects the Leam and Avon via a rural stretch of canal. Crocuses carpet the parks and another aqueduct carries the canal over the Avon, where a swan glides slowly under yellow-green willows.

Warwick Falconer’s Quest at Warwick Castle.
Kites and other birds of prey put on a display at Warwick Castle.

I reach Warwick Castle (tickets from £18 in advance), where the entertainment includes a Horrible Histories maze and a walk-through Royal Weekend, featuring uncanny waxwork Victorians like Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, who inspired the song Daisy, Daisy. Don’t miss the views from the top of the Conqueror’s Fortress, the original motte where Warwick’s first wooden keep was built in 1068. Nearby, the falconer shows off the castle’s resident kites and eagles while jewel-bright peacocks pick their way among flowers and topiary near the conservatory. Bus X18 heads back to Stratford from outside the castle walls.

Henley-in-Arden.
Henley-in-Arden. Photograph: Graham Toney/Alamy

At Coughton (“coat-en”) Court next morning, the riverside walk is fringed with purple wood anemones, nodding hellebores and pungent bright green wild garlic. Thousands of daffodils surround this Tudor National Trust house, seat of the Throckmorton family since the 15th century. Bus X19 stops nearby. Geese range through the orchard and a tall heron rises from the ferns and kingcups in the Bog Garden. A six-mile walk through the nearby countryside passes some of the young groves of the Heart of England Forest project, which aims to create 30,000 acres of woodland in Warwickshire and Worcestershire. The older woods, once a medieval deer park, are bristling with bluebell leaves.

Heading home later, via Coventry, I catch the leisurely X20. It calls itself the “Bard’s Bus” and trundles past half-timbered Henley-in-Arden and the brick cottages of Hampton-in-Arden, with a long loop through Solihull in between. The huge Forest of Arden, which gave these towns and villages their names, once stretched from Stratford to Tamworth and must have helped inspire Shakespeare’s wild forest of fools, lovers and exiles in As You Like It.

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Photograph: Nicola Young

Coventry is the UK City of Culture for 2021 and 2022. I get off the bus near the gold-lit Belgrade theatre and have curry in the cafe as the foyer begins to fill with this evening’s audience. Walking through the city, I look out for Show Windows, like the rainbow-coloured butterfly in Cafe Morso with maps of Coventry neighbourhoods embedded in its wings. An £82m redevelopment, which finished in autumn 2021, included decking the station with symbols of Coventry, like the city’s three spires and Lady Godiva. It also created a traffic-free route for pedestrians and the pathways across Greyfriars Green, currently lit blue and yellow for Ukraine, lead directly to the station – just 20 minutes by train from Birmingham New street and an hour from London Euston.

Accommodation provided by The Townhouse (doubles from £95, room only). Assistance from Visit Warwickshire. Advance train tickets London to Stratford-upon-Avon start from £7.50, chilternrailways.co.uk and to Coventry from £7, avantiwestcoast.co.uk