Travel: How to enjoy a socially-distanced weekend away in Stratford-upon-Avon
A visit to Shakespeare's birthplace, the internationally renowned Stratford-upon-Avon, during the coronavirus pandemic turned out to be far more entertaining and enjoyable than expected.
We envisaged shuttered shops, closed down attractions and an air of melancholy, but as it was our first trip away since lockdown in March - we didn’t much care.
As it was, we had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend and except for the unavailability of some of the smaller tourist attractions and having to queue for food and drink, it was business as usual.
The unseasonably warm late September weather added to our buoyant mood.
As the travel and hospitality sectors struggle to stay afloat during these uncertain times, hotels and guest houses have to pull out all the stops if they want to attract overnight guests.
Tourist attractions, if they are allowed to remain open, must abide by ever more stringent rules and regulations and be inventive in order to provide as realistic an experience as possible.
Our base for the weekend was the Hotel Indigo which had been open less than a year before the pandemic struck, following a two-year multi-million-pound restoration.
Right in the heart of this historic market town, the beautiful Tudor timber-framed and plaster building, formerly the Falcon Hotel, dates back to the 16th century and has been an inn since 1655.
The modernisation has been carried out sympathetically and it blends ancient and modern seamlessly. The listed-building status ensuring that everything that could be retained, could be - including some of the original oak beams.
The 93 guest rooms have been furnished with a combination of antique and modern fixtures and fittings using traditional English materials like wool and wood and the effect is striking.
Shakespeare-themed pieces of modern art are dotted around the walls throughout the hotel.
Our room was lovely, containing a fancy coffee machine, a big TV and plenty of storage - and most importantly, the beds were comfortable.
We’d forgotten to mention when booking that one of us was a vegan. It turned out that there was not even a vegetarian breakfast option, never mind vegan, so a very helpful member of staff volunteered to go shopping for the necessary supplies.
As the weather was unseasonably warm we were able to take the first drink of our mini-break in the beautiful and private walled garden in the hotel’s courtyard. The beds are filled with herbs and it is a lovely way to while away an hour or two. It got a bit chilly as the sun went down and patio heaters would have been welcomed - allowing us to stay outside longer.
Our first night’s evening meal was taken at The Woodsman which sits within Hotel Indigo and is the brainchild of restaurateur Mike Robinson. Chefs can be seen cooking meals using the wood-fired oven and charcoal grill.
Deer, partridge, pork, trout and plaice were on the menu but not much to tempt a vegetarian palate - chilled tomato water for the starter and hay-baked celeriac for a main the only options. Still, it was all beautifully cooked and presented. One other oversight worth mentioning, there was no organic wine on the menu - not even by the bottle.
The socially distanced breakfast the following morning was achieved by a combination of table service and a serviced buffet in a room down the corridor: masks had to be worn between table and buffet but it was a minor inconvenience.
We’d planned a packed day of attractions, though some we’d hoped to visit were closed such as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Shakespeare’s New Place, due to difficulties in making them Covid-compliant.
We did, however, spend a fascinating couple of hours at Shakespeare’s Birthplace which is the timber-framed building owned and lived in by John Shakespeare, William’s father, until his death in 1601. It remained in the family until 1806.
We picked up a leaflet from the Tourist Information office which detailed 26 points of interest around the town and proved an enjoyable way to absorb some of the history and take advantage of the warm autumn weather.
Lunch was taken at Plantarium, a lovely vegan cafe we stumbled upon in The Minories on Henley St.
An interesting and incredibly tasty choice of vegan sandwiches and quality coffee and cakes saw us returning the next day to sample more.
We also managed to fit in a 40-minute tour along the river and canal in the company of a jovial and knowledgeable guide, passing through the locks and waving at tourists on the banks.
Then it was on to the Butterfly Farm on Swan’s Nest Lane. Large greenhouses create a tropical environment where hundreds of butterflies and a few birds fly around and an iguana can be found basking in the sun. The leaf-cutter ant colony is particularly interesting.
There was still time then to wander along the circuitous River Avon Trail - although it was a shame the chain ferry wasn’t operating, presumably a casualty of coronavirus.
The walk takes you close to Holy Trinity church, where William Shakespeare is buried so we called in to pay our respects before going back into town.
We’d omitted to book our evening meal, an oversight which saw us bagging an early tea-time slot at one of the very few restaurants that had availability
Sabai Sabai is a small chain of Thai restaurants, the Stratford one can be found on Wood Street.
The interior was so dark we had to get out our phones to shine a light on the menu - as did other diners. The food was typically Thai and very tasty but the staff were overly attentive. Whisking away our plates as the last morsel of food reached our mouths and presenting the bill before the table was cleared. We’d been told on booking we had a predetermined time in which to vacate our table and we still had at least 30 minutes to go. It all felt a bit rushed and unwelcoming.
After dinner, we tried to get into a few pubs but found they were up to capacity so decided we’d retire to our room, lounge on the beds, open a bottle of wine and watch a film we streamed from Netflix - once we’d mastered the television controls.
In al,l an enjoyable weekend - despite the imposed restrictions - and a wonderful place to visit, to recharge batteries and put aside the day to day tribulations we are forced to contend with.
Julie Marshall stayed at: Hotel Indigo, 4 Chapel St, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6HA, phone: 01789 279953, https://stratford.hotelindigo.com/
Butterfly Farm: https://www.butterflyfarm.co.uk/attraction/
Shakespeare’s Birthplace: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/
Canal trip: https://www.canalandrivertours.com/