At this point in our trip, we said goodbye to British Rail and hello to Avis rent-a-car (I guess in the UK it should be hire-a-car). We hired a subcompact in Oxford for five days, and headed up the motorway to Stratford-upon-Avon. We stayed at Aidan Guest House there, which had a helpful, friendly hostess, off-the-street parking, and was centrally located within easy walking distance of all the Shakespeare sights.
Stratford is a lovely town, and the Shakespeare exhibits give you a good overview of his life and influence on culture and literature. The one downside was all the construction along the Avon River. We didn't spend much time along the river as a result. We saw the in-town sights that afternoon, then had a very tasty pre-theatre dinner at Edward Moon before heading to the highlight of the day: The Merchant of Venice at the Courtyard Theatre.
For an American, seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company perform the Bard's work in his hometown is a really big deal. As I always find with Shakespeare, it takes a while to get adjusted to the archaic language. You have to really think to follow the dialogue. But after a bit, it gets easier and you are totally engaged in the play. Our B&B hostess told us that this production was getting mixed reviews. But we thoroughly enjoyed it.
The next morning we visited Warwick Castle. That was a treat! It is a huge place, and the displays we saw covered three different time periods. One "Disney-fied" display was about the Wars of the Roses. It was really oriented toward kids--a "you are there the night before the big battle" sort of thing. I would have liked a little more historical content on the Kingmaker myself, but I am a history enthusiast and not 10 years old.
The Great Hall in the main house was filled with suits of armor and all of the things you associate with castles. The rooms in that section were arranged in the Jacobean style of Great Hall, Great Chamber, withdrawing room, bedroom and boudoir--gradually moving from public rooms to private rooms. I had read all about this in a book on architecture before I travelled, so it was great to see it exhibited this way at Warwick.
There was another section where the rooms were arranged in the late Victorian/Edwardian manner, including a library, smoking room, and music room. This part had wax figures of Winston Churchill, Prince Edward, etc.
We walked the battlements outside and climbed one of the towers for the fabulous views, then had a delicious lunch before we explored the grounds. We found that the food in the cafes at the big houses like Warwick, Blenheim, and Beaulieu was much better than we expected. Usually it was prepared with local ingredients, and the portions were huge.
In the afternoon, we visited Mary Arden's Farm. This had lots of farm animals and some well-informed guides to explain what life was like on a Tudor farm. It would be an excellent place to take kids. In fact, we saw a party of school kids there--in costume!
Anne Hathaway's Cottage was particularly lovely. It is set in a very picturesque garden, with a thatched roof that was in the process of being repaired while we were there. That was intriguing to watch. It started to rain while we were there, so we walked across the road and had coffee and cake at a lovely tea room next to a brook. I could have stayed there for hours, soaking up the scenery. It was "vintage England."