Francine Wolfisz and family take an idyllic mini-break in Stratford-upon-Avon at the historic Hallmark Welcombe
It’s a frosty winter’s morning and the clouds overhead are threatening rain, but that’s not going to stop me trying my hand at golf for the very first time at one of Warwickshire’s premier championship courses.
Nestled in 157 acres of countryside, the beautiful neo-Jacobean mansion that houses the Hallmark Welcombe in Stratford-upon-Avon makes a striking impression on the landscape a short distance away and, happily, will be my accommodation for the rest of the weekend.
The husband is already checking out the swimming pool with the kids, so for the next two hours I’m ready to devote myself to the championship standard 18-hole course under the careful guidance of my friendly instructor, Matt.
Given my complete novice ways, I doubt Tiger Woods has anything to worry about and I quickly discover there is an entire golfing language that I’m not au fait with.
Clubs? Yes, I enjoyed going to those during my 20s. Tees? Ooh, I’d love a cuppa. Bogeys? Well, enough said about those with two children under five.
But language difficulties aside, I’ll give anything a go and, finally, the achievement of angling a shot straight into the basket on the driving range admittedly gave me a buzz.
I can see the appeal of the game and, quite frankly, in picturesque surroundings such as these, it’s easy to see why so many others think this way too.
Just don’t expect to see me at the British Masters any time soon.
I return to the main hotel, a Grade II listed mansion designed by Henry Clutton, the wondrously creative mind behind the equally stunning Cliveden House, as well as Battle Abbey and Lille Cathedral.
The talented architect obviously understood the importance of architectural “wow” elements, which include towering ornate ceilings, a galleried staircase, elegant chandeliers, oak panelling and roaring open fires that lend this hotel a certain traditional charm that many modern properties lack.
But that’s not to say its 78 rooms fall short of contemporary amenities. All have free Wi-Fi and are equipped with Apple Macs. Our room also boasted a spacious bathroom with separate shower – a definite plus for families.
The Welcombe also has spa facilities, fitness room and the award-winning Trevelyan Restaurant, which offers fine British and European cuisine.
For more informal places to eat out, the hotel is just a 10-minute drive or 30-minute walk from the heart of Stratford-upon-Avon and there is an abundance of family-friendly restaurants available – though beware, booking is very advisable at any time of the week, as the restaurants fill quickly with theatre-goers.
Walking through Sheep Street, I notice on the corner of a building the statue of a young man in medieval dress holding a shield. The statue represents the ideal of “everyman” and was commissioned in 1964 from the German-born Jewish artist Fred Kormis.
The pretty market town’s history stretches back 800 years and is of course famously known for its beautiful canal, majestic white swans and as the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
In April, Stratford will be holding celebrations to mark the Bard’s 400th anniversary since his death and, coinciding with this, the resident Royal Shakespeare Company will unveil a new 200-seat theatre. Shakespeare’s New Place, where the man lived for 19 years, will also open shortly following a massive £5.25million renovation project.
A good place to begin exploring is Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street, the original house where the Bard lived until early adulthood. Some interesting points include the four-poster bed positioned next to the window in the parlour, apparently as a way for John Shakespeare to show off his wealth to his neighbours, and the truckle bed for infants that niftily pulled out from underneath the main bed upstairs – the very original space-saving device!
The mattresses were made from a sack of hay and shortly before bedtime, the residents would beat the hay to ensure there were no hidden insects or vermin – hence the saying “hit the sack”.
With costumed guides and plenty of hands-on exhibits showing how people in the 17th century lived, this is a great place to take even young children. My daughter especially loved John Shakespeare’s glove-and-leather workshop and was pleased to hear that her little red-headed brother would have made quite a sum of money, as large prices were paid by glovers for the urine of ginger-haired boys – apparently due to the belief it had a mystical quality!
Also well worth a visit is Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, a short drive from the town centre, where Shakespeare courted his future wife, and Mary Arden’s Farm, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother, which is today a real Tudor working farm and has plenty for the little ones to enjoy.
We rounded off our trip with a visit to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the resident home of the RSC. Last year, the company put on a production of The Merchant of Venice, which more than 400 years after it was written still attracts debate over whether the character of Jewish moneylender Shylock indeed harbours anti-Semitic undertones.
The truth is Shakespeare was born in a Christian England at a time when Jews had already been expelled for a good few centuries and there is a high probability he never met a Jew.
The current offering for Bard lovers is Hamlet, while young families can also enjoy the free dressing-up box next to the cloakroom, a series of workshops for youngsters, free exhibitions and a family-friendly café.
Overall, Stratford-upon-Avon is a great place to visit with the family. My initial fears over whether we could actually combine a cultural visit with entertaining two youngsters were soon dispelled and, as the Bard himself would agree – all’s well that ends well.
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: www.shakespeare.org.uk
Royal Shakespeare Company: www.rsc.org.uk
Hallmark Hotel The Welcombe, Stratford Upon Avon: www.hallmarkhotels.co.uk/hotels/welcombe