The Historic Spine -- Stratford-upon-Avon
The best of Stratford’s architectural heritage is located along a centuries-old route leading from Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street to Holy Trinity Church in Old Town. Here are to be found nearly all of the town’s most important buildings, some of them of national importance. The Stratford Society hopes that the description which follows will help both visitors and residents to appreciate the unique experience of tracing this route through the heart of the historic town.
A medieval planned town
Until the end of the twelfth century, Stratford was just a village, with its houses clustered round the parish church. Then, in 1196, the lord of the manor, wishing to raise Stratford’s status to that of a town, laid out a grid of streets on adjacent land to encourage the development of an urban community.
Eight hundred years later, the consequences of this act of town planning are still clearly reflected in the regular grid layout of the town’s main streets, and in the distance of the parish church from what, after 1196, became the town centre.
The 'Historic Spine'
Less obvious at first glance is the ‘historic spine’, the main route through the town which provided the vital link between the new town centre and the old parish church. High Street, as its name indicates, was one of the earliest streets to be developed. It was the continuation of this, via Chapel Street, Church Street and Old Town, which was to provide that link.
It is no accident that along this age-old route are to be found the finest of Stratford’s buildings, ranging in date from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. At the ‘town end’ it can be extended north-west along the line of Henley Street, another old route incorporated into the ‘new town’.
The most important building in Henley Street is Shakespeare’s Birthplace, a timber-framed building of sixteenth-century date owned and lived in by Shakespeare’s father, John, until his death in 1601, and where Shakespeare himself was born. Much of the house was subsequently let out as an inn, the Swan and Maidenhead, but ownership remained with the descendants of Shakespeare himself, and then of his sister, until 1806. It was purchased in 1847, and then restored, as a national memorial to the poet.
The Public Library
One or two important medieval buildings in Henley Street lie concealed behind later frontages but one is still clearly visible, the Public Library. Saved from demolition in 1901, it was in such a poor state that only thorough restoration ensured its survival.
Bridge Street and Middle RowIt is worth pausing at the top of Bridge Street. In Shakespeare’s day, this broad thoroughfare, where the weekly market was held, had become divided into two narrow streets by a row of haphazard buildings running up the centre, known as Middle Row: these had evolved out of stalls set out on market days. At the top was the old market cross.
The Market Hall
In the early nineteenth century, Middle Row was cleared away, and many of the buildings in Bridge Street refronted or rebuilt in Regency style, in an effort to modernise the town. The only reminder today that this was once an important market area is the Market Hall (now Barclays Bank), originally open on the ground floor, built in 1821 to replace its medieval predecessor.
From this same vantage point can be seen evidence of a later building fashion. By the 1880s, there was a reaction against this ‘modernising’ of the town, replaced by a campaign to preserve its older buildings. This even affected the design of some new buildings, built with timber framing in an effort to blend in with the old, but now important in their own right.
The impressive house on the corner of Union Street (now Costa Coffee), often mistaken for one of the town’s older buildings, was in fact built for the National Provincial Bank in 1924.
Another impressive example visible from here, is W.H. Smith’s in High Street, built in 1921.
The Home of Shakespeare's Daughter
High Street was badly affected by two serious fires in 1594 and 1595 and very few of its buildings date back beyond this date: one exception is the house on the corner of Bridge Street (Crabtree and Evelyn) which, though refronted, has the added interest of having been the home of Thomas Quiney and his wife Judith, Shakespeare’s younger daughter, from 1616 to 1637.
High Street Post-Fire Houses
It is towards the far end of the street that an important cluster of post-fire houses can be seen. Here would have lived the families of the leading townsmen in Shakespeare’s day who, after the fires, erected houses which reflected their wealth and substance. Though some of these have been altered in more recent times, they are characterised by features common to grand Elizabethan town houses: gabled and of three storeys (each one jettied out over the one beneath), and built with a lavish use of timber. They include:
No. 30 (Currys) with a beautifully carved bressumer beam.
On the other side of the street, Nos 17-18, with its three gables (Blacks).
Adjoining Nos 17-18, and the last on that side of the street, Nos 19-21, once with four gables but now only two
Across the road again, a wonderful group, Nos 23-4 on the corner, the Garrick Inn, and, the most spectacular, Harvard House.
In the case of Harvard House and, to a lesser extent, the Garrick, this framing was enriched with elaborate decorative carving. Harvard House even has its date of construction (1596) worked into the facade, together with the initials of its owners at the time, Thomas Rogers and his wife Ann.
The Corn Market
At this crossroads, formerly known as the Corn Market, is a good vantage point from which to view other important buildings from different periods in Stratford’s history.
The Town Hall
On the corner of Chapel Street and Sheep Street stands Stratford’s Town Hall of 1767, one of the few buildings in Stratford constructed in stone. Like the former Market Cross at the top of Bridge Street, it too was originally open on the ground floor for use on market day. The statue of Shakespeare on its north elevation was given to the town by the famous actor, David Garrick who organised a three-day Shakespeare festival in Stratford in 1769.
On the opposite corner is the finest building in the town in the ‘High Victorian’ manner. Built in 1883 for the Stourbridge and Kidderminster Banking Company, the architects included a feature which they hoped would make the building acceptable in Shakespeare’s native town – a fine terra-cotta frieze depicting fifteen scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.
Chapel Street is less busy than High Street and this quieter feel is reflected in the character of the buildings which line the street.
The Shakespeare Hotel
The east side is dominated today by the Shakespeare Hotel, topped with its nine gables. The four-gabled section, immediately adjoining the Town Hall, the original Shakespeare Hotel, is in fact a refronting in ‘mock Tudor’, dating from 1920, applied to a genuine sixteenth-century building which had undergone several changes to its original façade.
Adjoining it is an impressive five-gabled house also of mid sixteenth-century date, originally built for a wealthy Stratford townsman. In the 1880s it was acquired by the owners of the Shakespeare Hotel next door and the premises gradually converted to hotel use.
The other side of the street is largely made up of a row of attractive buildings dating from the late eighteenth century. In fact, only the central block, topped by its little triangular pediment, is entirely of this period: the properties at each end (Nos 7 and 11) are timber-framed buildings hidden by later brick façades.
Nos 20-21 Chapel Street
Across the road are two properties which, though in commercial use, have successfully retained much of their original character due to sympathetic treatment of their street elevations. No 20 is timber-framed (on the left), less grand than the imposing town residences in High Street but a fine, and relatively unaltered, example of a more modest town dwelling. To its right is another building (No 21) with extensive timber framing at the rear but with its front section (still intact) handsomely remodelled in the 1790s when it became the town’s first bank.
Nash's HouseFurther to the right (No. 22) is a timber-framed building dating back to Shakespeare’s time. It is known as Nash’s House, having belonged to Thomas Nash, the first husband of Shakespeare’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth Hall, whom he married in 1626. Its front wall was rebuilt in 1912 to replace a brick and stucco façade which in turn had displaced the original one in the 1820s. But it has some fine internal features and is open to the public.
On the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane is a vacant plot where once stood one of the most impressive houses in the town. It was built by Hugh Clopton in the 1490s with a five-gabled timber-framed range fronting the street and with a courtyard and stone building to the rear. This was the house which William Shakespeare bought in 1597 and where he died in 1616. It remained in the hands of his descendants until 1675 when it was sold back to the Cloptons. In 1701-02, John Clopton virtually rebuilt the house as a wedding present for one of his sons. In 1759, three years after the refurbished property had been sold to Francis Gastrell, this house in turn was pulled down. Luckily the site was not redeveloped: instead the open space, with some early foundations exposed, serves as a poignant reminder that here once stood the home of Stratford’s most famous son.
Guild ChapelThe crossroads at this end of Chapel Street is dominated by another ‘high status’ town building, the Guild Chapel. This began life as a hospital founded by the Guild of the Holy Cross in 1269 and parts of the chancel of the present building may date back to that time. But the hospital failed and the Guild subsequently took the building over for use as a chapel. The small chancel was substantially rebuilt in the early fifteenth century and the impressive nave and tower added in the 1490s at the expense of Hugh Clopton who left money is his will to complete the work.
Medieval Wall Paintings
The interior walls were lavishly decorated with wall paintings: today the portrayal of the Doom (Day of Judgment) over the chancel arch is the most obvious survival although other work also survives.
Guild HallRunning south from the chapel are other important buildings built by the Guild of the Holy Cross. First is the Guild Hall, built in the 1420s as the Guild’s business headquarters and principal meeting place for its members.
Beyond this is a range of almshouses built for the benefit of the Guild’s old and infirm members. Like the Guildhall, these almshouses are said to date from the 1420s, though they may have been substantially refurbished in the Elizabethan period.
Grammar SchoolThe Guild, which had also run a school for the sons of its members, was suppressed at the Reformation. The Stratford Corporation then took over responsibility for the maintenance of the almshouses and the school. The school used part, at least, of the old Guildhall and it is here that Shakespeare is believed to have been educated.
Before continuing along Church Street, it is worth taking in the imposing house on the corner of Scholars Lane. This dates from around 1600 and was the home of a leading Stratford burgess, John Sadler. It is timber-framed at heart, refronted twice, first in 1768 and then in 1840, resulting in a façade with a curious mixture of Gothic windows and an embattled parapet. The original timber frame, however, is still visible from the side, probably the most visible example in the town of how its older buildings were kept up to date by refronting them in more modern materials.
Nos 18-19, 20-21 Church StreetChurch Street, some distance from the town centre but still forming part of an important thoroughfare, became a favoured residential area for the better off. On the east side we pass first a handsome pair of houses (Nos 18-19), built in 1856 in brick, and next door a pair with a stucco finish (Nos 20-21) built in 1831.
But it is across the road that one of the finest houses is to be found – Mason Croft, built in the 1720s by a well-to-do lawyer and, in the early twentieth century, the home of Marie Corelli, the best-selling novel writer of her day. This is now the Shakespeare Institute, an outpost of the University of Birmingham.
No 2 Church StreetA little further along on, at the corner of Chestnut Walk, is an even more ambitious house. This dates from a few years earlier and was also the home of a lawyer, Thomas Rawlins. As originally built, it was only two-storied. The top floor was added in 1870 when the building was taken over for use as a school known as Trinity College – the change in the brickwork can still be seen.
No 1 Church Street
Finally, closing the view of the street is No. 1 Church Street (now the Preparatory School), built in about 1690 for a tobacconist, William Warry. It too was altered when the building was extended to the left so that it is no longer symmetrical.
Old TownThe eighteenth- and nineteenth-century residential character is continued in Old Town although the street name reminds us that it once led to the early medieval settlement.
Old Town Place
The Georgian buildings on the right-hand side of the street culminate in Old Town Place (No 5), built in 1760, virtually unaltered externally since then, and for that reason arguably the finest building of its type in the town.
Old Town CottageNext door, set back from the road, is a strikingly different building, Old Town Cottage, built nearly a hundred years later, with gables and decorated bargeboards.
On the other side of the street are some rambling timber-framed buildings. The first is Hall’s Croft, believed to be the home of John Hall and his wife Susanna, Shakespeare’s elder daughter. Its earliest surviving features date back to the early seventeenth century with fascinating evidence of its later expansion.
Dower HouseBeyond is a complex of buildings dating back to the sixteenth century. It comprised a substantial house (now the Dower House, on the corner of Southern Lane), with a range of outbuildings (now converted into Avoncroft and Old Town Croft) running back along the street. Much of the original timber framing has been concealed behind stucco or roughcast, though some can still be glimpsed from Southern Lane.
Holy Trinity Church
Finally, at the end of the route, stands Holy Trinity Church. The earliest part of the building today (the transepts and lower parts of the tower) are thirteenth-century in date. The nave and aisles were rebuilt in the fourteenth century when the church became collegiate. Finally, at the end of the fifteenth century, the chancel was rebuilt in grand perpendicular style and the clerestory added. Of its type, Holy Trinity Church is the finest in the county, its peaceful riverside setting adding to its attractions.
The church also has the added fame of being the place where Shakespeare was both baptised and buried, and a monument erected here in his memory makes it one of the most visited churches in the country.