Places to eat, drink and stay – with intriguing tales to tell
Sup with Shakespeare and drink with Larkin. Stay with George Eliot, or in a Gunpowder Plot abbey. Take the plunge in a Georgian bath house and count sheep in a shepherd’s hut. Warwickshire’s pubs, tea rooms, hotels, B&Bs and cottages have many tales to tell – come and be part of their story.
Visiting with William Shakespeare: “And thereby hangs a tale”
Make yourself cosy in this lovely 17th-century inn, an atmospheric confection of exposed beams, flagstone floors, oak furniture and open fireplaces. Shakespeare supped here with fellow playwright-poets Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson, though alas, it’s also said the Bard contracted pneumonia on his way back to Stratford in the rain. The roads are much better today and your hosts can always call you a taxi if needed, so relax. Tasty dishes here include homemade lasagne or locally sourced sirloin steak.
Rumour has it that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582 in the church attached to Billesley Manor, and his granddaughter, Elizabeth Nash, was married here in 1646. It’s also said that the Bard penned his comedy As You Like It at what is now Billesley Manor Hotel & Spa. You’ll find more to tease your imagination in the Shakespeare Suite: a hidden ‘crawl space’ above the fireplace, probably used to hide valuables during times of strife like the English Civil War. Lots of mysteries to ponder as you kick back in this superb luxury hotel.
This spectacular neo-Gothic mansion in 40 acres of parkland is the perfect haven to escape and chill. Ettington was once owned by the Shirley family, who for a while leased the manor to the Underhills, who in turn were friends of Shakespeare, and so Will became part of Ettington’s social scene, probably hunting here too. Incidentally, the Bard referred to the death of Sir Hugh Shirley – “valiant Shirley” – at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) in his history play King Henry IV, Part I.
If that’s not enough to pique interest, Ettington Manor also has a reputation as one of the most haunted hotels in the UK. Be assured, a spirit of tranquillity and warmth awaits you today!
Just imagine: as this building was being constructed on the High Street around 1610, a certain William Shakespeare was passing by – his home at New Place was around the corner. Before becoming Hathaway Tea Rooms, the attractive black-and-white building functioned at different times as an inn, a bookseller’s, apothecary and shoe shop. Now it’s open for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, served indoors and outside in the walled garden – after following in the footsteps of the Bard around town, what could be more tempting than dainty cakes, homemade scones and tea?
William Shakespeare’s parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, were married in Aston Cantlow church in 1557 and reputedly repaired to The King’s Head for their wedding breakfast. As John had been appointed one of two “able persons and discreet” to be an official ale-taster in Stratford-upon-Avon (checking that beer was wholesome and correctly priced), we can trust his choice of pub! Enjoy beers and ales from local brewery Purity among other refreshing offerings, and if you’re peckish the restaurant serves scrumptious fare like Aston Cantlow venison and pearl barley suet pie.
Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “In delay there lies no plenty, Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty”, which is a generous invitation! On the subject of which, look for the famous ‘kissing tree’ in the gardens of Alveston Manor, where Will allegedly shared his first kiss. It has also been suggested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed here. Romantic tales aside, this 4-star hotel is a great base for touring Shakespeare Country, with accommodation ranging from classic rooms to super deluxe.
It’s not just the 16th-century charm of this exquisite boutique B&B that makes you think you’ve wandered back into Shakespearian times. Jane and William Pusey’s home has intriguing links with the Bard and, in his famous words, a distant tale of “murder most foul” – ask about the story when you stay. Antiques sit side by side with contemporary art at this sumptuous B&B, and Cordon Bleu cook Jane’s scrumptious breakfasts are renowned, including her speciality creamed mushrooms.
Invitation to George Eliot country: “that warm little nest”
George Eliot famously returned in her writing to her beloved North Warwickshire countryside, to what she later called “the memory of that warm little nest where my affections were fledged.” So it’s entirely fitting that near fields she roamed with her brother Isaac you can now find the most fabulous book-lined ‘nest’ that is Astley Book Farm & Coffee Shop.
Complete with comfy leather chairs for quiet me-time and holding some 75,000 tomes, it’s the largest second-hand bookshop in the Midlands: including antiquarian finds, Children’s Hayloft and Ten Bob Barn, plus plenty of George Eliot books. The coffee shop serves hearty soups, local speciality Warwickshire sausage rolls, tasty sandwiches, and generous slices of cakes and scones.
Astley Castle, available for self-catering stays through The Landmark Trust, is a remarkable property: with modern accommodation (sleeps 8; 2 twin, 2 double) stitched into the ruined walls of this historic moated site. George Eliot transformed Astley Castle into Knebley Abbey in Mr Gilfil’s Love Story, while nearby Astley Church, where Eliot’s parents were married, is cast as Knebley Church. In real life the Astley Castle site has been associated with three queens of England, including the ill-fated Nine-Days Queen Jane Grey.
“Dear old Griff” was the home of Mary Ann Evans – better known today by her pen name George Eliot – from 1820 when she was just a few months old until 1841. In The Mill on the Floss Eliot drew on Griff House for descriptions of the Tullivers’ “trimly-kept, comfortable dwelling house” with its “great attic that ran under the old high-pitched roof” where Maggie “fretted out all her ill-humours” – her “favourite retreat on a wet day”. Come rain or shine, The Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Inn is a comfy, friendly place to eat and stay, with family rooms and landscaped gardens.
Romance and poetry: with Scott, Larkin and Jonson
The Golden Cross pub boasts some lovely Tudor features, including a dragon beam – a diagonal beam that enabled upper jettied floors to go around corners. In more recent times, local lad Philip Larkin liked to read his library books here, to drink with his friends and, apparently, to ogle the barmaid. Boyhood memories of Coventry later coloured his poem, ‘I remember, I remember’.
Customers who come to the Golden Cross today (with or without books) don’t want for choice of drinks – real ales from far and wide, local gins and gins from around the world, fabulous lagers, great ciders, a comprehensive wine list, selections of spirits, soft drinks, tea, coffee... and a menu of traditional homemade British cuisine.
In 1815, Sir Walter Scott stayed at the King’s Arms and Castle Hotel, and began writing his gripping historical novel Kenilworth – telling the story of the mysterious death of Amy Robsart, wife of the Earl of Leicester who romanced Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle. Charles Dickens is also believed to have stayed at the inn while writing Dombey and Son, which included “A stroll among the haunted ruins of Kenilworth.”
What would the authors think? The rebuilt King’s Arms now houses Zizzi Italian restaurant, and Ego Mediterranean Restaurant & Bar. They would probably tuck into pizza or tapas with gusto.
Sykes Holiday Cottages, Polesworth
Snuggle down in a self-catering cottage at Polesworth – there are two (sleeping 2 or 4 people) in the medieval gatehouse of Polesworth Abbey. Immerse yourselves in characterful comfort, and visit the original porter’s office and his family’s living quarters to unlock tales about Shakespeare being educated at Polesworth. In the 16th century The Polesworth Circle of writers and poets gathered here, among them Ben Jonson, John Donne, Michael Drayton and Will. A Poetry Trail around the village builds on such literary heritage with a series of modern poems set on a range of installations.
At home with history: “If these walls could speak”
It’s often said our countryside, formed and marked through time, is our biggest history book: in which case the land where Apple Orchard Farm now stands certainly witnessed a tumultuous chapter. It’s located within the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field where Richard III lost his life, marking the end of the Wars of the Roses and the accession of the Tudor dynasty. Today, peaceful meadows and unspoilt views make the historic drama seem a long way off, and a B&B stay here (with delicious farmhouse breakfast) is a real rural treat.
“If these walls could speak” is an apt sign inside Bake 180 Coffee Shop in the retail Courtyard of Middleton Hall & Gardens. Because they would tell of a business that began with Sarah Exall making and selling cupcakes that grew into this popular eatery. ‘Eat the story’: from flavoursome breakfasts to afternoon teas of luscious temptations like strawberry Victoria sponge and carrot-and-ginger cake, washed down with aromatic coffees. Vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options are available.
Middleton Hall & Gardens itself has a 1,000-year history packed with tales, and its herb garden is dedicated to two notable 17th-century residents: the great naturalists Francis Willughby and ‘father of English natural history’ John Ray.
This Victorian Gothic mansion is a vision of arches, pillars, quirky alcoves and kinked corridors, framed outdoors by wooded grounds. Discover five centuries of stories – one, in modern times, relates to Sir Frank Whittle renting a room at Brownsover Hall while working on his plans for the jet engine. Perhaps raise a glass to him in The Sir Frank Whittle Bar and see if the inventive spirit is catching! You can always work up your ideas with a stay in one of the 47 rooms in the main house and converted stable block and coach house.
Built in 1728, Chapel House was the dower house to Atherstone Hall(demolished in 1964). In the 19th century none other than Florence Nightingale stayed here when visiting her friends (and benefactors)Selina and Charles Bracebridge. The Bracebridges also spent time with Miss Nightingale on her famous mission to improve hospital conditions for Crimean War soldiers in Scutari, and helped to care for her there when she herself was ill. On their return to Atherstone the Bracebridges received a rousing welcome from townsfolk, who decorated their homes with flags.
You’ll receive the warmest of welcomes at The Chapel House today, a luxury B&B tucked away in the corner of the Market Square. Fine dining in the restaurant is unfussy classical European.
Several of the men involved in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I/VI, his sons and Parliament, hailed from Warwickshire. They also planned to kidnap James’ daughter, nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who was lodging at Coombe Abbey at the time, then to enthrone her as a puppet Queen, marry her off to a Catholic peer and thus make the country Catholic again. What could possibly go wrong? The plot was foiled, the royals escaped unscathed, and the conspirators got their come-uppance.
Set in 500 acres of parkland, sumptuous Coombe Abbey offers a fabulous escape, with rooms ranging from a palatial bedchamber ideal for romantic couples to spacious family rooms.
Curiouser and curiouser: bath house to shepherd’s hut
The octagonal Bath House, hidden away in woodland near Stratford-upon-Avon, recalls the days when health-conscious 18th-century fashionistas swore (perhaps literally) by the benefits of a cold bath. The bath chamber with plunge pool, and main room above where brave dippers recovered, is let by The Landmark Trust and accommodates two people. Just love the dome with coolly dripping icicles and walls frosted with shells, arranged as if “by some invisible sea-nymph or triton for their private amusement”!
Where better to count sheep to get some zeds than the restored 19th-century Shepherd’s Hut in an orchard at 450-acre Hill Farm? Once providing shelter for shepherds and lambs, the Hut is now a cosy, romantic B&B room with double bed and antique settle. There’s also a Glamping Hut and rooms in the farmhouse. Wind down to the gentle pace of the countryside where you really can count sheep on the working farm, and wake to sounds of birds and wildlife.