I’ve had many hotel breakfasts I’ve marvelled at. Buffets that runneth over for quantity and choice, leaving guests’ greed untrammelled; there have been gimmicky ones that think inventiveness over familiarity is your desire of a morning; and, of course, those that pitch it just right. Arden House, in Stratford-upon-Avon, is one of them.
The menu sits on your place setting, offering ‘classics’ as well as a la carte choices of fish, omelettes, specials and a variety of waffles. Where I’m usually the traditionalist when it comes to hotel breakfasts, ordering the full English, that morning I went off piste. The smoked salmon, avocado, sour cream and caviar on a toasted crumpet I had is something I’ve since tried to recreate but never matched. It’s important I mention this because a bad breakfast can make or break a hotel. To those of us where breakfast matters, I cite this detail to stress one key point: at Arden House they know their guest.
The small 10-room property is the little sister to the nearby Arden Hotel – Stratford’s go-to for visitors to Shakespeare country – and is the free-spirited younger sibling, confident in its own identity.
It’s a warmer welcome than a more formal hotel, more like an upmarket B&B – you’re given a key to the front door as well as your room – where the rooms are cosy and tasteful, with few frills, even the ubiquitous kettle and teabags are dispensed with in favour of a 24-hour refreshment bar in the dining room.
Throughout, there’s an air of informality; breakfast can be shared at the long dining table, gin is served in the lounge at 5 to those that wish it, and there’s an honesty bar and nightcaps of brandy and sherry when you’re back from your dinner or theatre visit.
The informality extends to the welcome; we’re met by the jolly and ebullient Kim, the House Manager, and we’re on first name terms immediately. Many boutique hotels boast about being homely but here it’s no platitude. The décor is that of an enviable neighbour’s interior rather than anything outwardly flashy, and features of the original house are preserved; the flagstone floor in the lounge and decorative patterned tiles in the hall.
The lounge, too, gets used in the manner of B&B’s gone by. Guests greet each other and strike up conversation, the television can be turned on if so desired, and the atmosphere is as calming as the peaceful guitar music that wafts through the air. As I read a magazine over a cup of Earl Grey and slice of carrot cake, a familiar melody drifted over. As recognizable as it was I couldn’t place it, but it calmed me. Then I realized; it was the Game of Thrones theme. You see? Even hard-hitting drama is reduced to relaxation at Arden House.
Breakfast and Afternoon Tea are the extent of the meals, but rightly so, true to a B&B’s credentials. But it’s more practical here; when you come to Stratford, you come for the theatre, which is never complimentary to a leisurely dinner. That’s where Arden’s hotel coupling works a treat – pre-theatre menus are available at the main hotel’s Riverside Brasserie, where two courses can be taken prior to a performance, with dessert and a drink once you return.
Equally, there’s pre-performance dining at the rooftop restaurant at the RSC theatre, and while the menu doesn’t quite perform to the standards of the company’s acting, it affords wonderful views of the river and the recreation ground opposite, and is a great spot to enjoy an As You Like it cocktail prior to the performance. And, as with the Arden, everything is catered for around a theatre visit. If you can’t finish your Sauvignon Blanc with the meal – they do a Berry Bros Merchant Selection as their house wine, which is a nice touch – it’ll happily wait for you on ice in the interval.
In the morning, before breakfast, I went for a run. Up the river Avon, just out of town, and back on the Warwick road, through the recreation ground on the riverbank giving me a different angle on the RSC (its distinctive tower serving as a route marker), and over the medieval stone Clopton Bridge. Aside from blowing out the cobwebs, it’s a great way to familiarise oneself with ones surroundings.
As I trotted, I passed countless landmarks on the Shakespeare trail; there was a delightful view across the water of Holy Trinity church, where he’s buried; I inadvertently stumbled across a charming weathered Tudor house, which I later learned was Hall’s Croft (home of Shakespeare’s son-in-law); and passed his school just round the corner from the hotel. It’s a rare thing that there’s such a concentration of history in such a small, walkable area – think the Forum in Rome – but here it is in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Suitably fortified by that fine breakfast, we visited the schoolroom and Guildhall, formerly a private library (and, indeed, still very much the functioning King Edward VI school), which has since become one of the town’s top draws. It’s not hard to see why; its restoration recently unearthed medieval altar paintings which had been whitewashed over (on the authority of Shakespeare’s bailiff father during the Reformation, no less), and the experience is truly immersive, with guides as enthralled as we were, and actors taking the roles of schoolmasters and whipping us visitors into shape.
For all the attractions of the Bard, from his birthplace to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, all maintained in a manner to keep history as tangible as possible, the schoolroom is the closest thing there is to understanding, even being, Shakespeare. From the benches (18th c copies, admittedly) where he sat reciting Latin, to the classroom where he saw countless plays, it is his muse, his inspiration, the catalyst for all his work, and where he began his mastery of language. You’re literally sitting where Shakespeare learned his craft.
It’s hard not to be absorbed with everything Stratford offers; it’s Disneyland for literary – and history – maniacs, and one practically leaves feeling better educated. As if to reassure me of that fact, as we returned to Arden House before departing, I noticed it stands on the corner of Scholar’s Lane. Quam decet indeed.
Arden House is part of the Eden Hotel Collection – a privately-owned portfolio of nine beautiful properties in the UK. The intimate 10-bedroom hotel in Stratford-Upon-Avon has a relaxed home-from-home atmosphere and dedicated house hosts. An overnight stay costs from £149 per room (two sharing), including breakfast, afternoon tea, ‘Gin o’clock’, a well-stocked pantry with snacks and soft drinks and guest bar and drinks trolley. Contact Arden House on 01789 298 682. For more information, visit www.ardenhousestratford.com.
For more information about the RSC, including details of forthcoming productions and dining at the rooftop restaurant, visit www.rsc.org.uk.
Finally, for information about what to see and do in Stratford-upon-Avon, including all Shakespeare venues and visitor attractions, visit www.shakespeares-england.co.uk. https://shakespeares-england.co.uk/