Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
Published July 20th 2021
Stratford upon Avon Spa and Gin Staycation
Sitting in the very spot where William Shakespeare wrote As You Like It, it wasn't hard to see how the playwright was so creative. England's beautiful countryside lay ahead for all the eye to see from my seat in the grand historic Billesley Manor Hotel & Spa.
A gloriously old country house hotel, you can feel the history at every turn of its charming wood-panelled walls.
It's a grand entrance, down a tree-lined drive onto this estate that dates back to the medieval Domesday Book. It's where Shakespeare not only stayed but reportedly married Anne Hathaway at All Saints' Church, just outside the grounds.
Talking of outside, the terrace is where you are likely to end up with a glass of something fizzy (or maybe afternoon tea) where a huge elegant fountain takes centre stage and you might catch the odd rabbit dashing across the lawn.
Just off to the wings, there's tennis courts and paths winding around the 125-year-old topiary, shaped like Alice in Wonderland characters. I feel like I have fallen down a rabbit hole into a relaxing oasis of calm and charm.
This is what Stratford-upon-Avon is known for, after all. Travellers come from across the globe to see this stunning town in Warwickshire and now that more Brits are looking to staycations, maybe they can unearth its wonders too.
This stunning rural retreat is just 45 minutes from Birmingham, 1h 30 from London and 2hrs from Manchester, so it's ideally central for a weekend break or longer holiday.
There's plenty to do here from gin tasting to theatre shows and indulging in a spa, which is housed in a modern annexe adjoining the hotel.
The Spa and Health Club
All guests have full access to the Leisure Club during their stay and there's plenty to indulge in. First off, there's a large 25m indoor swimming pool with steam and sauna rooms alongside. That's something I would have taken for granted before lockdown restrictions, but now treasured as one of the things I missed most.
An air-conditioned gym has a wide range of equipment from rowing machines to weights and on to trainers and there's even a yoga hut in its garden, where classes take place.
Treatments using Decléor products are extensive but during these Covid times, book ahead slots for the spa, pool and gym ahead of your stay or when you first arrive.
The Rooms and Hotel
While Billesley Manor Hotel & Spa is housed in a historic mansion, it's had a recent refresh last year that merges the old with the new.
Refreshingly modern but in historic surroundings
It doesn't feel stuffy but has plush velvets and vibrant accessories that bring a freshness and contemporary style to the rooms, bar and restaurant.
There's a nod to the playwright everywhere including wonderful old photos of famous actors in Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) productions lining the corridors.
The reading room, where Shakespeare was inspired to write his play, has features dating back centuries but alongside modern flourishes with flying books hanging across the ceiling about the sofas. It's inviting, artistic, fun and has a touch of Harry Potter about it too.
You can't help but feel something special as being in the same room as where Shakespeare was once scribbling away.
The sophisticated 71 rooms are split between the main house and superior refurbished rooms in the barn. Sink into huge, comfy beds and feel like king of queen of the manor with original windows and features merging with fine furnishings.
Around £5million has been spent on revitalising the hotel in recent years and it shows.
The spot where Shakespeare wrote As You Like It at Billesley Manor Hotel in Stratford upon Avon
Nearby is the award-winning Shakespeare Distillery. This independent artisan spirit producer has been distilling gin for the past five years and has now added rum to the menu. You can see for yourself on a 90-minute distillery tour with tastings.
Their products are even inspired by the Tudor period, which is ingrained in the history of the town. Distinctive drinks include the Mulberry Gin and Jester Rum.
Pre-booked tours include a gin or rum and choice of mixer, tutored tasting of three spirits, a guided distillery tour, an amusing & informative talk on the history of gin and 10% off distillery shop purchases.
Take in views and gin along the stunning River Avon
The beautiful River Avon runs through the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon and naturally draws crowds to lounge on the grass, picnic or venture on to the water.
Avon Boating offers a variety of cruises around the town, which also includes a Gin Tasting Cruise with Shakespeare Distillery.
Groups enjoy a short talk on gin, a tasting of 3 spirits followed by a glass of Stratford Gin & Tonic, all whilst on a 60-minute cruise to see the riverside sights including the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Holy Trinity Church where William Shakespeare is buried.
The Stuart Restaurant at Billesley Manor Hotel prides itself on locally sourced food. The big English breakfast features sausages from the local farm and will set up nicely for the day as there's an expansive buffet of fruit, yoghurts, croissants and more ahead of the hot food.
When it comes to Sunday lunch or dinner, the a la carte menu offers elegantly prepared traditional favourites. Starters are priced between £6 and £9.50 and range from succulent beetroot cured salmon to smooth chicken liver parfait.
The beetroot cured salmon in Billesley Manor's Stuart Restaurant
You can plump from at least eight options for main, including sirloin steak or short-rib beef with roasted artichoke, hen of the woods mushroom and madeira cream. On the lighter side, you have a roasted red bean cassoulet or sea trout with crushed new potatoes (£16 - £28).
Desserts are large and hit the spot (priced from £6 -£7.50), whether it's a chocolate and cherry eclair or strawberry and mint millefeuille with caramelised white chocolate. The ideal curtain call.
A delicious strawberry and mint millefeuille at Billesley Manor Hotel
There's also the Great Hall Bar for snacks and food between noon and 9pm if you prefer something more casual.
Narrowboat day adventure
If you want to try your hand at narrowboating for a day along the Stratford-upon-Avon canal, there are 'Dolly' and 'Charlie' day boats that Anglo Welsh rents out at its Warwickshire base at Wootton Wawen near Henley-in-Arden.
Experience something new with a narrowboat day trip
One of the journeys you can take is to the village of Lowsonford that takes three hours, travelling eight miles and passing through eight locks along the way, along with the remains of the Forest of Arden.
Full tuition is included for those new to canal boating. Boats are equipped with cutlery, crockery and a kettle, and most also have a toilet, cooker and fridge. For more information visit the Anglo Welsh website here or call the booking team on 0117 304 1122.
Don't forget to catch a performance by the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company while in town. Actors from Judi Dench to David Tennant have graced its stages in Stratford-upon-Avon.
A scene from the 2005 RSC production of The Comedy of Errors
Pop into the box office at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Waterside in the town centre and they can help you with last-minute tickets for the main theatre, Swan Theatre or any outdoor performances in summer. You can also pre-book tickets at the RSC website here.
If you're lucky, they may even be performing As You Like It.