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On a Roll Through William Shakespeare Country

May 08, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

STRATFORD-ON-AVON, England — Imagine that William Shakespeare is biking beside you along his beloved River Avon.

In a shady spot beneath a beech tree, he might pause and say something like, " 'Orpheus with his lute made trees!' "

The line is from "King Henry VIII." Like so many of Shakespeare's lines about nature, it is believed to have come from the countryside around this town where he was born in 1564 and lived for most of his 52 years.

Half a dozen years ago, we canoed and walked with the Bard along the River Avon. This summer, Vermont Bicycle Touring, pioneer of country inn cycling vacations in the United States, will add southern England and Stratford-on-Avon to its schedule. Four tours will be offered this season. They'll include an evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which is staging his dramas until Sept. 24.

Many English bicycle touring companies also include Stratford-on-Avon in their summer tours.

Pedaling on Your Own

But if you like to blend pedaling on your own with train or rental-car travel around England, you can pick up a bicycle in London or a countryside town. Patchkey's Cycle Hire in Stratford rents bikes for about 4 ($7 to $8 U.S.).

If you're not on a bike tour, pick a bed and breakfast inn or a historic hotel as a base for cycling the Warwickshire countryside.

By biking, we can still be back in town in time for the theater, or for dinner, and afterward a sip at the Dirty Duck, where members of the cast relax after the last act.

Warwick Castle, which some believe is the finest medieval castle in England, is a short bike ride upstream. Peacocks roam through the garden.

Shakespeare Reminder

Between Stratford-on-Avon and Warwick Castle, there's another reminder of William Shakespeare. With the affluence accumulated from 39 dramas, considered perhaps the greatest output of literary work in history, he bought 120 acres of land along this reach of the Avon.

In the late 19th Century, this land and manor house became the country estate of Sir George Trevelyan, the historian who chronicled the American Revolution. It's now the site of the Welcombe Hotel & Golf Course complex.

An 18-hole course slopes from the hotel to the River Avon. It's one of the most challenging courses in Britain, with panoramic views of the Avon Valley.

Four miles downstream from Stratford-on-Avon, Welford-on-Avon is one of the loveliest villages of Warwickshire. Stay at the Cottage bed and breakfast inn there. It was nearly a century old when Shakespeare was born.

Vale of Evesham Trail

Below Welford-on-Avon, you can pedal close to the River Avon as it winds toward Sudeley Castle through the Vale of Evesham blossom trail.

Works of art by Turner and Van Dyke are part of the castle's magnificent collection. Catherine Parr, the sixth and surviving wife of Henry VIII, lived there in the architectural splendor of Cotswold stone.

Biking around Memorial Park in Stratford-on-Avon, beside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, you can step into "The World of Shakespeare," a 25-minute sound-and-light presentation that recreates England as it was when the Bard was the 12-year-old son of a prosperous merchant. It follows the journey of Queen Elizabeth that year from London to Kenilworth.

From there, visit the half-timbered home where Shakespeare was born, then pedal to the street where he walked to grammar school. From there it's only 1 1/2 miles into the countryside to the cottage of Anne Hathaway, who was 26 when 18-year-old Will persuaded her to marry him in 1582.

Shakespeare loved the Cotswolds, too--the flowering hillsides and valleys of tall beeches only 15 miles from town. Bike tours stop at the Duke of Marlborough's Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born.

Family Burial Site

Within Stratford-on-Avon, plan your biking explorations to end at Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried in front of the altar with his wife, their daughters and son-in-law. The centuries have heeded his inscription warning: "Cursed be he that moves my bones."

Given the summertime popularity of Stratford-on-Avon, check with your travel agent about booking accommodations, as well as Royal Shakespeare Theatre tickets, as far in advance as possible.

Depending on your seating preference and the day of the week, tickets this summer range from about $7 to $50.

Lodging for two will vary from about $40 per night in a small bed-and-breakfast inn to nearly $200 at the Ettington Park, a Victorian Gothic hotel set in 40 woodland acres south of Stratford. At the Shakespeare Hotel near town center, all of the bedchambers are named after a Shakespearean play, poem or character.

If you plan to cycle on your next trip to England, ask for a copy of "Cycling in Britain" from the British Tourist Authority, 350 S. Figueroa St., Suite 450, Los Angeles 90071, phone (213) 628-3525.

The 14-day Vermont Bicycle Touring southern England excursions are priced at $1,599 per person, double occupancy. Scheduled dates are May 25-June 8, June 12-26, Sept. 4-18 and Sept. 25-Oct. 9. Cost includes lodging, breakfast, dinner, gratuities, a ticket to the theater, tour leader and accompanying van. You can bring your own bicycle and gear, or arrange for rentals.

In addition to two days in and around Stratford-on-Avon, tours explore the Cotswolds, castles and cathedrals, and the towns of Winchester, Salisbury, Bath and Oxford. Biking is about 25 miles a day. For more information, contact Vermont Bicycle Touring, Box 711-PX, Bristol, Vt. 005443, phone (802) 453-4811.

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