Stratford-on-Avon, England — WHEN I was a child growing up in Warwickshire I knew the county as a nurserylike land where graceful clumps of huge old trees decorated rolling hills and sheltered tiny villages. Only four towns were worth even mentioning: our neighboring town of Birmingham (where the money came from) - unforgettable because it was so horrid; Stratford-upon-Avon (where local boy made very good); Warwick (our county town); and Sutton Coldfield (the center of the universe and mentioned by Shakespeare).
Visiting it again after nearly 30 years in America I find Warwickshire has changed very little - the countryside hardly at all. I realize I was right about Birmingham (it has swallowed up Sutton Coldfield), but I hadn't given Stratford the importance it deserved - not only as a place but an influence. The very fact that Shakespeare was born there (418 years ago today) affects all the countryside round about.
I am not talking about the negative aspects like the tourist traps, but the fact that the land itself belongs to his plays. The farmer, near Snitterfield, who claims that in one of her fields is the bank ''where the wild thyme blows'' and the people of Henley-in-Arden who know that ''Arden'' refers to Shakespeare's ''forest of Arden'' aren't going to forget that they are the playwright's heirs and neighbors.
''Look at the size of this old beam,'' said the curator of Anne Hathaway's cottage. ''It came from a tree growing right outside. Imagine a forest of trees that size stretching from here to Birmingham.'' And we do.
Of course every visitor should see the Shakespeare landmarks. Any guided tour will take you to some of the most famous half-timbered buildings in the world: the birthplace, Anne Hathaway's cottage, New Place, Mary Arden's House. Despite the inescapable summertime crowds (about 500,000 people visit the birthplace every year), a thrill always takes me by surprise as the old familiar calendar buildings shift into reality. I always forget how big Anne Hathaway's cottage is.
No one would dare -- even if they were silly enough to want to -- miss seeing a performance at the Memorial Theater. But The Other Place, the small converted barn where playgoers can find the same cast performing in other plays, seems almost unknown. And don't forget to try boating on the river (the swans are getting fewer) or even to eat on it at the Boathouse, converted into a charming restaurant with a balcony overhanging the river - pheasant was on the lunchtime menu when I went there.
But take a look outside the town, too. Nine miles away is the tiny town of Warwick. It is famous for its castle, one of the most romantic in Britain, that began life as a medieval fortress, and is now the seat of the Grenville family. (It's open to visitors).
But even if it had no castle at all, Warwick would still be worth visiting. It is built of red sandstone and is rich in half-timbered houses (watch out, for some are Victorian - look closely and you can spot when a beam has been nailed on).
Warwick is a favorite in my family for several reasons: Sudden narrow lanes run between high stone walls; tiny gardens, like the one behind the Quaker Meetinghouse, welcome visitors to sit and enjoy the flowers; our 93-year old friend Miss Potter lives in one of those ancient houses that open right on the sidewalk (''I call everyone 'my dear' '').
We wouldn't want you to leave without visiting the beautiful Lord Leycester Hospital, whose buildings date from the 12th to the l6th centuries. And please don't miss St. Mary's Church, particularly the Beauchamp Chapel built in 1439, and certainly look for the stained glass window that shows some musicians. One of them has a red face -- look closely and you will see that it's because he hit a sour note.
Completely neglected by the tourist guides is the town of Henley-in-Arden (it's really a village but it's been called a town since sometime in the 12th century). The only trace of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden is in the wood that built the houses. In fact the town is known for its long High Street of mostly half-timbered Tudor houses, its crumbling 15th-century market cross, and a grassy mound where you can still see the faint outlines of the bailey and keep of a Norman castle. Henley made a bad mistake during the Barons' War. It fought against the king, and, as a reprisal, the castle was burned down. And, since the people of Warwickshire don't believe in waste, inside some of those houses on the High Street are out-of-proportion castle-size beams.
Henley-in-Arden has other claims to, well, fame of a kind. It boasts one of the best restaurants outside London, the 16th-century ''Filbert Cottage,'' owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jean-Yves Guerrot (he and his twin brother, Jean-Rene, who helps in the running, are from Brittany - the cooking is French and superb). Cooks flock together apparently, for up and down the main street are several excellent restaurants, including the Othello with its Italian food and Mr. and Mrs. R. Cortes's Restaurante Espanol.
Craftsmen are a clanny bunch too. There are two sets of silversmiths (Rings 'n' Things, and Arthur Griffiths). The accurately named Fine Feathers makes dresses from beautiful fabrics, and Reg Moon is known for his superb pottery. A nature painter specializes in extraordinarily accurate detail and can tell you exactly what is happening in the woods and fields.
In fact Shakespeare country is full of serendipity: Off the road between Wootton Wawen and Great Alne and down a farm lane is a tiny isolated church, locked and deserted, that is maintained, so a notice board informs us, ''by the Redundant Churches Fund, St. Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe.''
Stratford is a good center - and not only for Shakespeare lovers. It lies within easy reach of Kenilworth, Leamington, the Cotswolds, Charlecote Park, and Sudeley Castle. (I visit Sudeley with an ulterior motive: It is in the village of Winchcombe and the church there possesses the most endearing gargoyles. They are not disguised water spouts but caricatures of 15th-century local dignitaries). Practical information: Tours that include Stratford-upon-Avon are easy to find. Visitors who prefer to make more leisurely plans (driving, perhaps, from London through the Cotswolds and stopping off to explore villages along the way) will find accommodations ranging from the Hilton International (the atmosphere is US with British touches) on the riverbank (it has its own barge to carry you to the theater) to ''Bed and Breakfast'' guesthouses.The Information Center, 1 High Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, maintains an ''Accommodation Register'' of periodically inspected hotels and guesthouses. The ''Bed and Breakfast'' establishment I dropped in on unannounced was picked at random. It turned out to be a spotless Georgian house (Caterham House, 58 Rother Street) near the center of the town. I found flowers on the table, a young, cheerful landlady (Mrs. D. Maury), and big pleasant rooms, each with hot and cold running water. ''Bed and Breakfast'' usually costs (STR)5 to (STR)8. Booking, always advisable, is essential during the summer months. The Information Center will do it for you.