On Bard’s Walk in Stratford-upon-Avon, not far from the Shakespeare Inn and Hathaway Tearooms, you’ll find a street entertainer who calls himself Shakespeare’s Ghost. What arguably the greatest playwright of all time would have made of this tribute was made even harder to imagine by the perfomer’s continual absence. For the duration of our stay there was a sign up saying: Back in five minutes, gone for a wee-wee!” But despite the odd no-show caused by incontinence, in the market town where Sir William Shakespeare was born in 1564, ghosts of his existence are not hard to come by.

The least tenuous is his birthplace. Once an unassuming Tudor house owned by a local glovemaker and his wife, the Henley Street residence has been a tourist suction-pad for three centuries. Now there’s a new-fangled visitor’s entrance with fancy, interpretive displays but continue inside and you’ll reach the wooden beams, lattice windows and rare furnishings more reminiscent of the 16th century. Part of the exhibition is a window into which previous visitors could scratch their names with a diamond. Among the famous autographs are those of Keats, Dickens and Hardy.”

If you’re touring all five of the dwellings listed in The Shakespeare Houses brochure, then the next step, after ‘Shakespeare – the young boy’ is, intriguingly, ‘Shakespeare – the lover’. In Shottery, one mile from Stratford’s town centre, lies the jigsaw-pretty thatched farmhouse where Ann Hathaway grew up. Here it’s supposed Shakespeare wooed his wife-to-be from an armchair known as the Hathaway Courting Chair. The gardens are the best bit, though, with an Elizabethan maze, Shakespeare-inspired sculptures and a tree garden blossoming with examples of trees mentioned in the dramatist’s work.

After marrying at 18 (to a woman eight years his senior – must have been his way with words), and fathering three children by 21, the Bard moved to London to try his luck as an actor and playwright. Wealthy and retired, he returned to Stratford in 1610, to the town’s second biggest house in New Place. It was here he died in 1616 and although for a fee of 50p you can see his grave nearby, unfortunately you can no longer visit Shakespeare’s last home.

In 1979 its owner, Reverend Francis Gastrell, got so annoyed with curious tourists trying to sneak a peek at the mulberry tree in his garden, supposedly planted by Shakespeare, that he destroyed it. In retaliation, the townsfolk threw stones through his windows at which point a distraught Gastrell razed the house to the ground.

Today you can see the foundations of New Place from a museum in the house next door, where Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth once lived with her husband Thomas Nash.

Just round the corner from Nash’s House is Hall’s Croft, where the playwright’s eldest daughter Susanna lived with her doctor husband John Hall. It’s a charming 17th century townhouse with period furnishings.

Strangely, the final stop on the pilgrimage is the childhood house of William’s mum, which blows the chronology completely out of whack. If you’re devoted enough to make the trek, Mary Arden’s House can be found three miles from the town centre in Wilmcote. The farmhouse is now a museum illustrating rural life in Shakespeare’s day, and the nearby farm buildings have been revamped into a workable organic farm.

If you haven’t exhausted your appetite for all things Shakespeare, then there’s still the Swan Theatre (the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company) to see, with a gallery containing the company’s vast collection of props and costumes, and the many Shakespeare-themed cafes and pubs to frequent.

The one thing you’ll be hard pressed to find in Stratford are non-believers – those who aren’t convinced that a man of Shakespeare’s humble beginnings could possibly have written all we attribute to him. Should hard evidence supporting this theory surface, it’s likely the whole population of Stratford-upon-Avon will be taking a toilet break.

Other literary pilgrimages

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, thought to be the first book printed in England in 1476, follows the pilgrimage to the shrine of the murdered archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Visit the outstanding church, watch a puppet show of the Canterbury Tales or simply wander the medieval city that educated Christopher Marlowe and inspired David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. See www.canterbury.co.uk.

The Lake District
William Wordsworth and his cloud-like wandering is perhaps the most famous literary connection to this National Park, but writers as disparate as Coleridge, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransom have found a muse in the idyllic landscape. Victorian thinker, writer and artist John Ruskin lived in Brantwood by Coniston. Visit his delightful house by steam gondola and get lost amongst the 250 acres of garden. See www.lake-district.gov.uk.

The Brontë sisters lived in this quaint West Yorkshire town and their parsonage, where the likes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were scribbled, is now a museum containing, among other memorabilia, the miniature books they wrote as children. See www.bronte.org.uk.

Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey and Persuasion while living in the city and the Jane Austen Centre, which includes exhibits from the author’s personal life, tells the story of her experience here. See www.janeausten.co.uk.

Visit the used-book capital of the world during the Hay Festival of Literature (May 27- June 5) and join 45,000 literary types eagerly anticipating readings and talks from the likes of Philip Pullman, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin. See www.hayfestival.co.uk.