The Venn diagram for internet users and cat fans looks a lot like a top-down view of a sleeping cat: a fluffy circle. So when we got the chance to head up to Stratford Upon Avon to visit Shakespaw, the cat café where all the kitties are named after the Bard's characters, we were on the road before we'd even had time to discuss how many "this is supposed to be a tech site" comments would result.
And despite some Biblical floods and a car whose brake lights failed on the motorway (eek), we had the absolute time of our lives at Shakespaw. Here's our review.
Get thee to a cattery
Cat cafés have sprung up all over the country, despite the fact that cats specialise in pointedly ignoring people they don't know, and intentionally snubbing those who most want to fuss them. The resultant businesses vary in quality from "we're doing this to make money" to "we're doing this to hang out with cats all day," and thankfully Shakespaw is in the latter category.
Founded by mother-daughter duo Jayne Richman-Bolt and Rio Roberts, the café turns one this month, which is still far older than the clutch of adorable rescue kittens that had just arrived when we visited.
Shakespaw used to be called Orangemabel, named after – you guessed it – an orange kitty called Mabel. Her name is still on the walls at what has since become the only cat café in Warwickshire, based right in the heart of historic Stratford Upon Avon, which was thronged with Bard-nuts even in the aforementioned flood weather.
A cat by any other name would be as sweet
Floofs currently residing at Shakespaw include Bottom, a delightfully imperious Persian, and Puck, a black-and-white scamp who loves a tickle under the chin. They have two floors of café to roam around, including some cats-only spaces downstairs for when they're sick and tired of humans (fair enough). They can't access the kitchen, which is on the floor above the main café space, and Shakespaw is careful to abide by all the relevant regulations (it currently scores 4/5, 'Good,' on the official hygiene ratings site).
The kitties are named and profiled in the menu on every table, although the rescue kittens were too new to have been added when we visited. Shakespaw works with Pepper’s Pet Rescue Centre in the West Midlands to take in needy fluffs, settle them into the café, and eventually find them new homes with customers – they've successfully rehomed multiple cats in their first year, and the new kittens will be available for adoption when they've had six months or so to get used to people. Pepper's Pet Rescue does home visits on behalf of the café to check they're going to good places.
The café usually has around 10 cats living there, which makes it an ingenious way to increase the provision of foster care for homeless cats nearby while also socialising the kitties and giving us renters some much-needed fuss time. Roberts explains, "The cats have a better chance of being rescued here than if they were just on Facebook or in a cage because people get to come in and form a bond. It’s a much nicer way of going about it in my opinion."
It works, too: we considered sneaking some of our favourite Shakespaw kitties into our bags several times before finally leaving.
It's hard to go home without Horatio.
To squee or not to squee, that is the question
Shakespaw charges a £5 entry fee, which the staff seem a little apologetic for, but they shouldn't be. Otherwise, no doubt douchetails with laptops would come in, hog all the tables, buy nothing and ignore the cats.
Even in our 90 minutes (or so... we may have outstayed our timeslot somewhat since it wasn't busy, and KITTIES), we saw some baffling customer behaviour that will probably not surprise anyone who's ever worked in a service industry.
Several people seemed to entirely miss the giant words "CAT CAFÉ" on the outside and were surprised to find the place full of floofers. One person basically swam up to the door in a torrential downpour and then refused to pay the entry fee, preferring to breaststroke away again. Some people have apparently tried to bring in their own cats and even dogs (!). And then there was Allergy Lady.
Allergy Lady sat down, perused the menu with a sour face, then called over the waiter (a lovely man called JJ who talked to everyone about the cats and clearly loves his job).
JJ is allowed to pick up the kitties. You are not.
"Could you move this cat further away from me? I am allergic," declared Allergy Lady, gesturing to an adorable white puss who was curled up fast asleep by her side.
As my jaw hit the floor, JJ patiently explained that the cats are free-roaming and allowed to go wherever they like, including planting their bums on your food (he didn't say that, but it's what I wanted to happen). Allergy Lady huffed, and left not too long after.
IT'S. A. CAT. CAFÉ.
Lord, what fools these humans be.
Bottom puts his bottom where he wants.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's stray?
As massive cat fans, the main thing we wanted to see from Shakespaw was that the pusses were well cared for. This became apparent pretty much instantly. When you arrive at the café, there's a two-door system to get in, meaning you sometimes have to hover in the corridor for a while until a member of staff can come and open the second door. That's to ensure the moggies can't escape onto the street.
There's also a list of rules that's on the menus, the website, and read out to you when you sit down. It includes not picking the pusscats up (though we saw someone break this rule and tutted audibly), not waking them up when they're asleep (which is a lot, because cats), not taking photos with flash, and not feeding them, "despite what they may tell you."
We were a bit worried the cats would be swarming us, pestering for food, but thankfully they're very well trained and left our extremely delicious meals alone – although one naughty kitten did steal a bit of cream off a table near us.
The menu is exactly what we hoped for: warm comfort food. There's lots of mac and cheese, and pancakes:
And the drinks are perfect for the setting: lots of types of tea and some truly scrumptious hot chocolates with marshmallows and cream, which we had to resist offering to a nearby tabby.
Our tea even came in an original Charles and Diana teapot:
The café has quite the collection of vintage china, although how any of it is still in one piece when this happens is beyond us!
They also have an impressive array of branded merchandise featuring the café and the kitties, but it's not actively pushed at you -- it's just on display and you can ask for stuff if you want it.
Something kitty this way comes
If you've never been to a cat café before, you might rock up expecting the distinctive 'crazy cat lady' smell – but there's nothing. Even downstairs, where the cats have a separate toilet room (as do the humans, of course), there's no pong – the only thing you can smell is food.
The downstairs café space, where the cats have some rooms of their own
As you might expect, it's the kind of place where everyone talks to everyone, not least because a confident moggy will just casually walk right across your table, stick its head in your handbag and then fur up the coat of the person sitting next to you. It's a better icebreaker than most speed dating nights we've been to.
The staff also talk to people as they walk around. It's very clear that they adore the cats, and when people ask questions everyone listens to the answers. We learnt tonnes about cats in general, and the characters in the café – which have their own cat manager (meowager) to weigh them weekly and keep an eye on their health.
We were a bit concerned that the cats would just be fast asleep and not feeling sociable when we came, especially since it was just after lunchtime, but the staff are well prepared. They have bags of Dreamies and laser pointers to keep the kitties active, and during our time there, there were lots awake while others snoozed. Plus we got to see a cuddle puddle, and they let us control the laser pointer for a bit. Not going to lie, I felt like a god.
The lasers, toys and other supplies are often donated by volunteers, many of whom also come to cuddle the cats in the evenings. They're catsat until around 11 or 12 at night, after which they're monitored remotely by cameras until the morning.
"They are not left alone for very long but during that time I can watch them if I need to. They have a party every night and literally trash the place! They cause havoc. We spend two hours cleaning every single morning before opening," says manager Rio, who often sleeps over to get new arrivals settled in, and works 17-hour days to keep the place purring.
"Cats are not the easiest of animals to introduce to each other, it’s a very slow process. They usually hate each other when they first meet but ideally it needs someone to keep an eye on them in those first 24 hours," she says. She also puts on events like craft clubs and cupcake decorating, although we doubt those are really needed when there are so many beautiful cats to fuss.
Some are born cats, some achieve catness, and some have cats thrust upon them
Once you've paid your fiver, you get to stay for around 90 minutes if it's busy, but Shakespaw staff say they don't kick people out if it's not – one customer having a bad day stayed for three hours, for instance. They have people in from all over the world, and regulars including a disabled pensioner who says coming to see the cats cheers them up no end.
"A small admission fee makes the whole experience more valuable. Otherwise we would have hordes of people coming in and out which would be stressful for the cats. If they have paid £5 to come in they are more likely to spend the full 90 minutes here to make friends with the cats," says Rio.
"As well as tourists we also get a lot of regular customers who come back and see how the kittens have grown. One customer even has a shrine to the cat café in her kitchen – with more than 100 photos of all of our cats!
"And those customers with special needs find it a great place to be. We’ve seen for ourselves the difference the cats can make. Some people are happier around cats and animals than they are around people and the cats seem to have an instinctive affection for them."
One does not wake a sleeping Bottom
That affection is maintained by the few but strict rules, she explains:
"If everyone came in and picked up the cats while they were sleeping, they would quickly get fed up with people. It’s all for the cats but also for the customer experience. If the cats are friendly they will literally just climb up onto your lap."
And they do. A lot.
Paw-ting is such sweet sorrow
Rehoming needy kitties is a big part of Shakespaw's mission, but that doesn't make it easy. "It is really hard when we have to say goodbye to them. It’s the worst part of the job," says Rio.
"I spend more time with these cats than I do my own family. Luckily all the people who have adopted them have stayed in contact and send me pictures. The first cat we rehomed lives just around the corner so I can see her sitting in the window when I walk past every day."
Similarly, we felt a pang of sadness when we had to wave goodbye to Juliet, Puck, Horatio and co and head back out into the rain. Still, the café's Instagram page is constantly updated with pictures and videos, and no doubt we'll be back again soon for a hot chocolate and a fuss.
In the meantime: friends, Romans, countrymen – lend us your cats.
Photography by Alex Osborne