This weekend has seen the opening of the Rugby World Cup, the largest sporting event to take place in Australia since the 2000 Olympics. It's a fitting time to turn our gaze to the birthplace of the code - the town of Rugby, Warwickshire that lies almost exactly in the heart of England (about 120 km north of Cambridge and about 30 minutes drive from Birmingham).
The cup that the teams are competing for is, in fact, the Webb Ellis Cup, named for William Web Ellis, the 16 year-old student at Rugby school who (legend has it) picked up the football and ran with it during a game in 1823. Visitors to Rugby can walk the sports field and ponder that this story only appeared after Web Ellis' death in 1872. And the rules at the time did permit players to hold the ball but not to run with it in the direction of the try line. However, there is a plaque at the school to commemorate the "event". There's no doubt that, despite any discrepancies in the various stories, the football played at Rugby school was the precursor to today's code of Rugby Union while the game played at the other major public schools was formulated into soccer's Football Association (FA) code in 1863.
Rugby is a pretty little town with crowded narrow streets and chaotic parking. For most of us, the main reason to visit is the school. That's an oasis of tranquility with ancient, ivy-covered buildings surrounded by the famous playing fields that extend over seven hectares. Fortunately, there are guided tours of the school that depart from the school museum at 2.30 each day. The tour guides are young students that are both knowledgeable and very proud of their school. During the school's summer holidays the tour is generally more comprehensive than when it has to fit around classes and activities. Rugby has taken girls as students since 1983 but they don't play rugby.
Even without the football link, Rugby school would be well worth a visit. It was founded in 1567 and the oldest buildings are distinctly Tudor in style. This was the setting for "Tom Brown's Schooldays" and there is a statue on the front lawn of Judge Thomas Hughes, the book's author. Another famous Rugby student was Charles Dodson the mathematician better known as Lewis Carroll the author of "Alice in Wonderland". More recently, the poet Rupert Brooke and Salmon Rushdie were Rugbeians.
The most conspicuous feature of the school buildings today is the 32 metre high tower that was erected in 1872 when the original chapel was rebuilt. However, perhaps even more photographed is the granite slab on the 'Doctor's Wall' that commemorates the sporting exploits of William Webb Ellis.
If you are in Rugby when there's a game on at the town's Webb Ellis Sports Ground it would be worth attending. The local team is the Lions and, not surprisingly, it was founded in 1873 and is one of the oldest in England. (The first inter-school match was played much later - in 1896 when Rugby lost 0-13 to Cheltenham.) But there's no point in exploring the local graveyards to seek out the last resting place of the man himself: Webb Ellis's grave was recently discovered at Menton in Southern France.
Perversely, the UK Rugby Football Union regards Twickenham, outside London as the home of Rugby and this is where you'll find The Museum of Rugby. However, the school is not the town of Rugby's only link to the sport of Rugby. The James Gilbert Rugby Football Museum is the place where rugby footballs have always been made - it has been a museum since 1987. Here "Match" balls are still hand-stitched and there's a multimedia show, memorabilia and souvenirs for sale. It's fascinating to see how the ball has evolved over the years - from round to oval and the modern ball is much smaller than the original one. At one stage the laces were even tied into a handle for the players to hold. In front of the football museum is a statue of William Web Ellis.
It may come as a surprise to find that the borough of Rugby has a very important historical building that has nothing to do with football. In the pretty little village of Dunchurch is a building that was once a pub called the Lion Inn. Here the conspirators gathered on November 5, 1605 to hear if Guy Fawkes had been successful in his attempt to blow up parliament and return England to the Catholic faith.
Football and rebellion - this apparently peaceful little town has seen it all. And it has a name that resounds around the world. Over the next few weeks it will be difficult to turn on your television without hearing "welcome to Rugby".
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There is a wide range of hotels, guest houses, B&Bs and farm stays in and around Rugby. Similarly, there's a range of restaurants in town from Chinese and Tandoori to British, Italian and Mexican.
The Rugby Visitor Centre, Lawrence Sheriff Street, Rugby, Warwickshire CV22 5EJ, UK, Telephone: 01788 534970, Fax: 01788 534 979, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rugby school museum, Telephone: (01788) 556109
VisitBritain, Level 2, 15 Blue Street, North Sydney, NSW 2060, Tel: (02) 9021 4400 or 1300 85 85 89, Fax: (02) 9021 4499, E-mail: email@example.com
David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd