A market town that gave birth to a sport played by millions around the world, Rugby is in Warwickshire in the West Midlands.
The game of rugby football is inextricably linked to Rugby School, a prestigious Public School dating back to 1567. The first rules for rugby football were written by three Rugby School pupils in 1845. There’s also a widespread origin legend that claims the game was invented by William Webb Ellis, another pupil who decided to carry the ball during a football match in 1823. Rugby, the town, has started to embrace its sporting history.
You can tour the school to see where the game was first played and drop by the shop where the Gilbert family first manufactured rugby balls.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Rugby:
1. Rugby School and Museum
On Saturdays throughout the year you’ll have a rare chance to tour one of England’s seven original Public Schools.
Established in 1567, Rugby is among the country’s oldest independent schools, and its chapel, new quadrangle, gymnasium, temple reading room and the Macready Theatre were designed by the eminent Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield.
The school is the source of Rugby football’s founding myth – that the pupil William Webb Ellis picked up the ball in a match in 1823. But there’s real rugby football history too: Three Rugby School pupils drew up the sport’s first written rules in 1845, so it’s still fair to claim that the sport was born here.
The small museum has riveting pieces from the school archives, like the earliest photograph of a game of rugby, dating to 1851.
2. Rugby Art Gallery and Museum
In a purpose-built complex that also houses the town library and World Rugby Hall of Fame, Rugby’s museum opened in 2000. Don’t miss artefacts discovered at the nearby Romano-British town of Tripontium.
There are coins, pieces of pottery and glassware, as well as sketches from excavations, while youngsters can dress up in Roman garb.
You can also get a clear picture of life in the Rugby in Victorian and Edwardian times via well-researched social history displays.
But the undoubted highlight is the Art Gallery, endowed with more than 170 works by some big names of 20th-century British art like Stanley Spencer, L. S. Lowry, Paula Rego and Graham Sutherland.
The sheer size of the collection means that only a fraction can be shown at once, in annual exhibitions.
3. Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum
An enthralling piece of rugby history can be found just opposite Rugby School.
James Gilbert, the boot and shoemaker, moved to this shop in 1842 as he expanded into the rugby ball-making business.
Gilbert is still a leading rugby brand, and the shop continues to be make balls by hand at the shop.
The museum opened in 1980 and its displays track the development of the rugby ball, from a crude pig’s bladder to the high-tech balls manufactured today.
There are also accounts of rugby’s origin myth, and a timeline of rugby football history up to the present day.
4. Caldecott Park
A lovable urban green space, Caldecott Park is on land bought from the last Lord of the Manor, Thomas Caldecott in 1903. It lies just behind the council building and Benn Hall on the north side of the city centre and has been awarded a Green Flag every year since it was regenerated a decade ago.
Come to stroll on paths fringed by perfect lawns, formal flowerbeds and an old bandstand putting on concerts on summer weekends.
Check the council website, because there are also art exhibitions and craft fairs in the warmer months.
The revamp gave the park two new play areas, a multi-use sports area and a cafe.
Caldecott Park suffered in the 1970s due to Dutch elm disease but has bounced back since the 90s thanks to a replanting programme.
5. St Andrew’s Church
Most of what you see at Rugby’s parish church is from a 19th-century restoration by William Butterfield in 1877, two years after his work at Rugby School.
There are lots of examples of Butterfield’s signature polychromy, in the 19th-century northeast tower and spire, and in the richly decorated sanctuary.
The square west tower meanwhile is the main surviving element from the 14th-century church that came before.
With three stages, this has slit windows and is crowned with castellations.
If you’re interested in the architecture of the building, the old Medieval nave and north aisle became the north aisles when the much larger 19th-century church was constructed.
6. Rugby Market Place
The town centre has been spruced up with newly planted trees and flowers, and has fun little details like a series of oval brass plaques embedded in the pavement celebrating rugby football’s famous figures.
On the edge of this pedestrianised zone with its gaslights and tall Victorian townhouses is the Market Place.
There you’ll find the Jubilee Clock Tower, built in 1887 to celebrate Victoria’s golden jubilee.
Rugby has had a market since 1235 and this trades beneath the clock tower on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays from 08:30 to 16:00.
7. Rugby Theatre
Above all else, Rugby Theatre is a highly regarded amateur performing arts venue, with dedicated teams putting on big budget musicals, modern drama, classic plays and farces.
It may be hard to believe that some of these productions aren’t professional.
The venue also receives visiting performers, and this might be opera, plays, bands or children’s dance, while celebrity speakers make regular appearances.
There are approximate 100 nights of live performances a year, but the Royal Theatre also doubles as a cinema showing independent movies and new Hollywood releases.
8. Great Central Walk
Rugby used to be on two railway lines, as the West Coast Mainline was joined by the Great Central Railway, which had a huge network across central and northern England.
The last passenger train departed Rugby central in 1969, 70 years after the line was built, and now the railway has become a well looked after walking route.
For one thing, the Great Central Walk is convenient, as the line cut right through the middle of Rugby.
At Hillmorton Road you can nose around the ruins of an old station, while there are historic brick bridges at regular intervals, built at the end of the Victorian period.
The walk is a nature reserve managed by Rugby Borough Council.
Kestrels and warblers breed here in spring, and in summer there are 24 butterfly species including common blue and marbled white.
9. Newbold Quarry Park
A serene open space little more than a mile from Rugby town centre, the Newbold Quarry Park is a nature reserve around a flooded quarry.
The pit was flooded by natural springs in the 1920s after quarrying came to halt.
The park has its lime-rich soil, nourishing alkali-friendly plant species that in turn attract lots of butterflies in summer.
The pool is ensconced by sycamore and ash woodland, offering a habitat for songbirds like warblers, tits and finches.
If you don’t mind going slow in spring you may see a coot or great crested grebe in spring, while little grebes, pochards and tufted ducks winter at the pond.
In early autumn the park has lots of blackberry bushes and damson trees for free foraging.
10. Stanford Hall
On the Avon, about 15 minutes east of Rugby is a country house regarded as the pinnacle of the short-lived William and Mary style from the end of the 17th century.
Stanford Hall is mainly an events venue, but does open to the public on limited days.
It’s an opportunity not to be missed: You’ll enter the ballroom, which has a sublime fresco ceiling and portraits of England’s Stuart kings.
One room is decorated with late-17th century furnishings like a refectory table and a set of Charles II chairs.
You can wander in the 900-acre park and treat yourself to something at the Stableyard Cafe, which serves light lunches and teas.
11. Swift Valley Nature Reserve
Moments from the town centre in Rugby’s northern suburbs there’s a conserved parcel of old countryside.
The Swift Valley Nature Reserve is on the River Swift, and has wet and dry woodland, marshes, pasture and hedges.
There’s also a fascinating disused arm of the Oxford Canal, with watercress and yellow water lilies growing on its muddy edges.
The reserve was once arable farmland, and retains its ridge and furrow plough markings.
The land has long since turned into pasture for cows and is bedded with wildflowers like goat’s beard and meadow crane’s bill in summer.
The damper woodland by the river has lovely willows and alders, while away from the water are oaks footed by bulbs like snowdrops and daffodils that flower in early spring.
12. Draycote Water
Warwickshire’s largest expanse of water is a few miles south of Rugby, at a 650-acre reservoir built in the 1960s.
Head to Draycote Water for walks and bike rides around the shore, while on the south bank is the Draycote Water Sailing Club.
This is open 364 days a year for dinghy sailing and windsurfing.
You don’t need to be a member to take a lesson or taster session.
The reservoir is stocked with brown trout and rainbow trout for fly fishing, and is a cherished bird-watching location.
More than 100 different species, from red-necked grebes to barn Owls.
can be sighted at Draycote Water in a typical year.
By the sailing club is the Leam Valley Golf Centre, which has Rugby’s only driving range and a par 3, nine-hole course.
13. TOFT Studio
On the east bank of the Draycote Reservoir are the headquarters of TOFT, a luxury wool and knitwear company.
On an average day you can come for a visit, exploring the company’s lakeside grounds, which are grazed by the herds of alpacas that produce TOFT’s wool.
Naturally you can also browse the shop and its fabulous selection of wools, patterns and kits for projects.
You can also check TOFT’s website for details of open days and knitting, crochet and amigurumi workshops.
Every Thursday evening there’s a “hangout” for knitters and crocheters to share tips and get free advice over a cup of coffee.
14. Elliott’s Field Shopping Park
If you need to get some shopping done in Rugby there are convenient spots in the middle of town at Rugby Central and Clocktowers, but there’s another raft of stores are in the north at this retail park on the River Avon.
Fashion brands like H&M, Marks & Spencer, Next and Topshop are all here, while there’s a Nike factory store and a clutch of eateries like Nando’s.
The location is handy as right next door, on the south bank of the Avon, is the Junction One Retail Park, which has food chains like Subway and KFC, as well as a Cineworld multiplex cinema, Laura Ashley and Matalan.