PUBLISHED: 23:54 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013
Ball games, cement, Rupert Brooke. Just three things connected with Rugby. There's also a well-known private school, the jet engine, a busy market and the type of independent shops that make shopping a pleasure.
Ball games, cement, Rupert Brooke. Just three things connected with Rugby. There's also a well-known private school, the jet engine, a busy market and the type of independent shops that make shopping a pleasure. Words by Jane Sullivan. Photographs by Stuart Purfield.
I admit, I had never been to Rugby until recently. I've been through plenty of times on the Euston to Birmingham run - after all Rugby is one of the biggest rail junctions in the country and when I lived in London any journey up north included a stop at the station. Totting up what I knew about the town I realised it didn't amount to a great deal.
First stop whenever I go to a new town is the museum. The Rugby Museum and Art Gallery is near Rugby School, it's newish and right next door a building site proudly proclaims that a new Asda will open shortly. The museum is small and growing. One of the most fascinating parts were the ring binders on a table which listed the town's street names and their origins. What a brilliant idea. Every museum should have this facility. I've often lived on streets named after people and wondered who they were.
Here's a sample:
Benn Street - named after George C. Benn who, in 1895, gave 10,000 for the parish church spire and eight bells.
Bilton Road - on the outskirts of Rugby, in 1849 Bilton once had four brickyards, I'd seen the houses built with the distinctive grey-yellow bricks on my way in. Lime for Rugby's great cement industry was found in Bilton and Newbold while the sand and gravel was found everywhere, says the museum information.
Lawrence Sheriff Road - I've heard of him! He gave his name to one of Rugby's top state schools. In 1515 Lawrence Sheriff was a supplier of groceries to Queen Elizabeth I and he gave money to found the school that now bears his name.
Market Place - yes, it's where the market is! It was originally called The Cross where the road from Dunchurch to Leicester crosses with the Northampton to Coventry road. The market received its charter from Henry III in 1225 and there's still a market there most days. On the Saturday I visit it's in full swing overlooked by the Italianate clock tower which was bought to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887.
I could stay for hours reading about Rugby's street names but there's more to do, more to see. There's a small exhibition about the nearby Roman town of Triptonium. Look out for the Graffito Tile which has a Latin inscription that reveals that the tribe who inhabited Triptonium came from the Corieltauvi tribe from Leicester (Ratae). There's also a piece of bowl inscribed with the name Decima - a girl's name meaning tenth child.
Back out in the sunshine. I head to another museum - the museum of rugby, the game. It's a fascinating little museum at the back of the Gilberts sports shop where rugby balls have been handsewn for generations. And if you visit on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday you can see them being sewn by John Batchelor, who has been sewing balls since 1948 - and described in an article in Country Living magazine as a 'living treasure'. The firm also makes the ball for the Atherstone Ball Game. It's made of reinforced leather and weight three-and-a-half pounds.
Across the road is Rugby School and the statue of William Webb-Ellis, founder of the game. One of the country's greatest public schools it has seen a host of famous names through their education - Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Neville Chamberlain, the incorrigible Flashman ... or at least Flashman's creator Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays. But not the author of the Flashman novels themselves George MacDonald Fraser who was educated in Scotland.
It's time to go for some refreshment. Round the corner from Rugby School is Summersault which is heaving with people. This tea shop-cum-emporium is a refreshing change from the chain-store coffee shop and is one of those old fashioned places that I would go back to time and again - the food's good too.
There are quite a few empty shops in Rugby and this end of town looks a little forlorn with Woolworths and Principles and a few other shops having closed down. So I head to Regent Street. I like Regent Street and the surrounding streets. It's one of those roads with a good mix of independent shops and reminds me that all shopping used to be like this - not done in great big shopping malls that we all seem so fond of nowadays.
I am a sucker for cookware shops. What is it about gleaming saucepans, garlic crushers and chopping boards that draws me in? I'm in Abraxus and although I don't really need anything I manage to come out with a carrier bag full of kitchen goodies and a food magazine.
Quick window shop at Thomas Cleaver - beautiful gems...then into Vanilla Lifestyle for some absolutely essential things I can't do without...like birthday cards. I can hardly move. I have to say that anyone who says there's a downturn should take some lessons from shops like this which really have their finger on the pulse of what we really want. I love the range of clothing at the back of the shop - there are some lovely pieces, I covet a floral duster coat and a beautiful silk dress - if only I had a wedding to go to this summer. This part of town has a couple of seriously trendy children's wear shops too, and a lovely shoe shop. I would come back just for these.
Rugby has surprised me - in a pleasant way. It is an industrial town, the huge cement works on the Coventry Road are testament to that. And the town has played a very important part in the country's industrial heritage. But it is also a fascinating town with a history that is worth finding out about - and some specialist shops that are well worth the journey.