There are quite a few towns behind the names of famous… ‘stuff’. (the soon-to-be-renamed) Asbestos in Canada or Balaklava in Ukraine are two examples. Some of these quirky towns really are the centre of the universe for fans of the ‘thing’ however and, in this article, we find out about five of these towns, the connections they have and what makes them so worth discovering.
It was during a game of football being played at Rugby School in 1823 that a schoolboy named William Webb Ellis, being the cheeky scamp that he was, caught a lofted ball in his arms and decided to run with it instead of letting the ball hit the deck as he should have. And so Rugby Football was born.
This game, where fifteen players fight to force an oval ball across the line in the opponents’ half, is known for its combativeness which overspills into borderline violence, and it has the highest number of catastrophic injuries in any team sport. In its two most popular forms — Rugby Union and Rugby League — it is one of the most popular team sports in the world; 857 million people watched the World Cup in 2019.
The birthplace of rugby football as you’d expect boasts many attractions which stir the passions of sporting enthusiasts. A town of 70,000 people, Rugby offers a pilgrimage for those who want to immerse themselves in the history, culture and development of the game. First stop should be the World Rugby Hall of Fame. In this state of the art sporting temple visitors discover rugby’s greats and the moments that defined the sport.
Then there is the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum. Housed in the building in which a man named James Gilbert made the very first rugby football in 1842, this little museum is especially popular and they still manufacture hand made balls here which visitors can buy from its shop. You can also take a stroll along the Pathway of Fame to learn about some of the greats in the game and see William Webb Ellis immortalised in statue.
Rugby School is where the game was born and is one of the most famous private schools in the country. It is close to the town centre and a walk around its perimeter gives an excellent view of its imposing Victorian architecture and, more importantly, the hallowed field the first ever game of rugby football was played.
Naturally Rugby has its own rugby club — the Rugby Lions. Although its team plays in just the 6th tier of the English rugby union system, it is a venerable club which was founded in 1873 and is just one of four clubs entitled to an all white team kit.
Pilsen, Czech Republic
There are a gazillion types and sub-types of beer out there and none more popular than Pale Lager, otherwise called Pilsner. Described as a ‘very pale-to-golden-coloured with a well-attenuated body and a varying degree of noble hop bitterness’ …whatever that all means. It does go down a treat on a hot Summer’s day, I know that much, and millions agree.
Pilsner came about in the early 19th Century as a result of a fermenting process imported into Bohemia from neighbouring Bavaria and that produced a beer with a longer shelf life. It’s popularity took off from there. It is no surprise that the people of the modern Czech Republic state, of which Pilsen is its fourth largest city, love the drink so much they only half jokingly refer to it as a soft drink, or ‘liquid bread’.
Pilsen is a fine city of 175,000 residents, and it packs quite a punch to entice visitors with. Its spacious town square is rimmed with townhouses showcasing grand Austro-Hungarian architecture and in its centre sits St Bartholomew’s Cathedral which offers a breathtaking vista from its church tower — the tallest in the country. With its history, many parks, and landmarks like the iconic Prazdroj Brewery Gate it is no surprise that Pilsen was European Capital of Culture, 2015.
It’s real draw is as the capital for beer lovers. One of the world’s biggest pilsner brands, Pilsner Urquell, still has its brewery in the City and is a mecca for lager lovers the world over. Visitors to the brewery can enjoy guided tours where they will learn about the history of Pilsner’s famous beer and, of course, enjoy a glass or three; nowhere does it get any fresher than straight from the company’s beer cellars.
And the highlight of the city calendar is the Pilsner Fest. Whilst in the neighbouring German city of Munich they have their world renowned Octoberfest, also in October Pilsen hosts a two day festival of beer of its own which draws bigger and bigger crowds every year.
Cognac is a unique brandy produced by twice distilling white wines. So while it does indeed taste like brandy, it reflects the exclusive flavour sensations not found in other brandies. Unlike Cheddar cheese for example, what makes it so sought after is that it must be made according to strictly defined regulations; namely it must be made in or around the town for which it is named. As a result the Cognac commune, in the Charente department in southwestern France, is the centre of the universe for lovers of the iconic brandy.
So what of Cognac the town? It’s inhabited by 18,000 and is absolutely dripping with fine historical architecture. It has its own medieval quarter of unusual buildings, built between the 15th and 18th centuries, and situated on narrow cobbled streets and which contain sculptures of the salamander, the symbol of King François I, as well as gargoyles and richly decorated façades.
Over 200 producers of Cognac ply their trade and five of the biggest of them have their ‘Grande Marque’ Cognac houses in the town centre. They are Hennessy, Martell, Otard, Camus and Remy Martin, and each welcomes visitors with open arms.
Surely there is no more authentic place to enjoy a glass to sip on than in Bar Luciole on the banks of the Charente River. With more than 130 varieties of Cognac, whatever you order the team can provide a personal introduction to each and every one of them.
Every year in the last weekend of July the Cognac Festival is held, and is a very popular event. Fishermen’s huts are converted for the occasion and visitors can sit around tables and savour delicious cognac cocktails, and each night revellers can let their hair down dancing and foot tapping at two concerts.
You’ll be no doubt familiar with the origins of the popular Marathon race; in Ancient Greece in the year 490BC an Athenian army heroically defeated a Persian invasion force at the village of Marathon. Legend has it that a herald was sent to deliver news of the victory to Athens. He ran the whole way and arrived at Athens so utterly exhausted, he collapsed dead immediately after the good news passed his lips.
And so, the Marathon race came into being to commemorate this feat, measured out at 26.2 miles (42.2km) - the distance that messenger had run. It is now an Olympic event and seen as the ultimate physical challenge to attempt in a lifetime. Around 500 marathon events are held annually worldwide.
The town where the first ever Marathon set off from is an unassuming place but a tumulus (burial mound) still stands where the Greek casualties of that famous Battle of Marathon were laid to rest. Roughly 30,000 people call it home.
It is proud of its associations with the running event; unsurprisingly one of the biggest Marathons is the one which recreates the first one over 2,500 years before. The Athens Classic Marathon has been held annually since 1972. It sets off from Marathon town, faithfully following the original route to a grandstand finish at the Panathenaic Stadium in the capital.
Taking from the tradition of the Olympic Torch the race features the Marathon Flame, which is lit at the Battle of Marathon Tumulus and carried to the stadium in Marathon before the beginning of each race. 16,500 runners took part in 2019 and the current record was set in 2014 by Felix Kandie with a time of 2:10:37.
Enthusiasts absolutely must visit the Marathon Run Museum if they visit the area; with more than 4000 exhibition pieces this is the no.1 place to discover the history of the modern Marathon Race.
If you like any cheese at all it will likely be Cheddar cheese; it is the most widely eaten cheese in the world. With a mild taste, inoffensive to even the most trepid palate, it’s popular either sprinkled over a dish like your favourite pizza, stuffed into a ham and cheese sandwich or just eaten by itself.
Officially Cheddar cheese is described as ‘a relatively hard, off-white, sometimes sharp-tasting, natural cheese made from cow’s milk’ and to ‘cheddar’ is actually a technical term - referring to the process of cutting up the curds, stacking and then turning them by hand as they drain and firm up under their own weight. Since the 12th Century the cheese’s popularity has grown and now Cheddar cheese has a place on millions of people’s dinner tables.
Cheddar Gorge is the town’s centrepiece; with its dramatically steep, craggy walls, and a slaloming road running through, it’s breathtaking for drivers who cannot resist the urge to take their eyes off the road. It is the caves of Cheddar Gorge that provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese in the past, and they still do. These caves, alongside the nearby Wookey Hole Caves, are now a popular family day out.
As a popular tourist destination Cheddar boasts plenty of bars and restaurants where you can sit outside and gawp at the rock walls around you. Can you still get the finest Cheddar cheese in the world there? Most definitely!
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is family owned, independent, and has been making award winning cheeses since 2003. Their Cheddar Cheese is still matured in the caves. Then there is The Original Cheddar Cheese Company which opened its doors to business all the way back in 1870 and their shop and café are located at the same spot at the mouth of Cheddar Gorge. The shop is now world famous and remains family operated today.