Rugby World Cup 2015: off-field travel activities in England and Wales

When the 20-nation Rugby World Cup kicks off on September 18 this year, some 78,000-86,000 visitors from the Australasia region will be in the UK during the 44 days of the quadrennial competition.

Estimates show that up to 466,000 overseas rugby fans will descend on England to follow their teams as they battle it out in 48 games across 13 venues in England and Wales.

Not all of them will make it to the very end, as every English rugby fan was at pains to point out during a recent visit. "Your lot will have gone home by then," was a particularly popular refrain. Said with a vicious smile, of course.

In last September's general sale, England Rugby 2015 sold a record-breaking 950,000 tickets after receiving applications for more than 5 million. Which basically means if you haven't got tickets for the final already, you're right out of luck. That also goes for the two quarter-finals at Twickenham and both semi-finals.

Australia, facing an uphill struggle in a group of death with England, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay, kick off their campaign on September 23 against Fiji at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

But, given that a game of rugby lasts just 80 (albeit gut-wrenching) minutes, what else is there to occupy the dedicated fan? Well, here are a few suggestions for things to see and do when not cheering Michael Cheika's Wallabies on the road to glory.

TWICKENHAM

Twickenham is home to the Rugby Football Union and Twickenham Stadium is the world's largest rugby venue with a capacity of 82,000. This is where Australia will meet England in their third group match, on October 3.

Twickenham  is awash with restaurants and pubs, but there's more fun to be had in the streets between the train station and the stadium which, on match days, are transformed as local residents-cum-entrepreneurs turn their front yards into food and beer outlets.

Failing that, inside the stadium grounds the official outlets do a sizzlingly successful business of feeding and watering the masses with surprisingly little queuing time.  Young people wander around, dispensing beer from special backpacks that bring to mind the Ghostbusters movies.

Twickenham train station is only 45 minutes from Waterloo station, so getting there for the game is easy.

The World Rugby Museum in the stadium's East Stand is well worth a visit.

BIRMINGHAM

On September 27 Australia will play Uruguay at Villa Park in Birmingham – a ground best known as the home of Aston Villa football club since 1897.

With a motto of "Prepared" it comes as no surprise that a year out from the RWC, Villa was already well ahead in planning the transformation of the ground to accommodate rugby.

Birmingham itself has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, the most high profile example of which is the new, £188 million ($356 million) library  at Centenary Square in the city centre. The new building – a huge, ultra-modern golden cube – was opened on September 3, 2013, by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a shot in the head by the Taliban and now lives in Birmingham.

In the first year, 2.7 million people went through its doors and it's easy to see the attraction. Quite apart from the architecture it functions wonderfully as a community meeting place. It's worth a look even if you just go for the views from the rooftop and a sticky-beak at the beautifully incongruous, Elizabethan-style Shakespeare Memorial Room. The room was created in 1882 to house the Shakespeare Library and has been reassembled on the top floor.

According to the locals we met, one of the best places to spend an evening strolling around and eating in is the Jewellery Quarter, which dates back more than 250 years and is still home to 500 jewellery businesses. Now a designated conservation area with more than 200 listed buildings, the Quarter contains Birmingham's last Georgian Square, a tranquil oasis with many restaurants, bars and galleries scattered around St Paul's Church. And those gentle hillocks and graceful grassy mounds in the churchyard? Plague pits.

RUGBY

For the more adventurous/rugby mad, the market town of Rugby is a 45-minute drive from Birmingham. This is where the game is said to have been invented when one William Webb Ellis (after whom the RWC trophy is named) picked up a ball and ran with it while playing football in 1823 at Rugby School.

Tours of the school and grounds are available and, even for non-rugby fans, are fascinating. Quite apart from the sport museum there's the stunning Main Chapel, the Old Big School room where pupils' original carvings can be seen on the wood panelling, and the bewitching solemnity of the "birching tower".

Tours cost £6.95 for adults (£4.95 concessions) and should be booked in advance. There are drop-in tours at 2pm on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays but the school advises a call to check they're going ahead. For all tour inquiries call the School Shop on 01788 556169 (email bookshop@rugbyschool.net).

BATH

No games here but this sumptuous, history-laden Somerset city is where the Wallabies will be based, hosted by the University of Bath, during their two opening matches (thereafter moving to Dulwich College in south-east London for the final games against England and Wales at Twickenham).

If you do go, take some time out from sightseeing (or drinking excellent beers in the many old pubs around the town) to visit one of the main reasons that Bath exists – its natural geothermal mineral springs.

The Thermae Bath Spa in the middle of town is a stunning re-imagining of "taking the waters", a luxurious combination of historic spa and contemporary architecture. The new building opened in 2006 after the discovery of an infectious organism in 1978 meant bathing in the springs was prohibited – for 28 years.

The spa has two natural thermal baths, a steam room with four circular glass pods and 20 treatment rooms. My favourite? The open-air rooftop pool with its startling views across the city.

Another must-see is the Roman Baths complex, sitting in the shadow of the cathedral. The building has been beautifully restored and the audio guide is excellent, as is the lighting and use of holograms to give an insight into ordinary life at the baths in Roman times.

CARDIFF

Cardiff, which will host eight matches and two quarter-finals, has reinvented itself after an urban regeneration program which brought much of the city back to life.

One of the main attractions is the medieval Cardiff Castle, in the heart of the city. This was built in the late 11th century, on top of the remains of a third-century Roman fort.

The newish waterfront area at Cardiff Bay contains the Wales Millennium Centre arts complex, which opened in 2004.

Nearby is the Dr Who Experience, which was recently voted by sci-fi fans as among the top 10 places to visit in 2015.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitengland.com

rugbyworldcup.com

GETTING THERE

All of the major airlines operate frequent flights between Sydney and Melbourne to London, including British Airways, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Cathay Pacific.

STAYING THERE

There are a myriad of options open from B&Bs to five-star hotels but we stayed at the Marriott in Twickenham (marriott.com.au/hotels/travel/lontw-london-marriott-hotel-twickenham), the Hyatt Regency in Birmingham (birmingham.regency.hyatt.co.uk) and the aptly named Halcyon Apartments in Bath (thehalcyon.com).

TICKETS

Some 1.85 million tickets and 170,000 supporter packages have now been sold. There are some ticket categories still available for the Australia v Fiji match in Cardiff but the other Australian matches are sold out. Another opportunity to buy tickets will become available in the northern spring when the Rugby World Cup website offers an official resale platform for people wanting to sell unwanted tickets to other fans at face value.

There may still be tickets available through ticket-inclusive tour packages through RWC 2015. Visit the official RWC website at rugbyworldcup.com for up-to-date details of matches, venues and ticketing.

The writer travelled courtesy of VisitEngland and British Airways.

The story Rugby World Cup 2015: off-field travel activities in England and Wales first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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