Twickenham Stadium, just like Wembley Stadium, is usually known by its address rather than its function. Wembley is mostly just ‘Wembley’ and Twickenham is ‘Twickenham’ with rarely the word ‘stadium’ getting a mention. That’s likely due to its long history and the popular respect for the institution. Twickenham is the largest stadium in the world devoted just to the sport of Rugby Union; it’s the second-largest stadium in the UK after the aforementioned Wembley.
The stadium is surrounded by 1930s housing, a park and a Tesco. It looms up at one from quite a distance away. It’s solid. It’s concrete. It’s been around since 1907 in some form or other and it has become part of local life. I know: I am a local.
Safe to be around
There are those less fortunate who have a football stadium at the end of their road. They will automatically be driven to offer sympathetic cooing noises and words of support to the Twickenham resident, but it’s really not necessary. Our match attendees are civil, funny, no doubt very ‘cheery’ by the end of the day but they are inoffensive and safe to be around. It seems that it truly is a game played by gentlemen for gentlemen …well, if one applies that designation rather loosely.
The ground offers tours for enthusiastic rugby supporters but also for the rest of us who are just curious about the building. It’s much more than a swathe of lush green, hand-mown grass surrounded by a good number of seats. This is also a juggernaut of hospitality which one wouldn’t notice from the vantage point of a cosy TV-match-watching sofa at home, and probably not even if one was perched on a seat inside the stadium. There is another world under those terraces.
There is much talk of World War One these days. 27 Rugby International players from England lost their lives, along with international players from other countries too. They are remembered in a temporary exhibition at the stadium museum and in a poignant painting that few spectators will see. It’s of the team just before the war. One might note that some of them have grey badges. They were the young men that didn’t return home. Take an organised tour and you will be able to see this reminder of the futility of war.
The full-time museum offers an overview of the game of rugby from its beginnings to latest developments. It has a pile of priceless memorabilia including the Calcutta Cup, which is a finely-worked masterpiece made in India out of melted-down rupees. And there is a corner where young wanabes can try their athletic skills against machines that will test their strength, speed and agility.
Twickenham is a hive of entertaining venues and you will be able to visit some of these on your tour. There are private hospitality boxes with screens for watching the game while never leaving the comfort of your gin and tonic. There is the President’s Suite for VIP visits. Then there is the Members Lounge and its long bar with a frieze of bottles and sporting heroes of yesteryear; and there is a quiet wood-panelled meeting room that is lined with pictures of past presidents. It has the air of a private members club, and that’s what it is.
It’s the dressing room that will get the big and little boys (and some girls) dreaming. This space, along with the tunnel, has recently been refurbished in preparation for the World Cup. Yes, you will see the cubicles, baths, showers and medical area. There is a screen for analysing the game at half time and even a media area for players plugging in. For some, this dressing room is the reason to come, to hear about match-day routines and to imagine themselves trotting through the tunnel.
For other supporters the sight of the pristine and bright green turf will be the highlight of the tour. There are 82,000 seats surrounding that bit of grass. The majority are for supporters but there are the upholstered ones for royalty and dignitaries, and a couple nearer the pitch labelled Sin Bin! The grass is lovingly tended by a crew who mow it, not with a sit-on contraption but with little power-driven mowers that they push in impeccably straight lines. It’s a tight turf and as smooth as a billiard table. As part of the tour there is a pitch-side walk which will really give the visitor an impression of the drama of those match days.
The tour is operated in partnership with The World Rugby Museum. All of the Twickenham Stadium Tour Guides are trained by a blue-badge holder, and tours can be tailored to the needs of any particular group. The price of the tour also includes admission to the World Rugby Museum which is well worth a visit.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018