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Victorian Rugby: Americana with a British Flair

 Photo of historic church goes here.

Christ Church Episcopal is one of the Victorian-styled historic jewels in the tiny East Tennessee town of Rugby. One of four stops on the town's walking tour, the church features original Gothic-style stained glass windows, an 1849 rosewood reed organ and hand-carved altar furniture.*

Rugby, TN, Exudes Victorian

Charm & Gingerbread Decor

By Katy Koontz

Carved from a relatively unpopulated, rugged wilderness, the quaint town of Rugby resembles a typical Victorian village.

But you won’t find this village in the sleepy English countryside or even in some pastoral American setting.

Photo of Thomas Hughes and a quote from him goes here.Rugby is situated amid thick hardwood and pine forests and steep river gorges within the Cumberland Plateau in east Tennessee.

Charming Victorian Village

Founded in 1880 by British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes, Rugby includes a tiny Episcopal church, a library filled with leather-bound classics, gabled houses decked out in gingerbread trim and even a wooden schoolhouse with a bell tower.

Hughes (shown at right*) is best known for his novel Tom Brown's School Days. He had hoped to make the town a cooperative farming community with a definite English flavor.

His vision was that younger sons of English gentry -- who traditionally didn’t inherit their fathers’ estates -- could learn to live off the land here.

Photo of English colonists goes here.


Although Rugby’s population reached 350 at its height in 1884, unfortunately the expatriots were more interested in leisure-time pursuits than learning to plow.

Several of the colonists are shown in this historic photo at left.*

Hughes died in 1896, and by 1900, most of the original inhabitants had left.


Photo of downtown Rugby with the Commissary on the right goes here.Nevertheless, Rugby has tenaciously survived for more than 120 years, without electricity until as late as 1954.

Today, the town has new purpose. Some 20 of its 65 original buildings have  survived and are restored. 

Several more (such as the Commissary Museum Store and the Board of Aid buildings in the photo at right.*) have been historically reconstructed."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation touts the town as one of the most authentically preserved historic villages in America.

Begin Your Tour

The best place to start your visit is at Historic Rugby’s new Visitor’s Center (888-214-3400, 423-628-2441 or www.historicrugby.org), 5517 Rugby Highway. 

Photo of the Kingstone Lisle cottage goes here.Watch the award-winning film about Rugby, view a 32-foot mural of the town at its heyday and join a walking tour of four historic buildings.

The first stop is Kingstone Lisle (shown in the photo at right*).

This charming English rural-style cottage built for Hughes, although the founder never actually moved here.

Across the street is Rugby's eight-pew-deep Christ Church Episcopal (shown in the photo atop this page*).

Photo of library goes here.It's quite distinctive with its original Gothic-style stained glass windows, an 1849 rosewood reed organ and hand-carved altar furniture.

Then the tour will move on to the Thomas Hughes Free Public Library (shown at left*).

The library's floor-to-ceiling shelves house 7,000 volumes -- the most representative collection of Victorian literature in the United States. 

On the last stop, you'll visit the schoolhouse.

Peruse the old desks and school artifacts.

Check out the displays of historic photographs as well as excerpts from colonists' diaries.


Beyond the Tour

Rugby also boasts:

  • An old-fashioned print shop
  • The Commissary Museum Store (423-628-5166), selling locally handmade crafts as well as English goods;
  • The Spirit of Red Hill Nature Art shop (423-628-2991); and
  • The Harrow Road Café (423-628-2350). It's open daily for breakfast and lunch. On  Friday and Saturday it's also open for dinner. Under new chef Jay DeYoung, the café specializes in both local fare and traditional British food like shepherd’s pie and fish and chips.

Photo of old cemetery goes here.Down the road is the old cemetery (as shown in the photo at left*).

Here many early colonists including Hughes' mother Margaret are buried.

Margaret, and her teenage (and motherless) granddaughter Emily, crossed the ocean from England to the East Tennessee wilderness in May 1881.

They resided in Uffington House, named for a family home on the Isle of Wight; it became their Rugby home until the elderly Hughes died at age 90 in 1887.

The Uffington House is now under restoration by Historic Rugby. The nonprofit group continues to raise funds and lovingly restore Rugby's historic structures. 

From the cemetery, you might enjoy taking the short trail through the woods; it leads to the gentlemen's swimming hole.

Soak in the Aura

To further steep yourself in Rugby’s atmosphere, stay overnight in any of a handful of historic accommodations (888-214-3400 or 423-628-2441; www.historicrugby.org).

Photo of the 1880 Newbury House goes here.Newbury House bed-and-breakfast (see photo of this B&B at right*) was the community's original boarding house and includes a Victorian parlor with working fireplace and a wide verandah.

Nightly pricing for the Newbury House starts at $68 for two, including a full breakfast. 

Or your might rent either of two cottages; nightly rates start at $70 for two, plus $10 for each additional person.

These include the rustic Pioneer Cottage, where newcomers lived while their houses were being built; it sleeps up to eight in three bedrooms with one and a half bathrooms. Pioneer Cottage has a full kitchen and screened-in back porch.

Percy Cottage, next to Kingstone Lisle sleeps up to three in two bedrooms with one bathroom. It also features a kitchenette/sitting room.

Rugby hosts several annual special events, including the Festival of British & Appalachian Culture on May 17-18, 2008. 

Photo of Roy Harper goes here.If you go, you'll view some 75 artisans demonstrating and selling their crafts.

You'll see everything from coopering and chair making to blacksmithing, woodcarving, pottery, broom making, jewelry making, toy making, basket weaving, spinning and even sheep sheering.

The festival also includes storytelling as well as songs, dance and music (such as by Roy Harper at left*).

The musical emphasis is dual -- focused on both the Appalachian region as well as Britain.

Expect to hear strains of mountain dulcimer and bluegrass music mixing with the sound of Scottish bagpipes.

Other Rugby events include the Halloween Ghostly Gathering in October, the Thanksgiving Marketplace in November, Christmas in Historic Rugby in December and the St. Valentine’s Dinner in February.

Historic Rugby also sponsors a wide variety of year-round traditional craft workshops. Visitors might learn techniques for basket making, cooking, wild mushrooming and ceramics.

New this year are workshops on painting, quilting, tatting and rug hooking. Other new offerings include how to design a Victorian garden and cultivate fall wildflowers.

Photo of bunny spinning goes here.For visitors, Rugby is an unusual tourism "find," not something you'll see every day in the South.

For example, you might see how crafters use soft hair from a bunny to spin into a creation. This is depicted in the photo at right.* No worries, the bunny isn't harmed!

Rugby exudes quaintness and Victorian charm with its many preserved historic buildings. Its natural setting -- amid forests and gorges -- is stunning.

Best of all, it's well-preserved and showcased nicely with a film, map and great walking tour so you can explore and soak in a Victorian aura in the heart of east Tennessee.

If You Go

Admission to Historic Rugby  -- including the guided walking tour, film viewing and a map -- is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors (60 and above) and $3 for students (from kindergarten through grade 12), or $18 per family.

For Historic Rugby information, contact the town's visitor's center at 888-214-3400, 423-628-2441 or visit www.historicrugby.org.

Beyond Rugby,the adjacent 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (423-286-7275 or www.nps.gov/biso) offers whitewater rafting, hiking, horseback riding, camping and mountain biking. It also boasts an unusual number of natural sandstone arches.

The closest big city to Rugby is Knoxville, about an hour’s drive to the south. Contact the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation (800-727-8045, 865-523-7263 or www.knoxville.org).


Katy Koontz, an SATW member, is a freelance travel writer living in Knoxville, TN, who has written for National Geographic Traveler, Family Fun, Travel & Leisure Family, Shape, Body & Soul, Endless Vacation and many other national magazines. Currently, she is updating The Insider's Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains. She specializes in family travel, adventure travel and "soul stretching" vacations and retreats.

*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Historic Rugby. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.

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