Peter Bills: There's more to Bath than rugby

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The Independent Online

‘Who can ever be tired of Bath’ asked Jane Austen, aping Samuel Johnson’s remark about London in 1777?

A couple of hundred years later, Austen’s question regarding Bath and the imperious architecture of this magnificent Georgian city, remain just as pertinent. But there’s more than a handful of citizens fed up with Bath Rugby Club’s prevarications over the vexed issue of expanding its home ground.

Bath Rugby Club has been conducting an ongoing campaign for years now about whether they can build on the Recreation Ground. The problems, quintessentially, are these. The land was laid aside for the use ‘of all citizens of the city’ according to the original charter. That means people who want to play cricket – Somerset have played first class cricket there for many years – or play football or simply run around with their children or dogs. When I last checked, the original document did not state ‘for the use solely of rugby nuts’.

The second issue is this. Keen as a lot of people are about rugby in this West of England city, by no means all of them are so besotted with the game that they want to see a vast new modern construction erected right in the heart of this Georgian architectural masterpiece. Sacrilege is not too strong a word to describe such plans, in many people’s minds.

The argument has dragged on for years. Bath must offer enlarged facilities with a bigger capacity to remain an English rugby Premiership club. But the problem is that the club has put all its eggs in the one basket. Hoping to benefit from the city’s close links with the game, it has continued to go doggedly down the path of trying to build when it was more than apparent that either The Church Commissioners, traditional owners of the ground, or strong groups of local people or both would object to such expansionist ideas.

You have to say that they have a point. To plonk a gargantuan, stark modern steel structure slap bang in the middle of this aesthetically beautiful city bowl would alter forever the beauty of a landscape that has given pleasure to generations. To stand high above the city on one of the hills and look down upon Bath’s elegant Georgian crescents is to marvel at one of England’s architectural triumphs.

Is all that to be ruined for the sake of a few rugby supporters?

Bath’s problem is that they have refused to move with the times. In soccer, Arsenal left their beloved Highbury, Manchester City abandoned Maine Road. In rugby, Wasps departed their old crumbling Sudbury home and Saracens quit their public land, like Bath’s, at Southgate, North London.

Have not Bath refused to do so because they have hoped to trade on the city’s close links with the rugby club? Have they not hoped against hope that somehow public pressure would force the planners to back down and give them the permission they have long sought?

But the beautiful views are not seen solely from up on the surrounding hills. A stroll along the river tow path opposite Bath Abbey, beside the back of the main rugby stand, offers magnificent views in both directions – across the river to the Abbey and, in the other direction, up the hill towards Sham Castle. Putting up huge new rugby stands would be an eye-sore in this unique setting.

Those who defend Bath and wish to preserve the unblemished sights of its Georgian architecture in the city centre are entitled to ask this. Why did the club’s multi-millionaire owner, Andrew Brownsword, not face reality long ago, buy a piece of land (of which there is ample) close by the main railway line between Bath and Bristol and help fund a new stadium which could have been shared with their West country neighbours?

A train ride of 5 or 10 minutes would hardly constitute an impossible hurdle for rugby fans who want to have lunch in Bath city centre and watch a match in the afternoon. But Brownsword has always appeared reluctant to put out his money on Bath Rugby club. England international Mike Tindall was allowed to drift off to rivals Gloucester because Brownsword refused to pay him what he wanted in a new contract. More recently, did not England captain Steve Borthwick and international centre Olly Barkley also quit the club, disillusioned about its lack of serious progress under the present ownership? Plenty of other players have also gone.

The most talked about alternative scenario now within the club is to relocate to Swindon Town Football Club, of course a doomsday scenario for rugby supporters in Bath. But has that nightmare been conceived to increase the pressure on the planners, hoping to push them towards a more favourable decision on development of the Rec?

As a former resident of Bath and a lifelong rugby man, I can see both arguments. But for me, nothing is worth spoiling the visual delights of Georgian architectural masterpieces created by men like John Wood and the Scottish architect Robert Adam, who designed the exquisite Pulteney Bridge.

Sometimes, some things are more important even than rugby. Preserving the unique views in this magnificent city has to be one of them.