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Official Review by Jeremy Inson, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Recreation Ground, commonly known as the "Rec", is one of the most picturesque sports grounds in the world, let alone the UK. It is situated alongside the River Avon, between Bath Abbey and Great Pulteney Street Bridge, a masterpiece of Georgian-era architecture.
The land itself is the actual recreation ground of the city of Bath, a 5.2 acre (2.1 hectares) site that sits in the heart of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities. In the early part of the 1890s, the land was part of Bathwick Estate, which was owned by the Forester Family, and in 1894, Captain GW Forester granted a lease to the directors of The Bath and County Recreation Ground Company Limited, with the aim of making it suitable for sport and leisure pursuits. The first rugby match was played later that year; three years on, the first cricket match took place there when Somerset County Cricket Club hosted the Gentlemen of Philadelphia.
The rugby club continued to use the ground until 1927, when they agreed to a new lease which allowed them use of the west side and to erect a Grand Stand, new North Stand, and a Pavilion for a term of 25 years. The lease has been regularly extended, and the most recent was signed in 1995 for a term of 75 years. A new West Stand was built in 1933 to replace the Grand Stand, but that in turn was damaged during World War Two and rebuilt at a cost of £12,000 (US $18,500). The club room was then built in 1954.
Nowadays, a quarter of the Recreation Ground is leased to Bath during the rugby season, and the ground holds 12,200. The East Stand is removed during summer so cricket can take place and field hockey, croquet, football, volleyball, and lacrosse all take place over the summer.
(All prices marked with a dollar sign in this review are US Dollars as of May 2013, unless otherwise noted.)
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
It might not be the healthiest fare, but there is no doubt that the food and drink on offer is some of the most tasty and filling. At the ground, there is a wide range of food options. Pizza, pork roasts, burgers, and chips are just some of the fare on offer, and most will cost you the best part of £5 ($7.50). All are made with fresh ingredients and come from local companies, so not only will your belly be satisfied, but you can also feel pleased that you are helping the local economy and enterprises.
Refreshments come in three basic varieties: lager, ale, and cider. This being England's west country, cider is the local choice of tipple, though it is the fizzy variety, rather than the flat, cloudy local version that catches out many an untrained visitor with its potency. Beer, wine, and cider cost £4.50 ($7), and there are soft drinks and sodas for about £3 ($4.50).
With tightly packed stands close to the pitch and a terrace behind one set of posts, the ground is built to create a cracking atmosphere. With the Georgian architecture of the city rising up above the stands, and views from the opposite bank of the River Avon, it sometime feels as though the whole city is leaning in and peering over the stands to see what is happening.
Bath is quite possibly Britain's most beautiful city, and this provides the backdrop to The Rec. It is perfectly safe to walk through at all times of the day and at all levels of sobriety. In a city so dominated by rugby, a visitor is far more likely to be accosted by a group of locals wanting to talk about the match, rather than an undesirable wanting to take your wallet or phone.
Once away from the ground, the city centre has a wide variety of pubs and bars. For those coming off the train, The Royal Hotel has a full menu as well as the wide variety of beers, wines, spirits and non-alcoholic drinks, with prices comparable to The Rec. For a good pre-match snack, try Scoffs on Terrace Walk, just over the river from the ground. They provide a wide range of sandwiches, pies and pasties, though The Bath Pasty, a pastry filled with meat, potato, and swede fills many a hungry belly. Expect to pay about £8 ($12.50) for lunch with a drink.
The local fans aren't shy of telling any errant referee or touch judge when they think they have erred in their decision making, but they do know their rugby. While they may be quick to tell opposition fans to pipe down during the match, afterwards they are happy to mix and mingle, while trying to catch any unwitting visitor out with a pint of the local cider.
The Rec is a five minute stroll from Bath Spa Station, and trains run from there to London Paddington and from Cardiff and Bristol to the west. There are also a number of local train services that serve the station.
Those driving from London should exit the M4 motorway at junction 18, and take the A38 south, then follow signs for the centre. Those coming from the west need to join the A4 at Bristol, and follow signs to Bath's city centre. Parking is pretty limited once there, though, and probably the best bet is to use one of the various shopping centre car parks or the park and ride bus service from the edge of the city.
Tickets don't come cheap for the two stands that line the pitch and cost about £45 ($70). Things are cheaper behind the posts, and the terrace spots come in cheapest at £25 ($40). As such, it depends on the quality of the match as to whether you get value for money. Thankfully, Bath are committed to an expansive and exciting style of play and contain a few players in their ranks who can get the crowd off their feet.
The East Stand and terrace are also open to the elements, meaning that it can be quite a soggy experience if the heavens open. However, if it is a sunny day, sunglasses and suntan cream are the order of the day.
It is doubtful whether there is a more pleasant place to go and watch sport, and as such, in 1987, the City of Bath was named a UN World Heritage Site, while the surrounding areas have been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The ground lies at the heart of the city, within easy reach of all the main sites and is one of the UK's most popular tourist destinations. The Abbey is great example of Anglo-Saxon architecture with over 1000 years of existence. For an even older site, head to the Roman Baths from which the city takes its name, and see where the Roman occupiers came to take the water.
Then, there is The Pump Room, which is handily located next door and dates back to the 18th century. It was where water used to be drawn for drinking and provided the heart of the local social scene. Nowadays, there is a fine restaurant, and a joint ticket for the Baths and Pump Room costs £16 ($25).
Finally, it is very easy to wander round the city centre and enjoy the Georgian architecture. For fans of Jane Austen, it will feel like stepping into one of her novels. While the interiors may have changed a lot since the late 18th century, the exteriors are some of the most impressive you will see.
In the pre-professional days up to 1995, Bath were one of the two dominant teams in English rugby along with Leicester Tigers. Since then, however, they have struggled to find consistency, though they became the first English team to win the European Cup in 1998. That aside, their trophy cabinet has remained untouched. Much of the reason for this is the lack of income that the 12,200 spaces at The Rec fail to provide. While Leicester, Harlequins, Saracens, and Northampton Saints have been able to expand their capacities and enjoy the income that they provide, Bath have been hamstrung by their inability to expand their stands.
With the River Avon behind one stand and public land behind the other, the club have been in a more than decade-long struggle with the local council and Recreation Ground Trustees to find a solution that would allow them to push capacity towards the 20,000 figure. In the past, the club have threatened to find a new site on the edge of the town, but they have died down as they have sought new ways to develop The Rec. Currently, a new consultation project is underway with lobby groups from those who want development on the site and those that don't.
A decision is expected to come over before the start of the 2013-14 season. The hope is that one of the most atmospheric venues in British sport can be expanded. Otherwise, any move to a new venue would leave a huge hole for home and away fans and the city itself.
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