British utopia in Tennessee

The original banister from Chaucer's Tabard Inn in the Tennessee wilderness? Yes. And a fine library, lawn tennis, roads named Donnington, Harrow, and Newbury.

These were some of the features found at the Rugby Colony a hundred years ago , the utopian experiment established by Thomas Hughes, the 19th-century British novelist and social reformer, in Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau. To go there today is to step back in time, for although the Tabard Inn is long gone, many of the fine Victorian buildings of this outpost of British colonialism are now restored and open to the public.

The Rugby Colony was the culmination of Thomas Hughes's concern for young people born into what he believed was England's unjust social system. No provision was made for the children of large families in the new industrial society after the firstborn had inherited the family property. At Rugby, he hoped they could learn ''collectively'' the value of manual labor and husbandry and develop enough skills to ensure a happy and productive existence. With this as his goal, Hughes used money earned from his most popular novel, ''Tom Brown's Schooldays,'' to form a land development company. He and a few influential friends bought 35,000 acres of land in the wilds of Tennessee. The good news was that it provided unlimited building material for the future farmers. All but one acre was covered in timber. The bad news was that a lot of land had to be cleared before cultivation could begin. The inexperienced young colonists were probably overwhelmed from the beginning.

How impractical the young people were was soon revealed to Hughes when, on his first visit to Rugby in 1880, he reported his disappointment that they seemed unable to do without elaborate meals and a regular 6 o'clock tea. The absurd amount of time and energy they spent clearing riding trails and lovers' walks caused Hughes to shake his head in consternation, but when he was shown the tennis court of the already formed Rugby Tennis Club, he could only write, ''Such are infant communities in these latitudes.''

The new social experiment attracted worldwide attention, causing a steady stream of distinguished people to visit the little community. At its height in 1884 Rugby numbered 400 colonists (about half of them Americans) and boasted 65 charming, Victorian-Gothic frame buildings. The Tabard Inn with its banister from the old English hostelry was one of Rugby's first buildings, and the miles of bridle paths and hiking trails, and the cool mountain air, immediately made the colony a popular summer resort. Guests were both prospective settlers and vacationers, drawn by what was thought to be an especially salubrious situation, but like many such utopian notions, Thomas Hughes's colony was short-lived. Numerous reversals, including the burning of the Tabard Inn, caused its inhabitants to gradually drift away, some to the west, and some back to England. By 1900 Rugby had fallen into a long sleep.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the Rugby Restoration Association, the village has become a National Historic Site and will soon be part of a larger National Recreational Area and park system being planned for the remaining wilderness areas of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Today's visitor to the Knoxville World's Fair can plan a side trip to Rugby as a welcome respite from the summer heat and a close look at one of America's most interesting early communities. Take the I-75 north from Knoxville to State Highway 63, then pick up Route 22 to State Highway 52, arriving in Rugby in less than two hours. Visitors are struck by the dramatic change in the landscape as they climb into the Cumberland Plateau.

The first stop is the Percy Cottage headquarters of the Rugby Restoration Association (telephone (615) 628-2441). Pick up a Historic Rugby map, showing the score of buildings that make up the village, including the seven now open to the public.

You may be tempted to head straight for the ''Gentlemen's Swimming Hole,'' a 15-minute hike along rhododendron-lined trails to the Clear Fork River Gorge, or you can decide to explore the Thomas Hughes Free Public Library first. Housed in its own quaint building, this collection of 7,000 volumes of Victoriana is one of the finest extant.

Cornelius Onderdonk, a master builder from New York, designed Christ Church, a storybook frame building with a steeply pitched roof and bell spire. Inside, the very English ambiance is created by fine wood paneling and a rosewood organ from London.

Another unique Onderdonk building is Kingstone Lisle, Hughes's own Queen Anne-style cottage. It has the dormered windows, gingerbread trim, and long veranda that are Rugby trademarks.

Light meals can be had at Rugby's Harrow Road Cafe. The Rugby Restoration Association can provide a list of accommodations, and camping and recreational facilities abound at nearby Norris Dam, Big Ridge, and Cove Lake State Parks. A visitor should allow time to enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

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