One of the great things about seeing soccer in England, or groundhopping, is that it takes you to places you might not ordinarily go as a tourist. And sometimes it adds a layer of enjoyment to a place you wouldn’t know very much about.
The latter is the case with Cheltenham Town FC — spending the 2021-22 season in League One, the third tier of the English football pyramid — in a beautiful and historic spa town at the foot of the Cotswolds.
I toured the town and caught a game at the local club, and I found it a lovely day out — especially with the Horse Racing Crowd in town.
Cheltenham, a Regency Spa Town
Regency and spa — two words that come up all the time in reference to the town of Cheltenham. Spa I can easily figure out, but regency? This refers to the time roughly from the later part of King George III’s reign, when he went nuts and was replaced by his son who ruled as the Prince Regent, until Crazy George’s son and grandson had ruled and been replaced by Queen Victoria, who was queen for like 148 years. So we’re talking, say, 1795 to 1837.
As for spa, that’s just because of mineral springs discovered in the area in 1716. A retired mariner with the very British name Henry Skillicorne saw the commercial benefit of the springs and had the good sense to marry the owner’s daughter. He started to build things up, and when George III and his family visited in 1788, it was game on.
By the 1830s a whole new town had essentially been built, and horse racing had also become popular, the Cheltenham Festival being established around 1860; this is the no. 2 annual event in the type of racing where horses jump over stuff. (I might as well get this out of the way: I despise horse racing for more reasons than I wish to go into here, so I also know very little about it.) There are still many other cultural festivals throughout the Cheltenham calendar.
All of this lies about two hours west of London Paddington Station and at the foot of the Cotswolds, which you can think of as England’s Tuscany, a land of rolling hills, sheep, and old stone villages packed with charm. (I visited there to see Cheltenham Town’s local rivals, Forest Green Rovers.) The 102-mile Cotswold Way, a walking path through the whole area, starts 20 miles away in Chipping Camden and passes through the Cheltenham area, most notably at Leckampton Hill just a couple of miles from the center of town.
Cheltenham Town Football Club
Like so many clubs around England, this one started in the 1880s, when the game was exploding in popularity. The Robins kicked around local leagues for a few decades, went professional in the 1930s, and started sniffing the Football League in the 1980s.
They won the FA Trophy at Wembley in 1998 and the next year won the Conference (now the National League) to make the Football League for the first time. They have been in the third or fourth tier ever since, other than spending one season back in the National League a couple of years ago.
Their ground is called Whaddon Road — officially the Jonny Rocks Stadium for a local limo service — and holds 7,066, most of it seating but with a couple of terraces. The main stand is the Jelf Stand, where you find the ticket office, club shop, and car park. The away fans will be just to the right of this stand, in the all-seated Hazelwoods Stand.
I always recommend a good view of the away fans, and I like to stand when possible — especially when it’s 3 degrees celsius (around 37 fahrenheit) and raining. One needs to pace, jump and make frequent runs for hot bevvies and the toilet in such weather.
As for the away fans, I actually attempted a count and figured a little over 100 people made the run from Stevenage, where I have been before in similar weather.
It was #8 against #23 in the 24-team League Two, with the hosts having not won in six weeks. Fewer than 2,400 would come out to see what happened.
Game Day in Cheltenham
I walked around the town a bit, trying to stay warm, with a £1.50 walking map I got from the visitors centre. It’s a funny town compared to many in England, since there’s basically nothing more than about 250 years old. That’s like yesterday in England. But the buildings are nice, and Pittville Park with its Pump House is lovely, and I had a fine lunch of fish pie and ginger beer at a place called Bill’s.
The Old Courthouse is a lovely pub in about a 200-year-old building. Elsewhere in town, the Whittle Taps and the Cotswold Inn looked proper pubs worth a stop.
But the real attraction was the horse racing crowd. My goodness are they well-dressed and attractive! I was told by a couple of service industry folks that they damn well drink, too — more than a football crowd, and more focused on gin than beer. Some of them looked perfect caricatures to me, with pinstripes and fancy hats and stylish hair and shoes. I mostly wanted to slap the men and hit on the women, but being 52, poor and a bit pudgy I passed on both impulses.
I prefer the football crowd, anyway.
That’s who I found myself among as I walked out to the ground and did my pub research. The Kemble Brewery Inn was recommended for real ales and looked a cool place, but the door didn’t seem to open, like it required a password or something, so I bounced. Elsewhere in town the Cheltenham Motor Club was recently the CAMRA (beer gurus) Pub of the Year, but I didn’t make it over. I asked the steward in the car park where to get a pint, and he suggested the bar in the club. I said I wanted a proper pub, and he immediately said, Right — the Sudeley Arms. But it was closed, apparently for good, a sad and confusing piece of news which I had to share with him on my return. (2021 update: It’s open again!)
Otherwise, the Feathered Fish, as I suspected from the name, looked a bit modern and cheesy. Moran’s was also recommended for food and ale, but again, I didn’t make it over. Hey, it was day two of a trip, I was still a bit jetlagged, and the weather was shit.
Finally at Whaddon Road, I laid £16 cash at the turnstile for a spot on the Paddock Terrace, just under the cover of the roof, and settled in with a hot chocolate. Town were in terrible form, and it took less than 10 minutes for somebody behind me to yell their first “fuck’s sake!” It took less than 20 for Stevenage to get a goal, and they were up 2-0 at halftime.
Around me on the terraces were friendly folk, families and oldsters and the occasional random hipster who I always think are out to prove their worth as Proper Football Fans who aren’t into that corporate Premier League shite. Nobody was much up for singing beyond the cluster of Stevenage fans who had the occasional go.
In fact, they almost had a go at me. I had a train to catch after the game, so I arranged for a taxi and then stood right along the boardings where I could see the car park. Other Town fans were already leaving, and as I was briefly among them the Stevenage fans started the usual “Cheerio” and “Is there a fire drill” songs. At least somebody had fun!
On my way to Manchester to spend the night, I had the post-game version of a Saturday Football Train, in which instead of being optimistic and sober, folks were sullen or rowdy and often drunk. There was a Wolves fan consoling a Huddersfield kid about their 3-0 loss, a QPR man looking content, and a Stoke fan who got on with one beer in his hand, ordered two more, and despite no one actively listening to him really didn’t shut the fuck up until he stumbled off the train.
All in all, a fine day. Cheltenham is a town where many tourists will probably base for tours of the Cotswolds, or to bet on horses I suppose, and when in town I would recommend taking a few hours to visit the local football club.
You always bond with a place by seeing their football club, and I am glad that Cheltenham and I got to spend a day together.