Genteel Cheltenham, Cheltenham Spa if you please, wouldn’t seem like the kind of place to sully its feet with football. A Regency resort with royal connections, at the fringes of the Cotswolds, Cheltenham is known for its horse racing and its literary festivals, its jazz and its Gustav Holst.
More than anything, Cheltenham is deep in rugby country.
But its football club has been going with nary a blip since 1887. In the Football League since 1999, bouncing back up in 2016 after a season out, Cheltenham Town have long left behind local rivals, Gloucester City. Both spent many a decade in the Southern League, the Robins of Cheltenham pitched against the Tigers of Gloucester on a regular basis.
The most recent meeting between them came in 1996-97, Cheltenham’s last as a Southern League club. On the last day of the season, Gloucester needed to beat Salisbury to go up to the Conference. They didn’t. Worse, Cheltenham gained promotion by default as league winners, Derbyshire village team Gresley Rovers, lacked a suitable home ground.
The Robins haven’t looked back, Cheltenham-born Steve Cotterill leading his side to the Football League in two seasons. Flooded-out Gloucester now even groundshare Cheltenham’s Whaddon Road.
Home of the Robins since 1932, officially referred by its sponsored name of World of Smile (they sell garden sheds, go figure), Whaddon Road originally housed kennels for one of the country’s most prestigious fox hunts – another local pastime.
Before Whaddon Road, Cheltenham played at nearby recreation grounds. With the famous racecourse further north and the cricket ground a short walk away, these leafy outskirts of town have been hosting organised sport for the best part of two centuries.
The earliest recorded cricket match here, against Gloucester, of course, was 1833. WG Grace, a Gloucestershire man who never lost his accent, was a football player as well as the world’s most famous cricketer. First president of the Gloucester County FA in 1886 and an active referee, WG would have approved of the formation a year later of Cheltenham Town FC, after trials at East Gloucestershire Cricket Ground.
Although Cheltenham stayed at local level until the 1930s, only adopting the colour red and the Robins nickname in between, rugby never really took hold here. The football club achieved early runs in the FA Cup and stayed in the Southern League for 50 years straight.
This longevity has proved to be Cheltenham’s strength. Talk of a move to the racecourse came to nothing and Whaddon Road, backdropped by rolling hills over one side and lined with a long club bar on the other, remains a thoroughly pleasant place to watch a football match.
From Birmingham International, the regular train via Birmingham New Street (cheapest advance single online £10) to Cheltenham Spa takes around 1hr 10min.
From London Paddington, there are direct trains every 2-3hrs, otherwise change at Gloucester or Bristol Parkway, overall journey time 2hr 15-30min, cheapest advance single online £23.
Cheltenham Spa station is a good mile/1.5 miles south-west of the town centre – the ground is north-east. As the bus station is right in town, pretty much walkable to Whaddon Road, a National Express bus to Cheltenham is not a bad shout – especially with advance online singles at £5 from London (2hr 30min-3hr journey time). A single on a local bus, run by Stagecoach, is £2.10, a Dayrider pass £3.70.
If you are coming by train, a PlusBus supplement for all-day travel on Stagecoach buses is £3.40.
Starline Taxis (01242 250 250) is based in town, with online booking and airport transfers.
Much of the hotel stock in town is unsurprisingly upscale, particularly those within easy reach of the ground, of the boutique, unique variety serving the horse-racing and culture-seeking fraternity. The racecourse is less than a mile north – the Cheltenham Festival in March sees many rooms booked months in advance.
The nearest lodging to Whaddon Road is typical of the genre, the Cotswold Grange, a five-room four-star with off-street parking, a restaurant in the drawing room and fine wines in the bar. Winter deals include significant discounts on evening meals.
On the other side of Prestbury Road is a clutch of exclusive lodgings, set among grand Regency squares. The Clarence Court was once the residence of the Duke of Wellington – hotel guests may use the nearby DW fitness centre and pool. No.38 The Park takes bespoke to the nth degree, all Egyptian cotton linens and HD TVs. The Cheltenham Townhouse keeps luxury in mind without breaking the bank, and offers free bike hire to guests.
These properties are all a 10min walk from town.
There’s another cluster of hotels on the south side of town, a short walk from The Promenade and Imperial Square. Overlooking the square, the former landmark Queens Hotel has been re-christened MGallery by Sofitel, with 84 guestrooms, restaurant, orangery and Gold Cup Bar.
Nearby, the wonderfully individual Bradley has a charging station for electric cars. If you feel more comfortable in a more conventional hotel, then The George is central, comfortable and closer to mid-range. Mixologists work the weekend-only cocktail bar.
Malmaison Cheltenham is a newbie in this funky urban chain, and offers weekend deals on doubles at under £100.
Round the corner, the Wyastone Townhouse is roughly similar in price, guests allowed to use the gym and heated pool at the nearby Cheltenham Ladies College Sports Centre.
Don’t worry, it’s not all bistros and gastro pubs. The Brewery Quarter is Cheltenham’s attempt to get modern, a town-centre hub of chain eateries, drinkeries and shops – if that’s what you’re looking for.
There’s plenty of choice of independent bars and pubs, too. Beside the Brewery Quarter on the High Street, the wonderful Frog & Fiddle is a great mix of sports bar (with 14 screens) and live-music venue, with plenty of cross-generational chatter.
At the other end of the High Street, there’s a bit of a pub hub where it meets the Bath Road, a pedestrianised stretch featuring sport-focused The Spectre with its sun-catching terrace, the more slammer-centric Lounge Seventy Two opposite, open until 3am at weekends. Further along, the Old Restoration speaks tradition, all Butcombe ales and pub quizzes.
In between, tucked down picturesque Cambray Place, Tailors Eating House home is another excellent find, more pub than restaurant, though the mainly locally sourced food is way decent. ‘The Place to Watch Live Sport’ it says, and it’s not wrong, with two big screens, five plasmas and nine TVs. Lunchtimes, the pretty front terrace packs with beer and wine drinkers sunning themselves – ale aficionados are treated to Wadworth 6X, Corvus stout and Horizon.
On a gentle street corner towards the train station, the Rotunda Tavern has been serving a blokey crowd since the 1960s – before then, it was a wine merchants dating back to the 1830s.