You couldn’t make it up. A team formed by a Reverend Peach representing a leafy parish in deepest Gloucestershire has reached the Football League.
And it’s not as if 2017 National League promotees Forest Green Rovers are nestled in the heart of the community of Nailsworth, alongside its old mill, the gaggles of cagooled hikers and former trout farm. High atop a steep hill, the New Lawn is accessed by local bus that sets off from the nearest main town (and train station) of Stroud four miles away.
Having stopped near the Nailsworth Clock Tower, the No.63 then struggles up Nympsfield Road, on its way to the most improbable groundhop ever to appear in the hallowed 92. At some point, the scenery suddenly goes all Mike Oldfield and the Cotswolds spread out all around you.
But there’s more to the picture than this. Once the No.63 has turned the corner to reach its destination of Nailsworth Primary School near the football ground, you soon notice a trail of features perhaps indicating that you may have strayed too close to Glastonbury. The slip road between bus stop and stadium entrance is called ‘Another Way’. A billboard beside slabs of solar panels extols the virtues of wind power. Just inside the football ground, no hot dog van or hamburger stand but a charge-up station for electric cars.
Welcome to the seat of former New Age traveller Dale Vince, a self-styled Zero Carbonista, whose lucrative activities in green energy have earned him an OBE. Since 2010 Vince has ploughed millions from his fortune into Forest Green Rovers.
After well over a century climbing from divisional to county to national non-league level, the world’s only vegan football club has finally made the big time of League Two. After a lost play-off final in 2016, the much-maligned eco-warriors beat Tranmere Rovers at Wembley to make Nailsworth the smallest town to host a Football League club.
Forest Green were formed here in 1889 by the Reverend EJH Peach. Posted on the wall of Rovers’ match-day bar The Green Man, a copy of the Notes From Nailsworth in the Stroud Journal lists his many deeds of the day, finishing off by saying, ‘…and the same gentleman has also started a football club’. Close to today’s stadium, the Lawn Ground was the open field where generations of Forest Green teams ran out. A watermill stood alongside.
Merging with Nailsworth Thursday (why don’t they name clubs like that any more?) and adopting the epithet of Rovers, Forest Green went through various guises but, save for a couple of seasons, remained at their hilltop home.
Nearby Stroud focused its free time to rugby and cricket – this is the West Country after all – but tradition dictated that Nailsworth, and the district hamlet of Forest Green, stuck with football.
Apart from Dale Vince, the other major figure in the history of the club is Peter Goring. An FA Cup winner and League champion with Arsenal in the early 1950s, Gloucestershire-born Goring enjoyed a decade-long Indian summer as manager of Forest Green.
Though Goring had retired to run his butcher’s shop in Cheltenham, he had left his former charges in good stead. Forest Green won the FA Vase in 1982.
After a brief spell as Stroud FC, the club reverted back to Forest Green, built the New Lawn to replace the Lawn Ground but then lacked the wherewithal to reach the next level. This, in 2010, is when Dale Vince stepped in, with his organic fertiliser, new badge and lime-green shirts.
Redevelopment won’t stop here, certainly now that promotion to the Football League has been achieved. In 2016, club management approved a design for a new, green-friendly stadium almost entirely made out of wood, part of an eco-park with a technology centre for green energy, beside the M5 near Stonehouse.
Closer to Stroud than Nailsworth, the project would draw a line under 130 years of football in the hilltop hamlet of Forest Green. And, while there’s something quite amazingly improbable about Qatar World Cup architect Zaha Hadid creating a revolutionary arena for a bucolic community of 5,800 people, immediate connection with the pioneering Reverend EJH Peach will be lost forever.
The nearest main airport to Nailsworth is Bristol, 48km (30 miles) away. There’s no direct service by public transport to Nailsworth, which has no train station – the nearest one is Stroud.
The Train Line offers single tickets at around £20 from Bristol Airport to Stroud, taking a GWR bus to Bristol Temple Meads, then a train via either Gloucester or Cheltenham Spa, overall journey time 2hr 15min. There usually services around every hour.
From London Paddington, the hourly train to Stroud takes 1hr 30min, cheapest online tickets around £20.
From Birmingham the journey time to Stroud is also 1hr 30min, tickets from £12.50, change once at Gloucester or Cheltenham Spa. Advance booking from Manchester might find you a single for £30, change at least once, overall journey time around 3hr 30min-4hr.
Once at Stroud, head through the town centre for the hub for local buses the other side of Merrywalk shopping and leisure centre. The half-hourly Stagecoach No.63 service for Nailsworth and Forest Green leaves from the Vue Cinema. Journey time is 25min. A Stroud Dayrider is £3.80 (valid for Nailsworth/Forest Green), a single £3.30.
Nailsworth Taxis (07770 928 046), based close to Forest Green, offers airport transfers as well as regular local runs.
In Stroud, right opposite the train station, the ivy-clad Imperial Hotel offers a comfortable rooms with a full breakfast, a range of ales in its bar, Thai food in its restaurant and a sense of history – this was a coaching inn 300 years ago.
A 10min walk from the High Street, the Viner House B&B on Middle Street provides WiFi in guestrooms but not TVs.
Just over the water from the town centre, the Clothiers Arms, a decent family-friendly pub in its right, also offers convivial guestrooms at affordable rates, each one named after a wool mill.
Close to Merrywalks bus terminal and right next to the first stop for Nailsworth, the Premier Inn, still referred to by locals as the Old Nelson, has its own restaurant.
Pretty much the first thing you see as you come into Nailsworth from Stroud is the splendid Egypt Mill Hotel, sprawling by the River Frome, duckpond, bar, restaurant, outdoor cinema and all. A popular venue for weddings, this converted cornmill contains 32 individually designed guestrooms.
Alongside, the Railway dates from the time when Nailsworth had one, but these days it’s not a hotel but a magnificently restored property of high-spec flats. Shorter-term lets possible.
You shouldn’t go short of a beer in Stroud, even though many of its pubs have closed or been converted into cafes, such as the otherwise promising Greyhound.
Near the station, the Lord John sits in Stroud’s former post office, offering the standard Wetherspoons deals. On nearby John Street, The Ale House exudes tradition, with Sunday dinners too. In more modern vein, the well-run Golden Fleece is all craft beers, ciders and burgers, with a roaring fire in winter.
Another quality yet quirky find, the Retreat at Stroud promotes local ales and cricket at a friendly spot tucked down a narrow passageway. The welcoming Clothiers Arms is also worth the little trek from the town centre.
Handy for Stroud bus terminal, the fun, friendly Queen Vic(toria Inn) merits a diversion.
In Nailsworth, the Egypt Mill Hotel has its own bar/restaurant, decked out in classic Belgian beer posters. Also slap in the town centre, the Village Inn allows you to watch TV sport over a guest ale or two.
A little further out, the Britannia offers plenty of outdoor drinking. Further out still, and used by some Rovers fans pre-, and certainly post-, match, revered hostelry the George Inn is a stretch from both town and ground but one that many make willingly. Expect lively chatter, a bit of live music and the odd spontaneous sing-song, certainly of a Saturday night. Open from 3pm.