A New Town set beside the A1, Stevenage is also a recent phenomenon as far as the Football League is concerned. Upon winning the Football Conference in 2010, Stevenage Borough, quickly renamed Stevenage FC, immediately gained promotion and nearly reached the Championship in one fell swoop.
Currently sitting in League Two, ‘Boro’ were only formed in 1976, a month after the Rolling Stones famously played Knebworth Park, just the other side of the A1 from the football ground.
But Stevenage has had a football team since the Victorian era, when Dickens was an occasional visitor to Knebworth House. Stevenage was no longer a stagecoach turnpike but burgeoning village with its unwelcome train station on the Great Northern Railway.
The novelist wouldn’t recognise the place now, of course, though the nearest pub to Broadhall Way, home of Stevenage football since 1961, is called Our Mutual Friend, based on the Dickens connection.
Going by its sponsored name of the Lamex Stadium, the ground replaced London Road as the main football venue in town. Originally, the recreation green that became the King George V Field hosted most local sports teams in Stevenage. Right by older town centre – north of Britain’s first pedestrianised shopping zone – the playing area is where you’ll still find the cricket, bowls and hockey clubs.
In Dickens’ day, it was called Chequers Field, a tethering place for stagecoach horses. When the railway forced the cricket club from its pitch by Six Hills Way in the 1890s, it relocated here beside the former coaching post.
Members of the cricket club had first proposed the formation of a football team in the 1880s. Stevenage FC, later known as Stevenage Town, played in the Herts County League from the 1890s onwards.
In 1951, Stevenage became founder members of the short-lived Delphian League for clubs from Greater London – Dagenham were three times winners. When the league dissolved in 1963, Stevenage, recently moved to Broadhall Way, took the plunge, turned professional and joined the Southern League.
The club had just joined the Southern League Premier when the demands of the professional game became too much. Disbanding in 1968, Stevenage Town were superceded by Stevenage Athletic. Also based at Broadhall Way, Athletic lasted a short time in the Southern League, playing out a disastrous last season in 1975-76, conceding 100-plus goals in 42 games.
Their demise in the summer of 1976 prompted the creation that September of yet another Stevenage FC. Arranging an opening friendly at Broadhall Way, the new club was shocked to see that the landowner had dug up the pitch to make it unplayable for football.
With help from a sympathetic council, Stevenage FC switched to a modest park pitch back at the old King George V Field. In recognition for municipal cooperation, the club became Stevenage Borough, and bore the civic coat of arms on their red-and-white shirts.
Paying their dues as they rose through local leagues, Stevenage Borough moved back to Broadhall Way in 1980 after the council bought back the ground. Ironically, it was Broadhall Way that barred the way to Football League status for Borough, after 20 long years of clambering from the Chiltern Youth League on a park pitch to winning the fifth-flight Football Conference.
Deemed unsuitable for Division Three, Broadhall Way then witnessed the visit of Alan Shearer’s Newcastle in the FA Cup, successful runs in the FA Trophy and, in August 2010, a first Football League fixture after major stadium upgrades in the early 2000s.
London Luton Airport is 27km (17 miles) from Stevenage, linked by Arriva Sapphire No.100 every 30min-1hr/every 2hrs Sun, journey time 50min-1hr.
The airport bus stops at Stevenage High Street, train and bus stations. The bus station is a short walk from the train, 5min into town by The Standard Bearer pub.
The ground is a mile south – a 15-20min walk away or hop on a bus provided by Arriva, Centrebus or Unobus. If you’re coming by train, a £3.20 PlusBus supplement allows one-day travel, including Knebworth, with all three companies.
For 2016-17, the club has combined with Arriva to introduce match-day bus fares at child rates for single, return and day tickets, and a shuttle bus service (£1 return) between the train and bus stations, and stadium. The initiative is open to home and away fans with a valid match ticket.
A regular train to Stevenage from London Kings Cross with Virgin or Great Northern takes 20-25min, singles £13-£14, off-peak day return £15-£17. From Birmingham, unless you find an advance single at £15, it’s around £33 each way, change twice in London or once in Peterborough, overall journey time 2hr 30min. From Manchester, it’s around £50 each way, change at York or Doncaster, overall journey time 3hr.
Close to Stevenage station, ABC Taxis (01438 42 42 42) offers fixed-fee airport transfers around London, £38 from Luton Airport, £33 from Stevenage.
The nearest hotel to the stadium is the recently refurbished Novotel, serving Knebworth, but it’s on the wrong side of the A1, and impossible to reach on foot from the Lamex.
Slightly further away but on the stadium side of the A1 and railway line – and close enough to provide a pre-match bar – the Roebuck Inn is a cosy three-star set in a 15th-century building, all oak beams and log fires. It has an Indian restaurant too, a laundromat and free parking.
Chain hotels dot the town centre. Nearest the stadium are two Holiday Inns – the Express caters to budget travellers, the HI Stevenage to business trade, with conference facilities across one floor. There’s also an ibis slap in the town centre.
Independent lodgings are located in the older part of town. Right by the cricket ground, the mid-range, 40-room Gate Hotel is also handy for the train station.
Just off the High Street, the newly refurbished Cromwell was once the farmhouse lodging of the secretary to the namesake Roundhead leader. Its equally smart restaurant is called Oliver’s.
Stevenage High Street in the older part of town is lined with traditional pubs. Typical is the Marquis of Lorne, with live sport, and regular poker and music nights. The Mulberry Tree and Red Lion are of similar ilk in the Greene King family.
The Coach & Horses goes big on broadcast sport, with a large projector screen for major events. There’s a beer garden, too. Also in the High Street, The Standing Order, sits in an old bank, one of two Wetherspoons in Stevenage. The other, The Standard Bearer, is in the newer part of town, near the station and nearer the stadium. There you’ll also find the Old Post Office, where TV sport is a main focus.
For a more rural experience, The Chequers at Bragbury End near the Stevenage FC training ground dates back to 1774 and is known for its quality food, and handpull and craft ales.