Football nearly comes off the rails in GWR hub

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

The railway built Swindon, railway workers its football club. Employed at Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s central repair unit for steam locomotives on the Great Western line, maintenance men approached a young curate recently installed at Christ Church, Rev William Baker Pitt, to help create a local team.

Pitt, who played in the early games, was looking for something more than just a game of football. In the few years since Brunel’s railway, Swindon had grown 15-fold, from a modest Wiltshire market town to a busy transport and engineering hub. Tensions between incoming workers and locals long resident up in the old part of town were rising and Reverend Pitt saw football to bond the community as one.

Steam Railway/Peterjon Cresswell

Even today, Swindon is somewhat disjointed, a shopping mall filling its centre, surrounded by a few older streets and lines of back-to-back housing built for railway workers’ families. Near the station, the County Ground has served Swindon Town since 1896, soon after the club went professional and joined the Southern League.

By the ground, built over the Wilts & Berks Canal that the GWR superceded, the Magic Roundabout is a notorious landmark, a confusing junction celebrated in song by the only band anyone can name from Swindon, XTC. It carries traffic between areas of what was Old and New Swindon, joined as one town in 1900.

The Reverend Pitt may have left for Liddington but his legacy lived on – the club he founded joined the Football League in 1920, famously winning the League Cup at Wembley in 1969.

The hero that day, mercurial winger Don Rogers, still owns a local sports shop in the town centre. Swindon remains a community club, occasionally blighted by hooliganism when teams from Bristol, Oxford or Reading come to town.

Steam Railway/Peterjon Cresswell

Recent Swindon owner Lee Power, barely in his forties when he joined the board of directors in 2013, oversaw a Wembley play-off final and average gates at the County Ground rise to around 7,000. As long-mooted stadium redevelopments failed to materialise – the main stand dates back to the Don Rogers era – and the pandemic hit, Power found himself unable to cover rent nor salaries. 

As bankruptcy loomed, Australian plumbing magnate Clem Morfuni stepped up the process of taking over Town, unfazed by a club that couldn’t even pay its suppliers for kit and integrating himself with long-suffering fans.

A short walk from Swindon station, the County Ground remains charmingly old-school, quaint but distinct from the new-builds occupied by the Robins’ nearest rivals in Reading, Oxford and Bristol.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

The nearest airport is Bristol, 79km (49 miles) from Swindon with no direct links by public transport. The Bristol Airport Flyer bus (£8 single/£13 return) runs every 20mins to stop 8/9 at Bristol Temple Meads train station (journey time 20mins). 

From there, a regular train service to Swindon takes 40mins, cheapest single £15. From London Paddington, trains run every 15mins, journey time 1hr, cheapest online single £30. From Birmingham New Street (cheapest single £25), you have to change at Cheltenham Spa, overall journey time 1hr 45mins. From Manchester, change at Reading or Birmingham New Street and Cheltenham Spa, overall journey time 3hrs. You’ll have to book weeks in advance to avoid paying under £100.

The nearest major international airport is Heathrow 109km (68 miles) away. A National Express bus runs four times a day to Swindon (£25, journey time 1hr 20mins) to Swindon Queens Drive right by the football ground.

Swindon’s main bus station is by the train station. The football ground and town centre are all a short walk from each other. If you need to roam, adding a Swindon PlusBus (£3.60) to your train ticket allows you to use local buses for the rest of the day. The two main services are Swindon’s Bus Company (singles £1.70) and Stagecoach (singles £1.60/£2.20). A DayRider Plus pass (£5) is valid for both companies.

A1 Swindon Taxis (01793 251 251) offer a transfer service to airports all over the country.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

The older part of town has the best pubs, particularly on and off the High Street. A former coaching inn, the ivy-clad Goddard Arms marries tradition with contemporary tastes, the daily live football schedule posted on its website. Quality Sunday roasts, too.

Round the corner, the Steam Railway is another convincing candidate for best pub in town, with live sport, regularly changing guest ales and a friendly, chatty clientele. Retro ads and prints lend the place character. You’ll find a fire in winter and beer garden in summer.

With the closure of the trendy Pig On The Hill, beer-oriented the Hop Inn has moved in, expanding its operation into two adjoining outlets, room enough for 16 options on tap in the larger venue. Down the hill from Devizes Road, Longs Bar has screens a-plenty, handy if you’re staying in Victoria Road. After dark, it doubles up as a cocktail bar.

Closer to the town centre, The Beehive attracts a younger, savvier crowd, drawn to its craft beers, home-made pies and live music.

Opposite the station, the Queens Tap deserves more than just a quick pint before your train, with TV sport, live acts and a busy, buzzy atmosphere of a Saturday night.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the ground and around town

Visit Wiltshire has a database of accommodation across the county.

As old as its namesake venue right next door, the County Ground Hotel is more of a pre-match pub for Robins fans than a lodging – although it does rent out its eight guest rooms, usually to visiting contractors.

The most convenient place for the overnight fan, therefore, is the refurbished Great Western Hotel, right opposite the station, with a mix of en-suite rooms and shared facilities, and a bar downstairs.

Also close, the Holiday Inn Express Swindon City Centre is a reliable, affordable chain. A notch above, Jurys Inn contains 200-plus rooms, a café and restaurant. Across this busy junction, the former Menzies Swindon was bought by Thistle and has reopened as a 95-room hotel with bar and restaurant.

Also a short walk from station and County Ground, the Travelodge Swindon Central offers uniform rooms from £40 without breakfast.

If you’d rather stay in the old part of town, you’ll find a couple of B&Bs on steep Victoria Road, still walkable to the ground. The Swandown is a nice choice, with a bar and dining room. Most, but not all, 17 rooms are en-suite. The Regent across the road is currently up for sale.

Nearby on the High Street, the Goddard Arms has a handful of rooms above a landmark pub with live sport and quality food.