A personal journey through the Football Leagues...
In November 2011, I decided to ride to all of the League football grounds in Greater Manchester as a one day ride for something different. I remember my first stadium visit started in Wigan at the DW and finished at Stockport County.
I enjoyed that ride so much that a week later I went a bit further afield from Manchester and rode to Stoke City, Port Vale, Crewe Alexandra and Macclesfield Town. Little did I know that these two rides would turn into a journey spanning thousands of kilometres, many weekends voyaging around the country and seeing Britain from a different perspective over the next 4 years.
I had decided to visit all current 92 England and Wales League clubs and the Conference Premier grounds based on the 2011 season. Ticking off the local grounds was fairly easy and generally involved riding around the North doing cycle rides averaging around 80 to 100km using a combination of ‘Cheap Day Return’ train tickets and ‘Rovers’ from Manchester. Using this method, I was not committed to returning back to the starting station. E.g. Nottingham to Chesterfield via Mansfield.
I became very good at scouting out cheap train tickets and working out the best A to B via C combination! One of the hardest aspects aside from route planning was going beyond the ‘Cheap Day Return’ train ticket zones as each stage became more and more expensive. It also became riskier as I booked Advance train tickets on a one-way basis and then the return after 1800.
Early starts every Saturday...
This gave me enough time to complete the ride, but generally meant that I had to be up at 0500 most Saturdays to head off to the likes of Plymouth, Darlington, Barrow and Watford. In a weird way, having a booked train made me ride further and do more as each ‘leg’ turned into a time trial. Good examples of this include my rides from Bath to Cardiff, Exeter to Portsmouth and Worcester to Stroud.
Sometimes, I would mix it up and do stages off of the bike and started to complete some stages using alternative means.
Off the bike, on the kayak, on skates and on foot...
On Boxing Day, I ran a marathon between local rivals Southampton to Portsmouth, did an orienteering challenge using a One Day London Travelcard and ran to each of the London clubs from the closest station in a set time period and used a Microscooter to scoot from Liverpool to Manchester and Middlesbrough to Hartlepool.
I even entered a 97 mile kayak race around the Cheshire Canal Network Ring just because it passed by the Manchester City and Manchester United stadiums! When I rollerbladed from Paris to London in 2012, one of the biggest things for me was that the skate ended at the London Olympic Stadium.
Soon after completing these stages, I realised that ‘Groundhopping’ was taking over a bit too much…
Taking it all bit too seriously...
I am a firm believer in having passions and hobbies, however it was clear in late 2012 that I was not getting the balance right. I was spending so much time on the road (or train) that I was putting a strain on my relationship, my bank account and something had to give.
I had come to far to give-up and I decided to continue the project, but take it less seriously and not have a time limit for completion. I was seeing some of the best parts of the country, riding or running miles and miles in new locations each week and challenging myself week-in-week out, however it was taking over my weekends and dominating my life.
My new approach to Groundhopping was required and this also brought new challenges. I had started to tick-off the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League and also some of the Scottish clubs.
As there was no self-imposed time pressure, I found myself cycling more of the UK riding from Norwich to Ipswich, Edinburgh to Aberdeen and Bangor to Chester. I have also started to work my way into the lower leagues too on an ad-hoc basis.
Completing the final few of the 92...
So fast forward to Easter 2015 and a window of opportunity arose to complete the ‘Football Ground Tour’. I had been to all corners of the league, yet Essex and Kent has largely eluded me. To complete the current 92, I had to visit Gillingham and Colchester. This was a classic ‘groundhop’ and a cycle route that went from Colchester to Braintree via Tilbury.
After leaving Braintree and ticking off Colchester earlier in the day, I headed towards the Thames Estuary and crossed the river using the Tilbury Ferry. I then rode to Ebbsfleet before heading to Gillingham to complete the '92' based on the 2011 season.
After a night at the YHA Medway, I rode up to London via the Conference grounds of Dartford, Welling and into a nearly deserted capital on Easter Sunday.
What did I learn from the Football Ground Tour..?
One of the questions I am usually asked is ‘Why?’ The answer I give is simple. Football grounds are a great marker of where you have been and mean a lot to different people.
They also reflect current architectural styles, their location means that you usually have to navigate around an unknown town or city to get to them and the changing nature of the league means that there is always somewhere different to go. I have seen much of England and Wales from my bike and loved every minute of my journey.
So what next? As you can see from my photo gallery I try and visit a stadium wherever I go. Recent examples include Slovan Bratislava, A.O Chania and KuPS Kuopio. I am also slowly working my way into the lower echelons of the football leagues too.
I still continue to visit football grounds on a casual basis and am proud to be called a ‘Groundhopper’.
"The league shows where I have been and also where I can go next"
You can see the full set of Groundhopping photos here: