Dan Palmer

If you walk past Wolverton Park today you would be forgiven for not giving it a second glance.

Located close to a railway track with a tall block of flats looming overhead, the park had become overgrown when I last paid a visit.

Close to the gate and near to the start of a path which ovals round the grass, a litter bin was overflowing and spilling its contents onto the pavement.

As rain drizzled down and a lone dog walker swished their way through the sodden turf, I walked over to a small pond which sits calmly in one corner, the life ring next to it suggesting an extreme abundance of caution.

I live very close to the park and was regretting my choice of walking there as it was a miserable grey sky morning, a far cry from the sporting history which once beset the place.

Wolverton was the first town in Britain built because a railway was already there, emerging in 1838 at the halfway point of the line between London and Birmingham as a sort of service station.

Passengers travelling between the two major cities would have been crammed in with no corridors, toilets or buffet car, so were in need of a stretch of the legs and refreshment while on a journey which could take hours.

Wolverton Railway Works quickly sprung up and thousands of workers settled in a town which has now been absorbed by Milton Keynes but pre-dates the new city by around 130 years.

The park was built for the employees of the Works, and is bisected by the Grand Union Canal.

Back in the day it included a running track, a velodrome, a football pitch, tennis courts and a bowling green.

The banked curve still in place at Wolverton Park, a nod to the velodrome where Olympic cyclists trained ©ITG
The banked curve still in place at Wolverton Park, a nod to the velodrome where Olympic cyclists trained ©ITG

Seven fog signals were discharged to announce its opening and a gigantic crowd of around 15,000 people witnessed marching bands, sport and fireworks.

The velodrome, complete with banked curves, quickly became a site of national importance for cycling.

Several Olympians began training there and Jimmy Knight from the Railway Works was selected for Britain's Paris 1924 squad in the team pursuit.

Another Railway Works rider, Roland Herbert, eventually went on to compete at the first World Masters Games in Toronto in 1985, winning a silver medal.

Today, the oval path has been laid to reflect the shape of the velodrome and in one corner a banked section has been retained, in a nod to the pedallers of the past.

A few paces away from the curve is another piece of sporting history, although this is not quite in its original state.

The overgrown grass of today used to be the football pitch which hosted games for the railway works team, as well as local sides Wolverton Town and MK City until as recently as 1987.

In 1899, a wooden stand was built, painted bright green and kitted out with 100 seats across three levels.

The timber structure needed to be built to accommodate the sloping banks surrounding the pitch and was still standing in 2008, when it was believed to be the oldest covered football stand in the world, and the oldest stand in Britain.

Something like this would have been worth saving, you would have thought, but when football stopped being played at the venue the stand became a target for local vandals.

The replica of the grandstand which was once the oldest covered football stand in the world  ©ITG
The replica of the grandstand which was once the oldest covered football stand in the world ©ITG

Attempts to list the structure to secure its future came to nothing and, despite vocal opposition, local authorities dismantled and removed it after claiming it had fallen into disrepair and become unsafe.

A year later in 2009, a new stand was built in the same place with columns and terraces in the same locations.

The timber fascia has been "faithfully reproduced", it is claimed, as well as the stepped roof. 

Living in Wolverton, I have heard a rumour that Premier League giants Arsenal once played in front of the stand, and that a ball or shirt is buried under the pitch.

I can find no record of this, although it's nice to think that it's true.

Just as it's nice to think of the sport that once was as you trudge through wet grass on a dreary morning, where Olympic cyclists once rode and footballers once stood.