It was a pleasant spring evening in Wrexham, Wales, and I was wandering through the grounds of St Giles' Church, looking for the grave of Elihu Yale, the founder of Yale University, whose legendary tombstone reads: "Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even."
Distracted, I didn't notice a group of seven young lads who'd snuck up on me. As they surrounded me, their leader, no older than 11 years old, approached me and we locked eyes.
"Do you support Wrexham?" he asked.
"Up the turf!" I replied, echoing the club's motto. An uproarious cheer rose among them and they ran off, laughing.
Founded in 1864, Wrexham AFC is one of the world's oldest professional football clubs (Credit: Paul Stafford)
The welcome in Wrexham is often colourful, and sometimes a little unorthodox, but the conversation never takes long to land upon football – especially these days.
Just two days earlier, Wrexham AFC, one of the oldest professional football teams in the world, had fought back from a 1-0 deficit to secure promotion into the English Football League following a 15-year exile in one of the UK's lowest and least glamorous football divisions. As the final whistle sounded, thousands of supporters stormed the pitch; its two Hollywood owners, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, burst into tears; and fans partied late into the night in scenes not seen here for decades.
For a formerly down-on-its luck coal-mining community in northern Wales that lives and breathes football, you couldn't have scripted a more perfect fairy-tale ending.
"It's the best thing that's happened around this area [in a long time]," said Bernard Davies, a diehard fan who has been attending matches at Wrexham's illustrious Racecourse Ground, the world's oldest international football stadium, since 1962.
Visitors can climb the St Giles' Church tower for sweeping views over Wrexham and the surrounding countryside (Credit: Paul Stafford)
Thanks to the area's abundant coal deposits, Wrexham grew from a small market town to a major mining centre during and after the Industrial Revolution, with 18,000 people once employed in the area's 38 pits. Evidence of these more-prosperous times still mark Wrexham's city centre, which radiates from the towering St Giles' Church (one of the "Seven Wonders of Wales"), and whose 135ft Gothic spire offers views across the city's still-intact medieval street pattern and half-timbered buildings.
Tragically, in 1934 an explosion and subsequent fire at Gresford Colliery claimed the lives of 266 men. Many of them were working an extra shift in order to be free to watch Wrexham play later that day. The so-called "Gresford disaster" sparked the beginning of the end for Wrexham's coal. One by one, the mines closed, with the last in 1986, until little remained of Wrexham's heavy industries. As the fortunes of the town started to diminish, so did those of the football club.
In 2011, local fans heroically raised over £100,000 in just seven hours to save the club from expulsion from the league. From this, the Wrexham Supporters Trust took full control of the club, and fans demanded the highest standards from prospective future buyers.
Those standards were finally met by Reynolds and McElhenney, who convinced the Trust to let them buy the club in November 2020. Thanks to the Hollywood duo's tremendously popular docuseries, Welcome to Wrexham (available on Disney+ in the UK and FX in the US), which details the pair's first season running the club, hundreds of thousands of people around the world – many of whom don't even follow football – have become Wrexham AFC fans. This unlikely phenomenon has not only spurred a tourism boom in a place few travellers used to visit, but is simultaneously helping to revitalise all things "Wrexham".
Wrexham retains its medieval street pattern and many historical buildings, including the 16th-Century Horse & Jockey pub (Credit: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy)
"Everybody just wants to be a part of Wrexham now. It's like they've uplifted the town and brought it back to life," said Jo Morrison, a decades-long Wrexham AFC season ticket holder, of Reynolds and McElhenney's efforts. "The excitement, the positivity around town has been incredible. They just seem as passionate as the people of Wrexham are."
The series has raised the profiles of local businesses like The Turf, a pub that's located at the Racecourse Ground. "They came over with a mission to improve the football team but also improve the economy, and they're doing both," said Wayne Jones, The Turf's landlord. Jones has become an unwitting celebrity in the wake of the show's success, and was forced to close the bar for the first time in 15 years after being "drunk dry" by fans and celebrities in town during last weekend's match, including Paul Rudd. "The football club is the beating heart of the town," Jones said.
A few days after Jones lost the keys to the food truck he runs outside The Turf due to "over-celebrating" during Wrexham's promotion-clinching victory, he was simultaneously running the pub and the truck, hand-delivering burgers to a steady stream of customers. "It's not just about The Turf, and me and our staff, it's about the entire community and the entire town," he said.
Moments later, a coachload of tourists from New England pulled up and a lady screamed when she recognised Jones. It was just another example of the remarkable and surreal moment the city is experiencing.
Because of the show's success, certain Wrexham personalities, like Jones, have become unlikely celebrities (Credit: Paul Stafford)
While many were sceptical when Reynolds and McElhenney took charge in 2020, everyone I spoke with felt the duo's community-forward approach, which includes everything from matching local foodbank donations to promoting local bands, has helped propel improvements across Wrexham that were already underway.
Welcome to Wrexham: a guide to visiting
We asked locals what you shouldn't miss in the city.
Jo Morrison: The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the Gresford Colliery monument and St Giles' Church
Wayne Jones: The Fat Boar restaurant, The Long Pull pub
Bernard Davies: The Wrexham Museum, Wrexham Lager brewery
According to Gareth Thomas, a spokesperson for Wrexham Council, the city has been on the up for the past few years. Last year, it was shortlisted for UK City of Culture. The Council oversees a number of local attractions, including the Wrexham Museum which, aside from exhibitions on local history, will soon include the brand-new Football Museum of Wales.
Another popular site in the city centre is Tŷ Pawb, which means "Everybody's House" in Welsh. The combination food hall, local market and free art gallery used to primarily draw locals, but the guestbook at its new visitor information centre now reads like a geographic encyclopaedia, with entries from Japan, US, Finland and South Africa.
The success of the squad and show has compounded with Wrexham's own recent promotion to official city status in 2022. While locals affectionately still call Wrexham a "town", the 60,000-person community is about to get even more international exposure. In July, American fans of Wrexham AFC can catch the team as they face Premier League heavyweights Manchester United and Chelsea in the US. In September, the city will host cycling's Tour of Britain for the first time in eight years when stage two culminates here.
At the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal, visitors can take a boat or canoe over the English-Welsh border (Credit: John Hayward/Alamy)
Just beyond the city limits, locals suggest visiting the 18th-Century Erddig Hall estate and gardens, and the cute-as-can-be town of Llangollen, nestled on the banks of the River Dee. Yet, Wrexham residents say the one day trip every visitor should make is to the 11-mile-long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal. A Unesco World Heritage site spanning two countries, it includes the world's highest navigable aqueduct, and it, too, has been lifted by the city's recent success.
"We've seen an increase in visitors coming here from Australia and the US, via Wrexham recently," said Peta Hearn, a destination expert at the Canal & River Trust's Trevor Basin Visitor Centre, an access point for visitors to the aqueduct.
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Indeed, strolling through the city centre's 16th-Century pubs and Tudor-style buildings, it seems everything is going Wrexham's way these days. "The town itself, six or seven years ago, went through quite a dark period," said Nick Gaffey, office administrator at Wrexham Lager. "But the last couple of years, there's more of a drive in believing the town will be something better, and that's reflected by the attitude of the people."
Nothing epitomised this decline quite like the demise of Wrexham Lager, established in 1882 and said to have been sold throughout the British Empire and the only lager available aboard the Titanic. The company, itself, sank in 2000.
Wrexham Lager, which was once sold on the Titanic, has been revived by the football club and docuseries (Credit: Paul Stafford)
"For 11 years, Wrexham Lager wasn't being brewed. It didn't exist at all. But Carlsberg sold the rights to the name for £1 to the then-MP of Wrexham, Martin Jones," Gaffey explained. The company started up again with six conditioning tanks, each capable of storing around 17,500 pints, in 2011, which quickly proved to be insufficient. Today, thanks to the series and team's popularity, the business is up to 16 tanks, with planning consent for another 30.
"The success of the football team has [had a big impact], because people around the world are googling 'Wrexham' and initially the search goes to the football club, then they look at what else is in the town and come across the brewery," said Gaffey.
No one knows what the future may hold for Wrexham. Most people around here seem happy to live in the moment and enjoy the city's unlikely celebrity status – that is, unless you're talking about football, where fans are already looking ahead. "I think we'll go up next season as well," said Davies, with the kind of confidence you encounter a lot around Wrexham these days.
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