Bowls: The quintessentially British sport under threat
- 5 May 2011
- From the section Magazine
Britain's bowling greens are under attack, threatened by property developers and cost-cutting councils, prompting MPs to take action. But is bowling a quintessentially British pastime that should be protected?
It is a bright, warm spring evening and the expectancy is palpable as the bowlers make their way onto the green.
The outdoor season has only just begun, and the men of Bedworth Bowls Club in Warwickshire are facing a keenly-fought local derby against local rivals Haunchwood.
As the players - mostly middle aged, though with a supplement of twenty and thirty-somethings - survey the undulating crown green surface before them, Stephen Berry, 64, Bedworth's president, captain of its Saturday team and, for good measure, its groundskeeper, is in an ebullient mood.
"The sun is shining, it's a local derby and the green's in good shape," he grins. "What more could you want?"
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of others are taking part in a sport that stands as a reassuring emblem of British society - one that has remained popular for centuries.
Bowls brings connotations of the summer, of parks and pristine village greens, with young and old dressed in white and the gentle ripple of applause.
The game is filled with local heroes all over the country in both its flat and crown green codes. Equally importantly, the sport is a great social tool that brings comfort, joy, companionship and activity to many people.
But many fear this quintessentially British pastime is under threat.
John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness and a bowls enthusiast, has proposed a bill to prevent greens from being redeveloped amid fears that councils are selling them off to raise funds.
Among those at risk could be the lawn on Plymouth Hoe, where Sir Francis Drake is said to have insisted on finishing his game in 1588 after being informed the Spanish Armada was approaching.
He lost the bowls game, but won the battle. Now, however, Plymouth Hoe faces its own battle to avoid closure after the local authority said it was considering a proposal to transfer its greens to community ownership, which clubs warn will mean they cannot afford to carry on.
Despite such concerns, participation in the game remains high.
In England there are around 400,000 bowlers, whilst Scotland boasts around 90,000. The annual World Championships are viewed by around three million people on television, and Mr Woodcock believes nobody in England is more than 15 miles from the cry of "jack high".
Bowls has always been endorsed by royalty. King Charles II drew up the earliest laws of the sport and royal interest has remained to this day - the Queen is a current patron of Bowls England.
Pints on the green
With the oldest surviving UK bowling green in Southampton dating back to 1299, Alex Marsh, author of Sex, Bowls and Rock and Roll, believes local amateur leagues exemplify British identity.
"A huge number of clubs are essentially pub or social club teams in not-too serious leagues, having a hard-fought but good natured contest and then a few pints afterwards," he says.
"The pub culture element is very British," he says. "It's common to take pints out onto the green."
Marsh believes the game also brings opportunities for the injured and disabled.
"Sometimes you'll come across somebody who might have played cricket or football, but have given up through injury - bowls gives them a competitive fix," he adds.
An abundance of talented younger players have emerged in recent years. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Natalie Melmore and Sam Tolchard, both 21, finished first and fourth respectively in their singles tournaments.
Alistair Hollis, development officer at Bowls England, believes they are not exceptions to the rule.
"The game may be moving full circle towards becoming a sport for young people that older people can play too," he says.
Hollis also reaffirms the importance of the social side of the game, one that can provide companionship and refuge for those who are alone.
An average price of around £70 for a club membership keeps the game affordable, but Hollis admits the huge task facing clubs and governing bodies is to "increase membership and keep the sport sustainable".
Bowls Scotland are also attempting to increase participation through their Scottish Young Bowlers Association website, which aims to increase the popularity of the game with youngsters.
Now Mr Woodcock hopes it can receive a further boost under his proposals, would allow players to form co-operatives to purchase and maintain them.
He believes closures "would deprive many older people of their only sport" and the "enduring social networks that make bowling greens a valued part of our nation's heritage".
Mr Woodcock describes the sport as "one of the many things that, for centuries, has made this country so great".
Back in Bedworth, the match hasn't turned out as planned for the home side. Haunchwood have taken control of the game and will go on to win 6-2.
Stephen Berry shakes his head. He's been playing the game for 38 years and feels each defeat keenly.
But he could never lose his enthusiasm for an activity that, from monarchs to weekend amateurs supping beer in the sun, has promoted social interaction, friendship, and inclusivity, whilst offering a reminder of what it is to be British.
"It's a competitive game, and everyone wants to win," he says. "But afterwards both teams will go for a pint together - that's what it's all about, at the end of the day."