by Kate McLelland
A team of uniformed players lined up to bowl on a perfectly manicured green is one of the most evocative sights of the summer. Lawn Bowls is a gently-paced team game that – like cricket matches on the village green – seems to reflect a British way of life that has barely changed in hundreds of years. However, if you have always thought that outdoor bowls is a sport that is exclusive to the United Kingdom, you may be surprised to hear that the game is also played in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa.
Lawn Bowls has become popular for two main reasons: it’s a highly social activity, offering a strong sense of camaraderie within the club itself and the potential to develop wider networks through inter-club matches. It is also accessible to new members, being one of the easiest team sports to pick up (although regulars will tell you it takes time and skill to perfect the techniques required).
The game is played in singles, pairs, triples and four player teams. Players use weighted bowls known as ‘woods’ that are heavier on one side, giving them a bias. The bowls are rolled along a flat grass bowling green towards a smaller ball, or jack, with points scored for the woods that stop closest to the jack. The team captain (or ‘skipper’) always plays last and takes responsibility for directing the team’s shots and tactics. It sounds simple, and it is, but the game also relies on precision, patience and – occasionally, when a player drives to dislodge an opponent’s ball from the jack – power.
The history of playing bowls goes back to medieval times and the world’s oldest surviving bowling green, in Southampton, was first used in 1299. The best known historical reference to the sport is probably the story about Sir Francis Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the Spanish Armada approached the coast: he was so absorbed in play he is said to have insisted on finishing the game, claiming that he would still have time to beat the Spaniards.
While this story may not be strictly true, it serves to highlight the addictive qualities of the game: apprentices, labourers and servants were banned from playing bowls by successive English kings because it was thought to distract men from their duties and lead them into dissolute company.
Nowadays England is said to have more than 400,000 bowlers, while Scotland has approximately 100,000. Successful clubs can go on to compete at national and even international level: the World Outdoor Bowls Championships for men and women is held every four years and the next event will take place in Christchurch, New Zealand, from 28 November to 16 December 2016.
Despite its status as one of Great Britain’s most popular sports, up to now Lawn Bowls has had the reputation of being more suitable for the older generation. That view has recently been challenged by an upsurge of interest in Barefoot Bowls, a relatively new Australian variant of the game that has attracted more young people to play. Many Australian clubs have been happy to relax their dress code and membership rules in order to appeal to the next generation of players.
Barefoot Bowls uses four players per team with a game length of between 30-60 minutes, although the main objective – to get your bowls as close to the jack as possible – remains the same. In this country Barefoot Bowls has been promoted as a street sport and a tournament held in London last year drew a crowd of more than 150 students and young professionals.
Another more traditional variant of Lawn Bowls is Crown Green Bowls, which adds an additional level of challenge as it is played on an uneven surface. In France the game of Pétanque is played on a hard dirt or gravel surface, either in public parks or dedicated areas called boulodromes. Hollow metal balls are bowled towards a ‘cochonnet’ (which translates as ‘piglet’), which is the Gallic version of the British jack. Pétanque is surprisingly popular in the UK too, and the English Pétanque Association website (www.englishpetanque.org.uk) lists 16 regions where the sport is played.
There are thousands of bowling clubs across the UK where you can pick up the basics and eventually go on to play in leagues if you want to take part at a more serious level. The game can be enjoyed at any age (provided you are reasonably mobile) and you can play all year round, as the sport goes indoors in the winter.
The British Isles Indoor Bowls Council (www.biibc.org.uk) can provide information on indoor clubs while the sports section of the BBC website (www.bbc.co.uk) provides contact information on the various Lawn Bowling associations for England, Scotland and Wales, each with its own search facility to help you find a local club.
No one is said to be more than 15 miles away from their nearest bowling ground, so next time you come across the classic scene of players assembled on a green, don’t just walk on by: find out how you can become involved in one of the country’s best loved sports.