I've always thought of lawn bowls as a quintessentially English game. A smooth lawn of emerald green, the subdued thud of the bowls, and silent men and women dressed in white, frowning over their next shot. I was unprepared by the warm welcome from Helston Bowling Club, who are celebrating their 250th anniversary. Watching them in action, the players take the game very seriously but judging by the sudden peals of laughter, enjoy every second.
Helston Bowling Club was formed in 1760, and are thought to be the oldest bowling club in Cornwall. In those days there were no other teams to compete with, so it wasn't until 1906 that athlete Archie Frazer organised what was probably the club's first match with St Austell Bowling Club.
Clifford Thomas has been a member for 52 years and originally brought along his new wife, Gloria, to help with the teas. “Women weren't interested in playing at first,” said Gloria. “It used to be the more well off people that played. I've been a member since 1963, and am one of the four founder members of the ladies section. Two of the original four became international players – two were Clifford's twin sisters. In 1966 we affiliated to the county and never looked back.”
Clifford explained, “The club was always in debt but since the women joined, they've organised the fund raising and fetes that keep it going.”
Between 1968 and 1984 the Ladies Section won every county competition, as well as national titles. Gloria was National Pairs Champion, British Isles Pairs, World Bowls in Canada, International and World Bowls Champion. I gulped. How long would it take to become a good bowler?
“If you haven't mastered it in 3 years you never will,” said Clifford stoutly. Gloria added, “Like all sports, there are layers of competence. You need a good man (or woman) behind you and you have to have the will to win. At international level you're playing for 3-4 hours so you need to be able to concentrate for that long and that's where a lot of people fall down.”
My hopes sank – how could I possibly learn enough in an hour? But Joint Chairman, Peter Heyden, led me to believe there was hope after all: “It takes about 6 hours coaching to get you to a level to enjoy yourself.”
Lawn bowls is evidently a very sociable game, and people can play at different levels. “Some play in the day for fun,” explained Peter. “The second level of people play at weekends and club matches, and the third level play at the organised leagues and national competitions.”
There are currently 31 lady members of Helston Bowling Club, and 55 men. Ages range from 40 upwards and members are taught by qualified coaches. “Most men who've played cricket or golf adapt quite well to bowls,” said Peter. But Gloria pointed out, “You can't teach the feel of the ball.” She laughed. “So many people say it's like Marmite – you either love it or you hate it!”
In addition to their ordinary fund raising, the club have one day a year for a children's charity. “One of the nicest things is how we all look after each other,” said Gloria. “It's also good exercise and it's fun!”
Lawn bowls is played from the second week in April to the second week in September outside, and short mat bowls are played inside in the winter. “For competitions, you should wear the proper non- slip bowling shoes in white or grey,” Peter said. “The outfits are in brown, with white or grey for county matches.”
So now it was time for me to have a go. First of all Peter handed me one of the bowls, a large black ball weighing 3 ¼ pounds. “We all use different size bowls according to different conditions. The balls are slightly curved on one side, and it's this shape, or bias, that makes it turn,” he explained “The basic idea is to get more of your bowls by the jack (a small yellow ball) than your opponent's. You count one shot for every one of your bowls that's nearest.”
Next I had to learn how to hold the bowl – not as easy as you might think. “Make sure you hold the ball the way you want it to bend – in your case (because I'm right handed) with the heavy side on the inside,” he said. “Take the ball in your left hand so that when you transfer it to the right hand it turns over. You try and hold it on the grips of the ball with the centre finger in the middle – this way it won't wobble.” And he manhandled my reluctant fingers into position.
It wasn't very comfortable and my first shot went wide. “Eventually people find their own way of holding the ball that's comfortable for them,” Peter reassured me. Next to us were some highly competent players, concentrating on their game amid sudden gales of laughter – not aimed at me thankfully.
“Balance your left hand on your right thigh,” said Gloria. “Step forward and let the ball go gently.” I did as she said and - “Look at that!” she said, as the bowl actually headed in the right direction.
From then on I began to get the gist of it, my small hands struggled to grasp this huge black canonball. But somehow it went in the right direction. I could see what Gloria meant – this really is fun! But as she said, “You do need coordination and concentration. And never bowl directly at the jack.”
The next time she eyed me critically. 'You're adjusting your weight now. Very good! Did you feel that was different then?”
I could, but I couldn't have said why or how. Half an hour later, I was really enjoying myself, but my time was up. To my delight, Gloria said, “You'd be very welcome to join the club here – you showed great promise.”
Coming from a World Champion, that was a real accolade, and I floated away with visions of myself following in Gloria's footsteps. 2012 here we come?
Bowls is a sport in which the aim is to roll slightly asymmetric balls, called bowls, closest to a smaller bowl called the "jack" or "kitty".
Bowls has been traced to the 12th century but was banned, fearing it would jeopardise archery, vitally important in battle. Bowling alleys were first established in London in 1455 but many of the alleys were connected with taversn frequented by gamesters
In 1541 a law banned the lower classes from playing bowls at any time except Christmas, and then only in their masters' house and presence. Anyone playing bowls outside his own garden was liable to a penalty of 6s 8d, but those in possession of lands worth £100 annually might obtain their own licences to play.
The (Royal) Victorian Bowling Association was formed in Austrralia in 1880 and the The Scottish Bowling Association was established in 1892, although there had been a failed attempt in 1848 by 200 Scottish clubs.Today the sport is played in over 40 countries with more than 50 member national authorities.
The average bowling green is 40 yards square
Indoor games last about 2 hours whereas outside games take 3 or 3.5 hours.
At international games take 4-4.5 hours.
Cornwall Today July 2010