Last year, various British news outlets reported of a new sporting phenomena sweeping across the nation’s hallowed lawns. Fastidiously manicured grass plains, one graced only by pensioners in peaked caps, were now attracting a new, young and hip breed of bowler.
In May more than 150 students took part in a casual London tournament organised by Barefoot Bowls, a group “devoted to bringing this quintessentially British game dancing into the 21st century with colour, fun and style”. With over half of the UK’s 5,000 bowling greens either threatened by potential property developers’ plans or at the mercy of councils on tight budgets, it is hoped that a boom in younger player numbers will help save the sport.
There has been a similar renaissance in Australia. “At one stage it was going pretty bad,” competitive bowler Bruce Hockey of Clovelly Bowling Club tells the BBC, “but the new bare footers, that’s why the club is doing well. We get 200 bare footers every weekend and it’s really big money.” One such bare footer is 31-year-old Justine Anderson. “It’s more about socialising with your mates,” she adds. “It’s like a daytime alternative to going out and drinking at a bar. I know I don’t take it seriously. I play it like I am playing 10-pin bowling.”
John Ivory has been president of Ponsonby Bowling Club since 1999 and has seen a shift on these shores too. “Attitudes are most certainly changing,” he tells me. “When young people play it, they love it. They discover how much fun it is. It’s that simple.” His club is an Auckland institution. Founded as far back as 1893 on Jervois Road, it now even hosts hen and stag dos.
It’s widely accepted that the sport originated in 13th century England, though rounded bowl-like stones have been found in Egyptian tombs dated 5,000 BC — around the same time as the invention of the wheel. It also shares similarities with bocce, a game played on sand, soil or asphalt, which traces its roots to ancient Rome but unlike bowls’, bocce balls have no in-built bias (a weight on one side). Legend has it that in 1588, Sir Francis Drake demanded he finished off a bowling game before taking on the Spanish Armada, while the world’s oldest bowling lawn can be found at the UK’s Southampton Old Bowling Green, established in 1299. Today, there are around half-a-milliion British bowlers. New Zealand is home to more than 700 clubs, frequented by around 50,000 players.
John fell in love with sport through watching his father play. “There was a different culture when I first arrived here,” he says. “It was a drinking club whose members occasionally played bowls! I wanted to change that and to encourage a casual playing culture. People can still have a drink of course.” It is, he says, a method unique in New Zealand: “We try to be a community club where everyone knows each other. I’d like to see more clubs encourage casual bowling, but too many still want their members to be competitive and I don’t believe that’s that what the young people of today want.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces