THIS week I’ve been trying out a sport so radical that it once incurred the wrath of royalty, threatened the future of the British military and was ultimately banned by Parliament... bowls!
When it comes to crown green bowls I’m a complete beginner, but I happen to know a couple of people who have been pretty successful at the sport and one of them agreed to help me out.
Andy Knott has been playing bowls for 25 years, was last year’s CSSC Welsh Champion, and a semifinalist at the British CSSC finals in Blackpool. If anyone could get me bowling it would be him.
Lining up for my first effort I was sure there was nothing to it, just roll the ball somewhere near, easy! As my shot veered away to the other side of the green however, I could tell from Andy’s expression that even for a beginner this was not the best of starts... time to go back to basics!
The sport of bowls dates back to the 13th century, when even the royals were at it, but as the game grew in popularity, it was banned by Parliament, fearful it would lure people away from their archery practice so essential to the military.
Statutes forbidding bowls and other sports were put into place during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II, and even the name ‘bowls’ first appears in a law from 1511 in which Henry VIII proclaimed ‘labourers, apprentices, servants and the like are forbidden to play bowls at any time except Christmas - and then only in their master's house.’
Anyone caught playing bowls back then was liable to a fine of six shillings. I was afraid my bowling today was bad enough to warrant a spell in prison.
Starting out couldn’t be easier. A flat soled pair of shoes or trainers, a set of basic bowls (about £20 on ebay), then it’s off to your local club, in this case Whittington where they have teams of all ages competing at every level.
Getting kitted up might be easy enough, but there’s more to the game than I thought. I knew for example, that the bowls (or ‘woods’) are weighted to one side indicated by a coloured spot and curl in that direction, but even though you show your opponent which side you are using before you bowl, I still managed to forget on more than one occasion, my instructor watching patiently as the wood sailed merrily away in the opposite direction.
In my defence there’s a lot to think about, not least the dome shaped green, which I think is challenging enough, but combine it with the balls’ bias and all of a sudden it’s a whirlwind of lines and options, each requiring a different direction and accurate power. I’ve spent a lifetime in sports that require maximum power over short bursts, so the subtle finesse required for bowls proved a test all on its own.
It had been a long evening and I still hadn’t won a single point. Even with Andy deliberatly leaving me vast gaps to try and aim for, I either drew up short, or sent the ball sailing into the gutter. As the night drew in there was time for just one last effort.
“I’ve got my flat soled shoes, I’ve chosen to have the bias towards my thumbside, I’ve shown my opponent, I’ve picked out a line across the green, curling around the slope, I’ve carefully bowled out the yellow jack beyond the minimum 19metres and I’ve waited for it to stop... Here we go.”
I promptly send my first wood wildly off course, leaving Andy to put his effortlessly within a foot of the jack, but leaving me a hopeful gap.
“All I need to do is repeat the line and length of the jack and... hang on... no... I can’t believe it!.. It’s THERE!!”
The wood had stopped about 11inches from the jack and now there was just Andy’s last shot to go. I try to act casual, as though I’m not really bothered, while all the time willing him to trip over and wondering what the rules would say about tying an opponent’s shoelaces together.
If I’m honest I don’t think he had the heart to take that point away from me, his last wood stopping uncharacteristically short allowing me a tiny victory to take back home.
But that’s all it needs. It’s a frustrating sport, but quite compelling and even that one moment of luck was enough to make me want to try it again. Any ball game that can be banned by Parliament is alright with me!