Why We Should All Join Pensioners On the Bowling Green
Bowls clubs are vital to older people, and for a few weeks last summer they helped me too. But now gentrification is forcing them to close.
What do you know about bowls clubs? Up until last summer, all I knew was this video of Barry from EastEnders at the Indoor Bowls Championships, singing "Something Inside So Strong".
I'd imagine that for the majority of you, the relationship is similar. You have definitely walked past a bowls club in your life. There is, more than likely, one not far from where you live. Small, hand-painted clubhouses with rickety guttering and plastic chairs lined up outside. The whole place seemingly dormant for six months a year, the grass permanently tarpaulinned, collecting puddles of rain that drip down into the deep holes surrounding the lawn.
Then in summer, people turn out in their whites, deftly rolling balls down the green, pulling measuring tapes from their pockets to adjudicate close-calls, not-so-quietly competitive about it.
More often than not, it is the elderly you see playing. The sport has always had that association, reflected in the fact that some of the sponsors of this year's International Bowls Tournaments are Co-Operative Funeralcare, Just Retirement and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines.
I first went to my local bowls club, The Francis Drake on Hilly Fields in Brockley, last summer. This was about a month into a period of helping to look after a good friend who was holed up in Bart's Hospital with a particularly nasty cancer (he is in remission now, we're all pretty pleased), so quite honestly, the idea of doing anything for a couple of hours that didn't mention words like "allograft", "chemotherapy" or "death" was pretty appealing.
Bowls is a remarkably simple game that is remarkably difficult to play. The aim is simple: to roll your coloured bowls, called woods, as close as possible to a smaller white ball, called the jack. It's sort of like ten pin bowling meets darts but with the quiet plotting tactics of a Soviet proxy war.
There is a prolonged period at the start of learning to play, where you just have to accept that you're shit at it and you're not going to get better for a while. My bowls kept skewing off to the side, falling down the back gutter (the equivalent of a bowling gutterball). But the more experienced players were happy to help me out. Jeannette, the club's honorary secretary and my first teacher, stood at the end of the green knowing exactly where I was going wrong before the wood had even left my hand, while my opponent, fixture secretary and train driver Mick, calmly schooled me about posture, in between telling me about his favourite Elvis songs. They seemed genuinely thrilled that some twenty-something out-of-towner was trying damn hard, but ultimately failing, to beat them.
Of course, you do get the hang of it. You start to feel the weight of the bowls better, make little markers on the green in your mind's eye to help with your aim - fallen leaves, divots, anything that might give you a sense of when the bowl is going to curve in. You start to feel the subtle skill.
Howard Shearing is the Honorary Secretary of North Greenwich Bowls Club, which has been running since 1901. Despite a fairly steady membership and influx of new starters at his club, he says that the atmosphere among other clubs is less positive. "The sport isn't growing at the moment, a number of clubs have closed in the past few years, Barking being one. It's normally a sport that people move to from other sports, and the numbers playing social sports dropped off in the 80s and 90s, so new players just aren't about at the moment."
The Barking club mentioned by Howard, which had been running since 1905, was finally killed off as a result of a sharp rent increase. Gentrification is so often talked about in terms of its effect on young people - we hear about creatives being priced out, we angst about how millennials are anxious they'll never get on the property ladder, we pillory cereal cafes. While all this is undeniably true, it's also a struggle for older generations who are watching opportunities for well-earned leisure activities disappear.
Bowls clubs are a fascinating kind of public/private space, totally out in the open, yet seemingly restricted to everyone bar people from a certain generation. Their distance from the wider community makes them susceptible to closure. I spoke to Paul Buck, Bar Director at Bellingham Bowls Club, which has been running since 1912, about the social aspect of the sport for the older generation. "For members who have lost a loved one, the bowls clubs provide a space to reminisce and have some company, especially if they are on their own. The Park clubs, which are run by the council, always seem to be the first clubs to disappear as the support dries up and they don't have the funds to continue, which in turn means some of the older generation have nowhere to go to socialise."
Social isolation is a major issue among the older generation, with 33% of people aged over 65 claiming they have suffered from loneliness. Talking with the people who play the game regularly, the social aspect of it always comes up. Cynthia Allen, President of the North London Bowling Club, told me that many older people simply rely on their club for companionship. Even during the off season, the clubs continue to offer a social function. At Bellingham, they play indoor bowls, darts, and have a licensed bar too, to help keep vulnerable members in touch with each other. The opportunity for the older members to buy their opponents drinks, be competitive, and just talk to people rather than be stuck in their house is invaluable, and for many, it's the primary social function of their lives.
But bowls doesn't just have to be for older people. For me, I felt the club having a serious and profound effect on improving my mental health. The anxieties of a seriously ill friend coupled with an unsatisfying job and a pretty busy touring schedule colluded among themselves to create something of a fog which was proving difficult to shake. In its nature, bowls demands a focus and a clear mind, and it rewards you very quickly. Just getting to know the other members, for whom it's such an integral part of their lives, helped. It helped.
London is a city of modernity and development in which you are constantly reminded that everything is changing in front of your eyes, and bowls clubs are vital to preserving London's original identity and stopping it from changing into some slick, sterile identikit metropolis - as vital as Pellici's cafe, York Hall, Rinkoff's Bakery, or Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. These places have survived wars, supported communities, thrived. For a few weeks last summer, they kept my head above water, but for the people who work hardest to keep them going, they do that week in, week out.
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