Bowls is often considered to be an older person’s game. Shaftesbury Bowling Club wants to change that view. They opened their doors at the weekend to encourage townspeople of all ages to join up.
Whilst many groups claim to be sociable, this club’s members get on so well, fifty of them go on holiday together. ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones went to find out why the club is so special.
I knew that Shaftesbury Bowling Club was there, hidden behind a high green hedge at the back of Barton Hill Car Park. But as I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of the well-kempt green, I was surprised at the number of people gathered in the large clubhouse.
“The membership here is about 100 at the moment – around 70 men and 30 ladies,” said Vice President, Ron Williams. “I am a relative new boy here,” he said, explaining that he signed up in 2012. He was immediately struck by the friendliness of the place. “It’s a fantastic club, from the point of view of the social atmosphere. Everybody gets on. There’s no backbiting. It’s really good, very friendly, from the top right down to the bottom,” said Ron.
A few primary school-aged children had responded to the open day posters and they were having a go on the green but most of the faces were fifty or sixty years older than these youngsters. Then I met Adrian Welch. He’s 24 and he’s keen to encourage more players his age.
“I think they’re always open to more people joining at a younger age,” said Adrian. “The person that really pushed me was another young member, Kurt Murray. He won the Under 25 Dorset County Championship last year. Having somebody who is my age in the club really helped,” said Adrian, insisting that the decade that you were born in is not important when you play bowls. “It doesn’t matter. People have passion. And if two people have the same passion, age or skin colour just goes out of the window, doesn’t it? You just play the game.”
Committee Member Carole Wiles shares Adrian’s view. “To be honest, you don’t really think about people’s ages. Everybody has the same aim. They want to play and they want to enjoy themselves. Age doesn’t matter. The young children can do it as easily as adults. Some of the older players used to be very good and perhaps they are starting to lose their skills, but then they’re trying to share it with the next group that’s coming along,” said Carole.
Carole has been trying to entice children away from their Wiis and PlayStations to play on the green. The club’s youth group was her idea. “We’ve got four of us who teach the children every Saturday. We’ve got about three or four who are going to be in county games this year. I really enjoy it. And we just do it for an hour or two. We play different games and we vary it,” said Carole.
“It is not just straight bowling – we’ve got other equipment. We have targets and we have Minions on the edge of the green and they have to knock them into the ditch. We make a fun thing of it. And if it’s a wet day, we’ll play in the clubhouse and do skittles and we’ve got a snooker table. Through the winter, we’ve got curling. They are stones that we glide up the carpet,” added Carole.
Members believe that being sociable and being supportive are the important qualities for the club. “Every time I walk into this building I feel like the most important person here and I think everybody feels that when they walk in,” said Adrian. “The social side of this place is unreal. And it just makes you want to come back. I am thirty or forty years younger than some of these people. The way that I see life is completely different from how they see life. But when we’re in this building and on that green, all of that is put aside and you play bowls.”
Adrian was brought up in Shaftesbury but even so, he says he has made new friends and met new people he didn’t know previously since playing at the club. He will now stop and chat with people whom he knew only to say ‘good morning’ to as they passed on the street.
“If you come here during the season, at any time of day, you usually find there is somebody here on the green, having a roll-up,” said Ron, who had to explain that he didn’t mean people would be smoking. “No! It means having a go on the green and practicing really, either on your own or with a mate, I think everybody comes up and has a ‘roll up’ once or twice a week,” Ron said.
Carole says that planning additional non-bowls activities is important and the club has a social committee with 14 members who decide what to do – whether it’s barbeques or meals out at the Royal Chase Hotel. There is usually something going on. And that’s important for members like 93-year old Vera Barrett. “I’m on my own now but I can come up here. And I know everybody or nearly everybody. We go on tour so I can go on holiday with them,” she said.
The majority of bowling club members go away together at least once a year. “In the winter months, we went to Warner’s. Forty of us went to Hayling Island and we went to The Isle of Wight for the other couple of years. In September, we go on a tour where we play bowls every day,” said Carole. “Last year we went to Weston-Super-Mare. This year, we’re going to Torquay. I think there’s about fifty of us going on that,” said Carole.
But this is still a sports club and the gleaming silverware reveals that members of all ages like to win. “We have three teams in the Dorset Men’s League, a first team, second team and third team. We are competitive. Everybody that goes on the green, when they step onto the green, they want to win,” said Ron.
He accepts that could be initially intimidating for a newbie. “That’s true. But in the fixture list, we do have quite a large number of friendlies with other clubs. Those are specifically designed for new people to play alongside those with rather more experience. And that is the opportunity for the new people to enter into the game. They’re still competitive, but it’s a very friendly sort of atmosphere,” Ron said.
Adrian says he felt supported when he was a new member and he was developing his bowling skills. “We were runners-up in our league last year. I played more or less 90% of all of the games but I was new. They really backed me with it. I honestly love it here,” Adrian smiled.
“When you play on an open day, like today, it’s a bit of fun. But when we were playing the league matches it really meant something. You’re trying to get promoted. You’re trying to win every game you can. And it’s still fun when you walk away. It doesn’t change the fact you are in a competitive league,” he added.
Any new members can learn a skill or two from experienced players like Vera. “I just like competing,” said Vera, who confirmed that she is a good player. “Sometimes I have a mad moment. Yes.”
Carole says that potential members can make contact through ShaftesburyBowlingClub.com or they just turn up. “If they come into the club, there is usually a game going on or somebody here and we’ll get them out playing. My husband is very good at recruiting people. And their name and address go in his book. He’ll be ringing them up, making arrangements to meet up and come and play. We give people about six weeks of practice and then they know by then whether they want to do it or not do it,” said Carole.
“We pay £3 a game and that includes your food and tea. So really, each game isn’t too expensive. The first year, we only charge £20. That gives people an opportunity to buy their bowls.”
Members, whatever their age, were dressed in a uniform. The team colours are white trousers and a turquoise polo shirt and turquoise and white jacket. “We are proud of what we wear,” said Ron.
“You need grey trousers and white trousers and the shirts. But after that, once you’ve got those, you are really set up for the game,” Carole said. “The county has rules. You’ve got to keep standards up. On club night, people can come as they like. The flat shoes are important because of marking the green. Once you’ve got the kit, you don’t think twice. You’re amongst the crowd, everybody’s dressed the same.”
And as I thanked the team for their hospitality, Vera, one of the clubs most senior members, offered advice to any local considering membership. “Just come along and have a go. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll get the bug and you’ll be hooked!”