Sex & Drugs & Crown Green Bowls
I never pretend that bowls is cool. It is what it is. I know how the conversation goes. I tell you I play crown green bowls in my spare time and it starts with a slight smirk, usually followed by the line, “I’m just imagining you in your whites, with your pipe, tottering around with all the old people.”
When I was at school in the 1980s I had to make a choice between bowls and cricket. I was better at bowls and so my choice was made. I’d play three or four times a week for Maltby Progressive WMC in the park, an up-and-coming local side with a couple of players already playing at county level. I’d also turn out once a week for my village club. It was a lovely setting, a bowling green (not cool) built by my grandad and two friends in the grounds of the village’s Christian Institute (not cool), with a tennis court at the back for the inevitable four or five weeks of faddy intensive use in and around Wimbledon. Half way through one evening game at the “Stute” around twelve of my classmates suddenly clambered onto the roof of the bus shelter overlooking the green, jeering and pointing at the uncool kid from their class.
Those of you reading this that have played the game, we’ve all tried to explain it, haven’t we? It goes something like this. That game with the people in their whites, polite applause, cucumber sandwiches and David Bryant’s pipe…that’s Flat Green Bowls. I don’t play Flat Green Bowls. I play Crown Green Bowls. It’s different. This is usually met with a slight smirk and a knowing look that says, “Yeah, right.”
The game is what you want it to be. For many it’s a social, a bit of fresh air, light exercise and competition to fill retirement days. The further up the leagues you go, the more competitive it becomes and at the top level, with crowds fuelled by beer and betting, the pressure and hostility is incomparable with any other game I’ve seen. I’ve only had a wee peek inside the top level of the game (16 county matches, to be precise) and I loved every minute of it. Imagine playing a game with a couple of hundred people spilling out from the pub at the side of the green onto a terrace to shout for your opponent and against you, ridiculing your every bad bowl, your every move, your dress sense, your hairstyle. Under the same circumstances a footballer or rugby player, who is usually being paid for the privilege, can get rid of some tension with a strong tackle or by belting the ball into Row Z. In Crown Green you have to shut it out and show no reaction or weakness. It’s a test of concentration, but also about your strength of character.
Where I grew up every village had a pit. Every mining village had a Miners’ Welfare Club or Colliery Institute. Surrounding the club would be a sports complex of some description, maintained by miners’ subscriptions to the welfare fund. There would be a football pitch, a cricket field perhaps and a bowling green. This was the hub of the community. When they stopped playing other sports many miners would switch to bowls. Footballers and rugby players would also look for a game to play in summer and might choose bowls. The game thrived.
This wasn’t unique to coal mining either. The local steelworks had lavish sports facilities dotted around for their workers. In the Midlands the motor manufacturers had the same. With the loss of manufacturing industries in the 1980s and 1990s the decay started, keeping these community hubs open became a challenge as the village or town’s raison d’être disappeared. Some have gone completely and with them sports participation in the nation’s former industrial heartlands has gone into a terminal decline, Crown Green Bowls included.
One of those facilities was Kiveton Park Colliery Institute in the heavily-mined part of “Deep South” Yorkshire that isn’t sure whether it is Sheffield, Rotherham or even Worksop across the border in Robin Hood Country. The rivalry between my club, Maltby, and “Kivo” back in the 1980s was friendly but intense. Both clubs, despite battling for our little local league, produced county players and eventually county champions. Back then there were two big governing bodies in the game, the biggest being the British Crown Green Bowling Association, founded in 1907, but rivalled by the British Parks Bowling Association. The Parks association was established in 1911 to encourage recreational activity in the north and midlands away from places serving alcohol. Ironically, Kiveton, with their adjoining Colliery Institute’s bar, aligned to the British Parks whereas Maltby, playing on a public park, belonged to the BCGBA. When simultaneous affiliations to both organisations became more accepted I recall going to watch a BCGBA county match away in (West) Yorkshire with a South Yorkshire away team made up predominantly of very good Sheffielders. When we arrived the Yorkshire manager bellowed at the top of his voice, “Look at them! They’ve EVEN got Parks players playing for them!”
It all eventually merged into one as the game declined, with many players playing in both competitions, private clubs joining the Parks, parks clubs joining the private club leagues. But why am I singling out Kiveton? Well, there’s a good anecdote to end this chapter that gives a snapshot of a time now long gone, with great characters on and around the greens in tough mining towns.
Kiveton had a strong side back then, although one or two of their players went on to greater things than our little rivalry over the local patch of turf. Two of their players came as a unit, Tommy and Dobber, great pals who tended to follow eachother from club to club. Tommy Meecham was the better player, an intensely competitive but erudite Scotsman. John Robinson, nicknamed “Dobber”, was a little guy in a flat cap and with an air of complete and utter mischief. He wasn’t a great player, but he was good from the greenside, sledging and taunting the opposition, particularly when he had a bet on one of the games. An older relative of mine played football around the South Yorkshire coalfield and remembers Dobber as a “dirty so and so”. I can imagine the tackles flying in from the wiry little bloke in the flat cap with sparkly eyes and mischievous grin.
Only the big games in Crown Green have referees in attendance. Otherwise we police ourselves. Back in the 80s, in attempts to bring more organisation into a game played by the rabble and in a failed attempt to make our game worthy of TV coverage beyond that of a northern (and midlands) working class novelty, referees began to get strict on one point in particular….stamping.
Yes, those of you who don’t play, imagine us crazy northerners (and midlanders, and Manx and north Welsh) racing after the bowl we’ve just sent, then as it comes to its final bit of running, stamping the ground behind the bowl hard with our boots, hoping to get a couple more inches of running. It was (and still is) a spectacle, yet it was frowned upon by the administrators, rule makers and the men in blazers with the immediate power to spoil a good game.
On one such big game day Dobber was playing. As per usual, the grinning little guy in the cloth cap ran after every bowl, stamping away at the surface as if there were no ref in attendance. Eventually, the blazered one came over and issued a first warning. Unperturbed, Dobber trotted after his next bowl and delivered another seismic thud to the turf. Over marched the ref again with the final warning this time. “If you do that again, I’ll remove your bowl and award the points to your opponent.”
In Crown Green there are usually four games taking place simultaneously, so it’s not surprising that, having issued his edict, the referee was distracted by one of the other matches. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he watched incredulously as our Dobber disobediently raced across the green yet again, planting his size 8s behind the next running bowl with thunderous effect. Steam now coming out of his ears, the man in the blazer marched over and defiantly removed the bowl Dobber had just illegally followed. Instead of showing remorse or even dissent, Dobber just creased up with laughter.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked the ref.
Dobber had just stamped in his opponent’s bowl.