Saturday, December 12, 2015

On the green

I thought I was aware of the full gamut of English building types, and that this blog was having a good go at embracing the least regarded, from public lavatories to bus shelters. But here in my fourth pre-Christmas review is a book that highlights a building type I’d not even considered. It’s a specialist book, to be sure, but fascinating nonetheless…

Hugh Hornby, Bowled Over: The Bowling Greens of Britain
Published by Historic England

What would you say was Britain’s national sport? The beautiful game? The summer game?* If you’re Scottish, do you prefer golf? Hugh Hornby makes a case for another sport entirely: bowls, which has a longer history than any of those and is played in some 7,200 clubs up and down the country. In Bowled Over, Hornby traces this long history, from the time of Henry VIII who banned it (too much of a distraction from honest trade and labour), to its Victorian golden age (standardization, a proliferation of clubs) to the sport today, with its almost sedate image but great popularity. He looks at the two rival traditions (crown green and flat green bowls, with their different cultures and origins) and traces the sport’s social role through time and across the social classes. Anne Boleyn played bowls as did, famously, Francis Drake. Bowls is in the national psyche, from Drake’s famous determination to finish his game before going off to teach the Spanish Armada a lesson to the imagery of Shakespeare.†

And then, yes, there’s the architecture. In tracing the stories of many bowling clubs, Hornby beguilingly introduces some delightful buildings, structures with stories and that look wonderfully at home next to expanses of greensward from Land’s End to all points north. Tiny green-side shelters like the little white timber-fronted ones, probably Regency, at Hadley Heath, Worcestershire or the lovely thatched shelter next to a pub green in Painswick in the Cotswolds; more formal structures like the classical stone bowling green house at Chatsworth, probably by William Talman and the lovely red-brick pavilion, with Gothic glazing bars, at Newark; or still more assertive pavilions such as the almost baronial-style turreted eye-catcher at the Fulwood Conservative Club, Preston and the vast Tudoresque pavilion at Old Trafford, Manchester. I hope at some point to write some individual posts about some of these buildings. In the meantime, I have been entertained and informed in equal measure by Hornby’s account of them and the sport that gave them birth.

* Non-British readers might find it helpful to know that these are football (aka soccer) and cricket respectively.  
† As in 'there's the rub' (Hamlet); George Herbert also uses the phrase.


George said...

I thought that "the beautiful game" as a Brazilian coinage.

I don't know whether bowls was every played under that name in America, but there are towns named Bowling Green in at least two of the states, namely Ohio and Kentucky. Bocce has caught on here and there, and I believe I have even seen shirts of an organized league in the Washington area.

Philip Wilkinson said...

There seems to be a town named Bowling Green in Virginia as well. Controversy seems to rage as to the origins of the names of these towns, a 'bowling alley' game and general-purpose lawns being mentioned as well as actual bowling greens. There seem to be lots of variants of bowling games (bocce, pétanque, etc) played all over the world.

Hels said...

The Victorian era was certainly the golden age for the development of clubs, greens and specialist clothing, but the appeal is still enormous today for Australians who have retired from work. My late mother continued playing tennis into her old age, but all her friends immediately signed up at their local bowling green. They were very competitive ladies :)

Looking at the architecture reminds me of examining lidos. Not as gorgeous as in times gone by but still specialist and evocative.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Yes. Bowls is very popular among retired people, both in the UK and in Australia.

Lidos are often beautiful. There's a good book on British lidos: Janet Smith, Liquid Assets: The lidos and open-air swimming pools of Britain (2005).