I’ll hazard a guess that not that many people in Farnham have ever tried their hand at the sport of lawn bowls. But culturally and historically, it’s yet another notable activity in our area.
But to stumble across one of our local village bowls matches – whether it be at The Sands, The Bourne, Rowledge, Tongham or in the adjacent villages – and just stand and watch for a while is to witness a fundamental and still relatively unchanged way of life.
Farnham Bowling Club, in Bear Lane, is our town’s oldest bowls club and they recently celebrated their 140th anniversary.
But bowls, in general, suffers from a low profile, especially compared to many other sports in the area. Bowling greens remain largely unnoticed by most residents, many of whom judge the game as one played only by the elderly.
Bowls has, though, an extraordinary history and it’s deeply rooted in our nation’s heritage. It is one of Britain’s oldest sports, played since the Tudor period, often referred to in the works of Shakespeare and first codified as long ago as 1670. People of all social classes – and both sexes – from childhood through to more mature years have played bowls in Britain for at least 500 years.
Rounded stones found in Egyptian tombs are thought by some historians to prove a version of bowls was played around the same time as the wheel was invented, in about 5,000BC.
The Southampton Old Bowling Green is thought to be the oldest bowling green in the world – it’s incredible to think it was established as long ago as 1299.
In the summer of 1588, the legend goes that Sir Francis Drake, immersed in an afternoon round of bowls on Plymouth Hoe, insisted on finishing his game before confronting the Spanish Armada who had, quite inconsiderately, sailed during play. It’s the sport’s most famous story.
Over the centuries bowls has been played on common land and at royal palaces, behind pubs and in the gardens of stately homes, at company sports grounds and at public parks.
There have always been different forms of bowling, going back to Shakespearian times, but only during the 19th and 20th centuries did those differences start to polarise along distinctly geographical lines.
Much of England, Scotland and Wales began to play flat green bowls, whereas many northern counties developed and played crown green bowls – in other words, their greens rise up in the centre to form a crown. In practice, they are distinctly not flat!
The essence of bowls – the one factor that sets it apart from all other games – is its use of balls (known as woods) that possess an in-built ‘bias’ so they travel in a curved trajectory.
Like many sports, bowls is actually very easy to learn to play but more difficult to master.
The object of bowls is simply to bowl closer to the jack – the target ball – than opponents.
The sport of bowls still maintains high standards of etiquette and a strong sense of its tradition and history. But it’s also, for some players, an incredibly competitive game.
The Seale and Sands Club bowler Danny Wilkinson was named the Farnham’s sport personality of the year for 2019, an achievement that gives the sport some much-needed recognition.
However, to draw younger players into the game, and make the sport more sustainable, the game needs to adapt and be actively promoted more widely. It knows this and it has progressed to such initiatives as wearing coloured shirts.
The formal, often picturesque, bowling greens in and around Farnham are quite plentiful and advocates of the game need to ensure sufficient players and volunteers continue to support these extremely precious recreational amenities.
The summer sport is at a crossroads but the game itself is proudly rooted in history and it’s an immensely enjoyable game. If anyone would like to try it, check out the websites – any of our local bowling clubs would make you welcome and lend you all the equipment to have a go. If you do it with friends or family, it’s more fun to start off.
I may be ‘biased’, but the sport of bowls is a very worthwhile activity and it’s good to see that, after lockdown, it’s slowly starting to get back to business. It’ll help to improve the quality of life for many of our residents.
* Brainteaser answers: 1a, 2c, 3a, 4a, 5c. If you got more than half, you can be proud of yourself. If you got all five right, you’re a serious bowls champion – and for the rest of you, there is a chance of redemption, there’s a different sport with a quiz again next time!