In the news

York Croquet Club is a big hit with new members

from The Press

Anyone for croquet? Wimbledon may be starting on Monday, but there’s another lawn game that’s just as ace. Press reporter MAXINE GORDON checks out the rising appeal of croquet

PRISTINE greens, perfect lines and players dressed in white – you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d turned up at SW19 for the start of the All England Club Championships. But no; we are in the heart of York, at Scarcroft Green, home to the city’s croquet club. If you thought croquet was more Downton Abbey than South Bank, be prepared to ditch your prejudices.

Maxine Gordon from The Press tries the game at York Croquet Club

Maxine Gordon from The Press tries the game at York Croquet Club.   Photo: The Press

The sport is having its moment. “Participation in sport was all set to grow after the Olympics, but in most sports it has declined. Croquet is slowly growing across the UK.” So says John Harris, who took up the game 12 years ago and is now chairman of York Croquet Club.

Membership is up almost 50 per cent in a year, from about 30 to 45. And it’s continuing to build, thanks to series of short, introductory courses run by the club this year.

There are two types of croquet, explains John: social, where players take it in turns to strike the ball through hoops, and strategic, where players can earn extra shots and plan their offence by plotting advance moves, much like chess. The latter is played – and taught at the Scarcroft site – and club members regularly compete in leagues, pitting their skills against rivals across the city, Yorkshire and the North.

It’s perfect croquet weather when I meet John for a taster session. The sun is out and the lawns look inviting. Next to us, a couple are playing: the man relaxing in a deckchair while his wife sizes up her shot and swings the mallet like a pro.

First things first; John teaches me the grip. I’m right handed, so my left hand holds the top the mallet, knuckles pointed outwards at “11 o’clock”. My right hand hugs the handle beneath. He then encourages me to stand astride the ball and slightly behind it, so that if I swing forward, using my shoulders rather than my wrist, I should strike the ball. “It’s like a pendulum motion,” he adds helpfully.

We’re soon on the lawns and knocking balls here, there and everywhere. I manage to punch a couple through two hoops and feel surprisingly satisfied. John shows me some other shots, particular to the strategic game, where the idea is to hit the ball just so that it and its adjacent one split and fire off into different directions.

I tell John that a colleague’s brother once played croquet internationally and described the game as “civilised murder”. He laughs in recognition of the description, and says: “It depends how very serious you are about the game, any sport can be like that. Our experience here is that people play for pleasure. They enjoy each other’s company and the social side of the club.”

The game, he says, has two big advantages over other sports. Firstly there is a handicap system, giving extra shots to the less experienced player in a match, and secondly as it is about brain not brawn, men and women can play on equal footing. John says: “In theory, a beginner could play the world champion and they should be able to have an enjoyable game.”

And the sport is really one for all. The York club has players aged from nine to ninety.

The club also has the advantage of having some of the finest lawns in Yorkshire, carefully maintained by City of York Council, with the grass mown three times a week. “The quality of the lawns means we have been able to get the Croquet Association of Britain to run national courses here,” says John, who is an accredited coach.

The club has two more introductory courses planned for this summer, one starting on June 23, the second on July 6. Each course runs for six 90-minute sessions and costs £30. Participants can then join the club for a reduced membership rate of £45 for the year (it’s normally £90).

Robert and Lesley Harris were the couple playing on the lawn next to us. They are from Harrogate and play bowls and social croquet at a club in Ripon. They’ve just completed the strategic croquet course at Scarcroft with John – and are hooked.

“It’s like a game of chess,” says Robert, who adds he wished he’d taken up the game years ago. “If you start this game young you could go right to the top.” Another appeal, says Lesley, is that even if you are several points behind in a match, you can still turn it around. “Your fortunes can change at any time.”

And despite its image of being a sport only for a summer’s day, John says they play in the wet too. In winter they can even practise indoors at a facility in Bishop Burton. Members also meet up through winter to play board games – to help their strategic thinking.

But as John stands in the middle of the manicured lawn, mallet in hand, a smile on his face and wearing a hat to protect his head from the June sun, he concedes that croquet was designed for days like these. “The game is at its best on a lovely summer day.”

June 2015