The peculiarly British sports of croquet and bowls are taking baby steps to return from the COVID-19 lockdown, away from the glare of publicity.
Both conjure up images of elderly people pitting their wits against each other on lush lawns, with social interaction a big factor.
The British government’s easing of restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus paved the way for croquet and bowls to resume.
The Croquet Association welcomed the chance to start up again, marketing itself as an ideal sport in unusual times.
“Media reports on lockdown easing have focused on sports like golf, tennis and basketball, with the glaring omission of croquet, which is the perfect social-distancing sport,” the association said in a statement. “A croquet court is twice the size of a tennis court, so playing against a member of your household, or one other person from outside your household, is no problem at all.”
Croquet — which has two forms, golf croquet and association croquet — is seen as quintessentially English. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill replaced a tennis court at his Chartwell home with a croquet lawn.
However, the origin of the sport is disputed by Jonathan Isaacs, chairman of the Croquet Association council.
“All I can say is that in the Bayeux Tapestry there is an image of a person with a mallet, hoops and ball, so the indications are it came over with William the Conqueror” in 1066, he told reporters.
Isaacs said that the coronavirus shutdown had proved a headache, but he remained upbeat about the future of the sport.
“Fortunately, as a governing body we have pretty robust finances behind us and we had enough money in a contingency fund to be able to say: ‘Yeah, we can see a way through this’ and offer loans to clubs who have problems,” he said. “Clubs so far have not taken up any offers and appear to be coping reasonably well.”
Isaacs said that at his club, the Sussex County Croquet Club on England’s south coast, which hosted last year’s Golf Croquet World Championship, members rallied around to help the vulnerable.
“We set up a contact rota and phoned them up, but most quite frankly are desperate to get back on the lawn,” he said.
Isaacs said the main challenge was returning to tournament play, but added that one positive was that the game itself “by its definition is an exercise in social distancing.”
“Only one person is on the lawn at any one time. With golf croquet, although two players are on court at the same time the etiquette is the non-playing person stands well clear,” he said.
Legend has it that Elizabethan explorer Francis Drake delayed returning to his ship to confront the Spanish Armada in 1588 to finish a game of bowls.
His modern-day descendants on the greens have had to face a hidden enemy and even though they can now play again, it is not straightforward.
Many players are elderly and the over-70s have been advised to continue to self-isolate despite the partial relaxation of lockdown measures.
“At least half, if not two-thirds, of all bowling members are over 70,” said Rod McBeth, honorary secretary of Sussex County Bowls men’s section.
The county has 4,800 male and 2,700 female members.
McBeth, 75 next month, said it had been a trying time and patience has been wearing thin.
“I am doing jigsaw puzzles, but the inaction has driven me round the twist and if I was of that nature I would get depressed,” he said. “However, I have spoken to a lot of club members who are tearing their hair out.”
Despite his mounting frustration, McBeth will be steering clear of the green for now. Competitions have been deferred until next year and he is wary of the possible risks.
“There is no point in taking a chance for nothing,” he said. “A lot of people who are able to do so will not. They are not sure it is a safe thing to do.”
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