How genteel croquet is aiming to broaden its reach as Yorkshire clubs return to play

There can be little more quintessentially English than a game of croquet, as players putt in pendulum swings against a backdrop of neat country lawns.

Members of the Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club, were thrilled to be once again practising for their new season at their grounds on the lawns of Rowley Manor Hotel, Little Weighton, Cottingham, near Hull. Pictured Members practising on the lawns with a backdrop of St Peter's Church. Writer: James Hardisty

Such an idyllic image of a genteel elite, in spotless whites, was once a fashion for Victorian England, but can prove an illusion in modern times when the game can be fiercely competitive.

As this week sees the start of the league season after an uncertain time for Yorkshire’s teams, it marks a glorious homecoming, they say, to be back on the lawns.

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There is a calculated skill to putting and hooping and a mallet’s pendulum strike, said player Debbie James, which proves a “workout for the mind” as well as an exercise.

Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club member Helen Griggiths, playing her shot. Image: James Hardisty

“It’s a very exciting prospect, like a new sense of freedom,” said Ms James, who is secretary of the Beverley and East Riding Croquet Club which returned to play yesterday for the start of the summer season.

“Croquet players are hardy folks, we play in all weathers,” she added. “But there’s nothing nicer than a lovely sunny afternoon on the lawn.

“You do forget your problems, being so absorbed in the game.”

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Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club member Stanley Smith, practising on the lawns with a backdrop of St Peter's Church. Image: James Hardisty

The word croquet is believed to originate from a Northern French dialect of ‘crochet’, meaning a little crook, with a game known as crookey originating in Ireland in 1850.

It is thought to have first been brought to England by a man called John Jacques, who marketed his croquet equipment to a growing middle class.

The game, which afforded a little flirting in an otherwise straight-laced Victorian society, saw its popularity rise and clubs begin to form, including the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon in 1868, and the sport reached a ‘golden age’ of popularity in the early war years.

Over a century since it first became popular there is renewed vigour as it has become increasingly formalised. There is the national Croquet Association, the regional Yorkshire Federation, and the 15 clubs it runs across the region from Hull to Sheffield, Huddersfield, Beverley and York.

Club members Joe Neal, and Chris Score, practising on the lawn. Image: James Hardisty

Last year, the federation was able to play from June onwards, but a delayed start to the season put paid to Yorkshire’s league ambitions. This year, there is hope it can return.

Croquet, said Ms James, is the “perfect socially distanced sport”, with only one player usually seen on the lawn at any given time, and a two-mallet distance measuring exactly two metres.

There have been adaptations this year, but not all for the worse. In Beverley, at Rowley Manor Hotel which grants the club use its three lawns, one is now to house a marquee for guests’ afternoon teas.

“Even if you’re not playing, it’s nice just to be there, gaining the benefits of fresh air and a change of scene,” reflected Ms James.

Club members practising on the lawns of Rowley Manor Hotel. Image: James Hardisty

Evolution

And the game of croquet, which began as a leisure pursuit for the wealthy in Victorian country gardens, has evolved to one with rules and strategies and a rigid sense of fair play.

There are hoops and balls and points on pegs, takeoff shots and stop shots, and sticks called ‘bisques’ which mark a golf-style handicap for extra turns against an opponent.

Then there is ‘association’ croquet, which is described as a complex cross between snooker and chess on grass, or ‘golf’ croquet with somewhat fewer shots to master.

For Ms James, who has been playing for nine years, it’s ‘plotting’ on grass, mastering breaks and strategies for turning a roquet to a croquet and running a hoop.

Nationally, she said, there is a drive to “get more people playing more croquet in more places”, and the hope is to broaden the sport’s reach.

Debbie James, Club Secretary, of Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club, walking out of their small clubhouse in preparation for her warm-up game. Image: James Hardisty

The game has evolved over the course of a century, she said, to one which can be accessible to all.

“Once lawn mowers were introduced that changed the quality of the lawns,” said Ms James. “But the basic enjoyment hasn’t changed, it’s still mallets and hoops and balls.

“Croquet quite often has an image problem,” she added. “It’s seen as a sport for posh people, but that’s not true at all. The sport has evolved, and is altogether more professional.

“It appeals to anybody interested in sport or meeting people. And you don’t have to run around to play it. If you can hold a mallet you can start to play croquet.”

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