Lawn rangers ride to rescue

Curlews wheel above the lawns in the shadow of Ilkley Moor, their urgent cries almost drowning the staccato clack of mallet against ball. Suddenly the heavens open but Ben Rhydding’s croquet stalwarts are not deterred. Rain drips from anorak hoods, shoes gently leak and trousers cling to skin, as they focus on the hoops through the deluge.

Will Drake, 92, the oldest male member at the Ben Rhydding Croquet Club
Will Drake, 92, the oldest male member at the Ben Rhydding Croquet Club

Despite its quaint image, summery as strawberries and cream or cucumber sandwiches, croquet is surprisingly a sport for all weathers, players soldiering on in conditions which would send tennis fans scuttling to the locker room.

Ever since Alice picked up that pink flamingo and tried to whack the hedgehog through the hoop in Wonderland, I had always fancied learning how to play. After a few goes at the garden version, with much bashing of balls into the shrubbery, and into unsuspecting ankles, I realised that what people perceive as a gentle old-fashioned sport can release your inner, competitive demon. So via Ilkley U3A, set up in 2011, I joined Ben Rhydding to discover the mysteries of Golf Croquet and Association, laying up and jump shots.

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These days croquet is played in these two forms and is a hybrid of chess, billiards and snooker with a bit of golf thrown in.

Rain cant stop play at Ben Rhydding Croquet Club as members carefully consider their next moves on the lawn.

It demands you have a good eye for distance; a strong pair of shoulders; the strategic tactics of Alexander the Great and the ability to turn into a human pendulum.

However, there have recently been rumblings on croquet lawns nationwide following jokey research carried out on behalf of Heathrow Airport – er, why? – and Pimms – clever PR – which claimed more people knew about Harry Potter’s mythical Quidditch than the quintessential British pastime.

And it has also been suggested that the sport could soon be dead as a Dodo unless it can attract younger players.

Of the 2,000 people surveyed, 74 per cent had no interest in croquet and one in 20 had never heard of it. A Crazy Croquet lawn was set up at Terminal 2 and people invited to have a bash on the Lewis Carroll – themed lawn, naturally aided by a few glasses of that fizzy, fruity stuff.

Taking a break from playing are, from left, Libby Dixon, Jane Bailey, Stephanie Ferguson, Will Drake, and Keith Terry at Ben Rhydding Sports Club, near Ilkley.

Three years ago the sport’s governing body, The Croquet Association, found that it did have mainly pensioner appeal with 81 per cent of new recruits toting a bus pass at 60-plus. There had been a 26 per cent decrease in under-50s over the past five years and the gloomy outlook predicted extinction by 2037 if new blood was not injected. But, says Steve Mowbray from the association, the recent flurry of publicity has got them thinking about new ways of appealing to more youthful members. “Everyone’s talking about croquet and our marketing committee want to use the heightened awareness to our advantage,” he said. “We also have a bursary scheme for promising young players.”

However, in Yorkshire its popularity is already growing with a federation of clubs throughout the county from Beverley to Sheffield, with membership up almost 50 per cent at York.

There are 201 clubs nationwide with 7,000 active members and 1,600 playing in tournaments. And at Ben Rhydding, where my childhood dreams have come true – minus flamingos but with patient tutoring and good company on the banks of the River Wharfe – people have been tasting and trying before joining up.

“Swing from your shoulders, straighten your feet”, my tutor Libby Dixon told me. It was like boot camp in whites. Then you mustn’t lift your head. Where in most ball games you keep your eye on the spherical object, here you don’t, then you do. It’s all a matter of being lined up properly with the hoop and hitting the ball in the right place with the right bit of your mallet. Not easy, but when you run that hoop it’s like winning the Derby.

Practise makes perfect and day leader Libby got me trying to knock balls straight along the white lines to start with. “Practice at home with a broom,” she suggested. I resorted to a borrowed ball and a kiddies’ croquet set for £1.99p so I could tackle the hoops on my lumpy lawn. Not quite the manicured swards of varsity clubs or Cairo where the world champions gather, the Egyptians being experts in the game, a throwback to the days when occupying British officers wielded mallets.

Australian Libby, a former health visitor who began playing two years ago, now has an impressive handicap and several competitions under her belt. She says she was hooked after a taster session and is now a dedicated player and staunch advocate of the game. “We want to get over that it’s accessible for all. There’s a misconception that it’s all Downton Abbey and it’s not,” she says.

“Croquet enables you to learn new skills, gain knowledge and make new friends. It also keeps you active and alert.” Libby’s mentor, former West Yorkshire policewoman Maggie Cowman, is living proof of croquet’s therapeutic effects, playing competitively at Ripon and Earby after a double lung transplant.

Wrongly perceived as a game for the landed gentry, croquet is for all ages, shapes and sizes and walks of life. Unlike tennis it’s also unisex: women play men and anyone is as good as their handicap, calculated when you have been playing for a while and learned the basics. The season runs from April to October officially, although Ilkley members have been known to run hoops in the snow and York play indoors at Bishop Burton.

What do you need to play? Flat, stout shoes are essential – the balls are traditionally made from lignum vitae, the hard wood used for truncheons, and a clout from one hurts. Given the great British summer, fleeces and waterproofs are a must. Most clubs only require white clothes for serious matches and tournaments. Flapping trousers are to be avoided: those flares brushing a ball can be termed a foul. Most clubs have a selection of mallets you can borrow until you decide you want one of your own. If you do get hooked, then this is your biggest outlay, from around £80 to £200 for all-dancing versions, although you might be lucky to pick one up second-hand. Mallets, generally square-ended, made from wood, metal and carbon fibre, come in different weights and heights, so you have to get one to suit you. Club fees vary depending on where you live. It’s £85.50 at Ben Rhydding, which offers discount to U3A members. Many clubs feature provisional membership and coaching.

Ben Rhydding’s oldest gentleman player, Will Drake from Burley-in-Wharfedale, a sprightly 92, makes his own mallets and can take jump shots and run hoops from the most improbable angles.

“I got my first taste about five years ago when I was staying with my daughter in Worcestershire and it whetted my appetite,” he says. “The trouble now is the younger generation don’t play the kind of sports they used to do.”

Believed to have developed from a game called Paille Maille in 14th century France, croquet probably arrived in England from Ireland, where it was called crookey, in 1850.

Charles II took part in this “very curious ancient pastime” and Samuel Pepys watched the Duke of York play pelemele, or ground billiards, in 1661 in an alley which became London’s Pall Mall. In 1868 the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was founded in Wimbledon. So Professor Bernard Neil, 93, vice president of the club, has won Wimbledon 37 times without a Federer or Djokovic in sight.

These days croquet is seen as social and strategic. The original Association Croquet is a complex, cerebral game requiring tactical skill and good judgement rather than brute force. For some reason it is beloved of scientists and mathematicians. The other form, popular and probably more accessible and fun, is Golf Croquet, which has different rules and can be fast and furious. In both versions the blue and black balls play against red and yellow. In doubles you play a ball each, in singles two balls.

Chairman and membership secretary Richard Lorimer is keen to attract new players and hopes to invite local organisations from the WI to the Brownies to come and have a go.

Meanwhile, back at the pavilion, it’s drizzling over the tea-cups. “Why play in the rain?” screams an advert in The Croquet Gazette. “Have a game under the Greek sun!” Croquet in Corfu? I’m off. Now can I get my mallet in my hand baggage?

• To try croquet at Ilkley contact chairman Ken Clark on 01943 605417, www.benrhyddingcroquet.co.uk

The Yorkshire Croquet Federation also includes: Beverley and East Yorkshire; Bishop Monkton; Brodsworth Hall, Doncaster; Huddersfield Croquet Club; Ripon Spa Hotel; Ryedale, Pickering; Sheffield Croquet Club; Sheffield U3A; York. For information www.yorkshirecroquet.org.uk