Lawn of dreams
Joël Lacey visits one of the country's top croquet clubs to discover the joys of a sport that combines cerebral strategy with whacking things with a mallet
Published in September ’13
The origins of the game of croquet itself are a good deal more open to speculation than the founding of one of the country’s most consistently successful clubs: East Dorset Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (EDLT&CC) in Parkstone. The latter was founded in 1909 by Lord Wimborne, who gave the trustees of the club the grounds on which not only croquet is played, but which is also home to some of the few remaining club tennis grass courts in the country.
Historians of billiards describe it as an indoor version of a game played on a lawn; the difficulty is, whilst billiards gets a mention in Shakespeare (rather oddly, given the obvious anachronism, in Julius Caesar) and in more orthodox history – both Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette are said to have been fans, croquet really only exists in verifiable history from the mid-19th century.
The EDLT&CC has been (and still is) home to a number of world-ranked players. It has five full-sized (35×28 yards) lawns; each lawn is two snugly adjacent tennis courts wide, or, given the relative chronology of lawn tennis and croquet, a tennis court is just under half a croquet lawn in size.
The game of croquet is actually any one of a number of games, although (in this country) only two main variants are competitively played: golf croquet and association croquet. The former is a game where players attempt to get through a series of hoops with one of their two balls (for singles matches) and the first one to go through the hoop in the correct direction wins a point. It is an easier, faster game than association croquet which is more akin to outdoor snooker, with players building ‘breaks’. The aim of the game in association croquet is to reach a total of 26 points.
So far, so simple, but the devil in croquet is the fact that not only are you trying to win, you are also trying to stop your opponent from winning, which may involve different tactics altogether.
Pat Oxley, one of the Parkstone-based club’s impressive array of coaches, explained the benefits of the game as he gently thrashed me at golf croquet (I had foolishly chosen not to takes bisques*),
not only in terms of it being good, low impact exercise, but also in terms of it always being competitive.
‘Croquet is a game that anyone can play, and almost at any age,’ Pat says. ‘It is also,’ he adds, ‘one of the very few sports where men and women compete at the highest levels on entirely equal terms. It is also a game which aims, rather like golf, to allow two people of entirely different levels of skill and experience to play a closely fought match, thanks to the system of *bisques (handicap).’
A top-ranked player will have a rating of zero, a novice might have up to 24 possible bisques (additional shots) allowed in a game. The lowest ever ranking (-2.5) was by a former president of EDLT&CC (one of only ten in the 114-year history of the club) Dr William Ormerod.
The mechanics of playing croquet are a little like golf, in that it seems a simple enough undertaking to hit a stationary ball from a set position to come to a halt somewhere near where you intended it to finish, but even though the lawns at Parkstone are manicured and – certainly when compared to any domestic lawn – are incredibly flat, the seemingly simple act of whacking a ball with a mallet with a predictable outcome is an awful lot harder than it looks. That said, it is more common than not that one hits the ball in the right direction, thanks to the flat surface of the croquet mallet, it’s just that trying to get the ball to stop in the right place can be problematic.
The atmosphere at the club is very friendly, particularly to newcomers, but no-one stands on ceremony and, just as the game (with its extra shots for the inexperienced), is egalitarian in its playing, so there is a good deal of good-humoured interaction between members and visitors alike.
There is not, though, anyone trying to put their opponents off – except by the entirely legitimate means of blocking their approach to a hoop, or hitting the opponent’s ball with the aim of improving their own positioning, or creating awkward situations for the person not playing the shot.
In a golf croquet game which was being played on the court alongside ours, two players were confidently knocking their balls wherever they wanted, and also showing both the tactical defensive side of the game. John Crow blocked his opponent, Tom ‘Top Turn’ Weston, with one of his balls… or had he? Tom performed a jump shot such that his ball was above the height of the blocking ball when it got to the hoop. The hoops are just 95mm wide, the balls 92mm wide, so if a ball is more than 1.5mm off line, it will hit the edge of the hoop and may jam in the jaws.
Such aerobatics are beyond the mere novice, but there is something addictive about the game, even after just a few shots. Luckily, Dorset is amply supplied with good clubs.
- For more information on playing croquet at EDLT&CC, visit the club at Salterns Road, Parkstone, Poole, Dorset BH14 8BL, visit the website at www.edltcc.com or call 01202 740219. To find other croquet clubs in Dorset – there are clubs in, or near to: Dorchester, Sherbone, Swanage, Wareham, Gillingham and Lyme Regis, visit www.croquet.org.uk and click on the ‘clubs and federations’ button.