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Ten things you (probably) didn’t know about bowls

Ten things you (probably) didn’t know about bowls

1. Glasgow has the largest concentration of bowls clubs and greens in Britain. Within a mile and a quarter radius of the city’s Queen’s Park there are 25 greens spread across fourteen locations. Glasgow also has the single largest number of greens in one place – six in total – at Kelvingrove Park, where the Commonwealth Games bowls tournament was held in 2014.

2. Everyone knows the legend of Sir Francis Drake bowling on Plymouth Hoe, cool as a cucumber, as the Spanish Armada approached in 1588. There’s no proof that this game took place, but equally, plenty of evidence to suggest that it was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Bowls was more or less the national sport in 1588, so for Drake to be portrayed as a bowler was the equivalent today of a celebrity being seen to play football.

3. Flat green bowling evolved in Scotland during the nineteenth century, was popularised in England by the legendary cricketer WG Grace in the early 20th century, and is now played in most parts of Britain and across the world. Unlike in crown green bowls, play takes place in ‘rinks’ (that is, parallel strips of the green), with six rinks being marked out on a standard green. This enables up to 48 bowlers to play the game at any one time – that is, two teams of four playing on each ‘rink’ (a name borrowed from the Scottish sport of curling).

4 .Women have long been active in bowls. In 1532 Anne Boleyn lost the considerable sum of £12/7s/6d after losing a game. However, once clubs started forming in the Georgian era, women became excluded, and would not return to the green in any numbers until the early twentieth century. National competitions for ladies then started in the 1930s. Today three out of every ten bowlers is female, and only a handful of clubs remain men-only.

5. There are over 340,000 active bowlers in Britain and over 7,400 clubs, spread across every single county of Scotland, England and Wales.

6. Bowls is the only sport where it is not uncommon at club level to see players in their seventies or eighties compete against youngsters in their teens or twenties, and yet still be able to win. But while it is true that amongst the over 65s, bowls is one of the three most popular recreational sports in Britain, along with swimming and golf, most top level bowlers are in the 20-35 age group.

7. The first recorded rules of bowls were drawn up with the help of King Charles I, himself a keen bowler, in 1670. This was some seventy years before the earliest rules of cricket or golf. Rule twenty stated: Keep your temper!

8. When cricket first became popular in the early eighteenth century, the ball was delivered underarm along the ground. Hence the player who delivered the ball was known as the ‘bowler’. Even though the now standard overarm delivery was introduced in the 1760s, the terms ‘bowler’ and ‘bowling’ lived on.

9. Until the Victorian era the term ‘bowling alley’ could equally apply to an outdoor green. Strictly speaking, a modern day ‘bowling alley’ is a ‘skittle alley’, and instead of ‘ten pin bowling’ we should really say ‘ten pin skittles’.

10. Before the invention of lawnmowers in the 1830s, all bowling greens were kept in trim by scythes, and kept flat using heavy rollers known as ‘rolling stones’. By an amazing coincidence, one of Britain’s oldest bowls pavilions, at Swarkestone in Derbyshire, built in the 1630s, featured in the artwork for two Rolling Stones albums: Beggars Banquet (1968) and the Hot Rocks compilation (1971).


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