I was back bowling in the league today, after a three-week layoff brought about by two successive byes, which seems to me like bad planning on the part of the league but who am I to judge? And what better way is there to spend a pleasant summer afternoon than on the bowling green?
Today’s match brought the bottle-green and cream (though today most of us stripped off the bottle-green and played in cream shirts) of the Barrow Island team face to face with Park North, whose home green is one of those in Barrow Park. I enjoyed a 21-9 win so I get to keep my place in the team at least for now. I have a bad habit of winning every other game.
Playing in the park got me thinking. When I was young, even into early adulthood, public bowling greens were one of the things public parks offered. You could hire a set of woods for the session for a nominal fee and enjoy an hour or so on the green. My parents used to to exactly that. If you wanted to try out bowls it was an inexpensive way to find out if it was for you. Looking around it looks as though Barrow Park boasted at least six greens and I can imagine if my experience elsewhere is anything to go by that they were well used on a sunny summer evening by casual players. Now, one of those has been turned into flower beds, two are abandoned and neglected, two are the preserve of the Park North and Furness Abbey teams respectively, and one is open for public hire (although I’ve never seen anybody playing on it). It is no longer possible to hire woods, so you can’t just try it out. The crown-green bowler only needs two woods, as opposed to the the flat bowler’s four, and if you keep your eyes peeled you might pick up a second-hand set for twenty pounds or so, but that seems a lot for a pensioner, or somebody on benefits, to try out. And that reminds me of another thing – bowls is a game of guile and concentration and judgement; it doesn’t demand youth or physical agility so players can complete well into one’s senior years. It’s a great way for older people to keep fit, and it does seem to work very effectively. I should note that there are some very good teenage players indeed (it’s galling to get a thrashing from a 13-year-old) and it’s great that young people continue to play but the sad truth is that bowls is dying. Almost all the pub greens have gone the way of the municipal greens, sold off for housing or car parking, and only the private clubs survive, some of them barely. It would be sad indeed if this seriously addictive game were to die.
And another thing. There are no municipal tennis courts in any of Barrows parks any more. I don’t know what the situation is in the rest of the country. Next Monday comes one of the great British summer rituals, the opening of the Wimbledon Fortnight. And on Tuesday, when all the British players bar Andy Murray (I hope) have been eliminated, comes another regular ritual; asking what’s wrong with the state of British tennis. Well, I can answer that – there’s no longer the opportunity for anybody to play a casual game of tennis, unless they join a tennis club, and that never comes cheap. The local park used to provide that opportunity. Now local authorities can’t be bothered providing them.
This one is hot off the press. Another of Barrow’s favourite sons had a statue unveiled today – Emlyn Hughes, a sporting captain who has never been surpassed.
I’m referring, of course, to his captaincy on the BBC quiz A Question of Sport, which has not been graced with another with the same intelligence and wit. The same could probably be said of the England football team, which he also captained though ironically in a long career he never appeared in a World Cup or European Championship. He did, however, captain the greatest club side England has ever known, Liverpool under Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, and took them to four League Championships, two European Cups and an FA Cup.
I’ll say this too, you’d never have caught him posing in celebrity restaurants, getting pissed in nightclubs, being involved in gang rape, or any of the other antics of today’s pea-brained premiership prima donnas.
As a Victorian town, Barrow has its statues of long-dead local worthies. A berobed Ramsden the Railway Baron gazes up his ceremonial avenue of Abbey Road, while similarly berobed Schneider the Ironmaster glares at him from the top of Duke Street.
Barrow’s real hero, though, is Willie Horne, and he can be seen at the unfashionable end of Duke Street skipping impishly, in heavy studded and laced boots caked in mud, towards that great touchdown in the sky. Barrow’s rugby league team is now a modest affair, playing National League 2 games at their ramshackle Craven Park stadium, but once they were a power in the land, appearing in five Challenge Cup finals and winning it once, in 1955 when they beat Workington Town 21-12 at Wembley, with Willie Horne receiving the cup as captain. He also captained Great Britain, and some – mostly diehard Barrovians I suspect – regard him as the greatest rugby league player there ever was.
That was Barrow’s finest hour, and one often feels that the town tries doggedly to cling to it, for in some ways in Barrow it is forever 1955.