Special Report with pictures: How crowning glory leaves onlookers green with envy

Why young and old continued to be fascinated by the most idiosyncratic of English summer sports... while developing a language all of their own

Justin Jackson’s stunning delivery is still talked of with reverence by members of Nether Edge Bowling Club.

Nether Edge Bowling Club in the late 1800s

Nether Edge Bowling Club in the late 1800s

“We were playing in a doubles match, and we were losing,” said Justin’s mum and bowling partner Kirstine, by way of simple introduction. (If you’re not one of Sheffield’s 5,000 or more crown green bowls players you might like to sit down, clear your head and pick up your Crown Green to English dictionary at this point in Kirstine’s action replay.)

“They’d got three on and he fired on the peg, and it all jumped up,” she continued.

“It went opposite to the way it should have gone, hit their front wood and knocked it into the other two, it went over the jack and stopped dead two inches away, and we won the game,” said Justin.

Kirstine noted the furrowed brows and judged further explanation was needed: “We were playing straight against the crown, which is a finger peg. With the dots and circle, that’s finger peg,” she clarified.

Crown Green Bowls invitation open day at Nether Edge Bowling Club:  Kirstine Jackson with son Justin and grandsons Austin (7) and Canan (5)

Crown Green Bowls invitation open day at Nether Edge Bowling Club: Kirstine Jackson with son Justin and grandsons Austin (7) and Canan (5)

“There was some applause, and some people threw their hats on the floor,” Justin said of the club’s wild victory celebrations. Bowls may be baffling, but who says it isn’t exciting?

Nether Edge Bowling Club celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, and to mark the opening of the 2017 April to September season, an open ‘invitation’ day was held at the club last Sunday by the South Yorkshire County Crown Green Bowling Association.

“We’re trying to get everyone on the green,” said association development officer Robert Mollekin. “There are 140 clubs in South Yorkshire, and they’re all friendly, so we’re saying come along and have a go.”

Further upcoming invitation events are to be held at Thorncliffe at High Green this Sunday (April 9 from 10.30am to 3.30pm) and Millhouses Park on Sunday, April 23 (again, 10.30-3.30).

Crown Green Bowls invitation open day at Nether Edge Bowling Club: Jorja Jackson (9) in action

Crown Green Bowls invitation open day at Nether Edge Bowling Club: Jorja Jackson (9) in action

Bowling is one of the few sports where grandparents and grandchildren can play at a similar standard together, said Digby Dixon, coach and former president at Nether Edge, adding that many retired people join in for the social side of a sport that can involve five or more matches a week in season.

“It’s not always easy to get into a sport like golf when you’re 75 or 80, but this is something you can do when you’re older, and keep your sport going for the rest of your life,” Digby said.

“I’m 76 now and I hope to keep bowling for at least another 10 years.”

Nether Edge recently won a £50,000 Sport England grant to improve facilities for people with disabilities.

Crown Green Bowls invitation open day at Nether Edge Bowling Club: Ben Broomhead lines up a delivery watched by member Brenda Skinner

Crown Green Bowls invitation open day at Nether Edge Bowling Club: Ben Broomhead lines up a delivery watched by member Brenda Skinner

“If you want to give it a try, just come down and see us,” said Sue Hayes, a relative newcomer to bowls who now runs two of the club’s women’s teams.

Sue believes bowls is as much part of Sheffield’s outdoor and sporting heritage as climbing and cycling, and said that the club has been attracting plenty of new members. But some local clubs and greens are struggling at present, said Robert, following cuts in local authority recreation budgets. Attracting new members, and clubs themselves taking on roles once supplied by the council, appear to be crucial factors in keeping South Yorkshire’s greens open. Potential new players should just go down to their local club, he said.

Crown green bowls is a sport linked to the north of England and Wales, where historically greens were set up on spare stretches of ground unlike the manicured bowling greens of the south. Different greens all have different shapes which vary over the years and seasons, all of which elevate the northern sport above the game played in the Shires.

“We feel crown green is much more skilful,” said Sue.

The complications are another attraction to many retirees, who appreciate the mental stimulation as much as the physical, technical and linguistic. “Not many can do that, firing on the peg,” said Kirstine of her son, who learned the technique as a young player in his 20s, and was not planning to pass on his knowledge to spies or potential rivals any time soon.

“I’ve been practising it for 20 years, and I’m keeping it a secret,” said Justin.