Sheffield croquet club that faced ruin after fire has hope for the future with new home
With summer on the horizon players are out in force on the bowling lawns at Hillsborough Park in Sheffield.
But, beyond the sports pavilion on what was previously a mothballed pitch, a group of enthusiasts are breaking with the crown green status quo.
For here are hoops, mallets and coloured balls - all necessary for a game with the Sheffield Croquet Club.
The club is now five years old and is on the hunt for new members after relocating from Crookes, a move prompted by a disastrous arson attack last October at Bolehill Recreation Ground, its old home.
The fire - which took hold in a storeroom, destroying all of the team's equipment - was a sudden comedown after the club won the coveted Secretary's Shield, remembers Dennis Crossland.
"We'd just had that news that day, and straight after that we heard of the fire," says Dennis, putting in some croquet practice along with his brother John and sister-in-law Maggie. "We went up to inspect it and realised there was nothing left. Even the metal hoops had distorted and burned."
The fraternity rallied round - the Sheffield club's league, the Yorkshire Federation, loaned items and a team in Colchester had a whip-round - but decisions had to be made.
"It was either a slow death for the club by trying to keep up there with further damage and loss, or relocation," Dennis says.
Now things are looking up again. The council, which facilitated the move along with the park's friends group and its bowling club, is pleased the lawn is back in use; one of three at the site, it was put out of action several years ago to save money.
"We're hoping to appeal to a wider audience, really," Dennis explains. An open day with free taster sessions is happening at Hillsborough on Sunday, coinciding with National Croquet Day.
While croquet may be popularly associated with pristine grass, cucumber sandwiches and lashings of Pimm's, it's taken seriously by those in the know. Top players - Egyptians are masters of the game - can knock a ball through a hoop 25 yards away, which clearly requires sober precision.
"It really has got the potential to expand quite a lot. A few years ago there wasn't any croquet in Sheffield. We introduced it and instigated it."
The club was set up in 2013 by six founder members, originally meeting at the Transport Sports Ground at Meadowhead. It was the first of its kind in the city open to all, regardless of age or gender, and today the membership stands at 28 players, with a further section of Sheffield University students who use the society's equipment for a nominal charge.
The sport is played around the world in almost 20 countries, and in the UK there are more than 200 clubs. Croquet can be traced back to a set of rules registered by one Isaac Spratt in November 1856 with the Stationers’ Company in London. In 1868, the first croquet all comers’ meeting was held at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Gloucestershire, and in the same year the All England Croquet Club was formed at Wimbledon, London.
Several types of the game are played, each differing in the scoring systems, order of shots and layout, but each boils down to the same basic principle - hitting plastic or wooden balls with a mallet through hoops. There are a lexicon of terms shared among players, including a ‘tice’ - when a ball is sent to a location that entices an opponent to shoot at it but miss - and ‘wired’, which describes when a hoop or the peg impedes the path of a striker’s ball.
The Sheffield University of the Third Age Croquet Club has a 'massive following' at Parkhead Cricket Club, John points out, with about 85 members and a waiting list. "But we are just an out-and-out club for everybody. We've got a huge amount of experience here but it would be nice to see more young people coming into the sport."
The students help to spread interest in the sport. One of the university members, Jonny Simpson, started the first National Students Croquet Championship at Parkhead in 2017. This year the competition took place in Roehampton and is expected to move round the country.
"Any students that do stay in Sheffield we believe we'll retain," says John, aged 62 and a retired electrical engineer. Dennis, 63, used to work in sales.
John has played croquet for nearly 40 years, while Dennis is a more recent convert. Why are the pair so passionate about the game?
"It's skill and tactics," Dennis says, comparing the sport to chess. "You can't just move a piece. You've got to have the skill to move it - manoeuvring yourself into a position where it's your turn to strike."
John says: "People who've never really had a go at croquet, when they get going they say 'wow', and they're off."
Association and golf croquet are two of the sport's most common variations. The latter is more popular because it is 'more sociable', John thinks. "It's one shot - every ball, one shot - so everybody's playing all the time. That's just like match play golf."
Dennis adds: "Association's a bit like billiards. If you're successful and run hoops, you can keep on. Somebody can be reading a newspaper all afternoon and never get a shot."
The sport's reputation for politeness isn't entirely misplaced, however. "In the croquet world people are really nice. You don't often come across many players who aren't approachable, even at the top level. They're not precious."
The club's next challenge is to secure funding. It is hoped the Sheffield Town Trust can provide a one-off grant - Â£3,000 has been asked for - and charities will be approached.
"We've already put fees up by Â£35 a member," admits Dennis.
John says: "It's been a heck of a lot of work so far, but it's borne fruit. And the work isn't over. As some famous chap said, 'It's the end of the beginning'."
Sunday's free sessions will run from 10am to 12.30pm, and 1.30pm to 4pm. Visit www.sheffieldcroquetclub.org.uk for details.