How posh croquet wants to expand its reach as the Yorkshire clubs return to play

Members of the Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club were delighted to rehearse for their new season on their grounds on the lawns of Rowley Manor Hotel, Little Weighton, Cottingham, near Hull. Depicted members practice on the lawns with St. Peter’s Church in the background. Writer: James Hardisty

Such an idyllic image of a genteel elite, in immaculate white, was once a fashion for Victorian England, but may prove illusory in modern times, when the game can be fiercely competitive.

As this week marks the start of the league season after an uncertain time for Yorkshire’s teams, it marks a glorious return, they say, to being back on the lawns.

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There’s a calculated skill to putting and hooping and hitting a hammer, said player Debbie James, proving both a “mind training” and an exercise.

Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club member Helen Griggiths, playing her shot. Image: James Hardisty

“It’s a very exciting prospect, such as a new sense of freedom,” said Mrs James, secretary of the Beverley and East Riding Croquet Club, who returned yesterday to play before the start of the summer season.

“Croquet players are hardy people, we play in all weather conditions,” she added. “But there is nothing better than a lovely sunny afternoon on the lawn.

“You forget your problems, so immersed in the game.”

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Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club member Stanley Smith, practicing on the lawns with St Peter’s Church in the background. Image: James Hardisty

The word croquet is believed to come from a northern French dialect of ‘crochet’ meaning a little crook, with a game known as crookey originating in Ireland in 1850.

It is believed to have been first brought to England by a man named John Jacques, who marketed his croquet equipment to a growing middle class.

Bringing in a bit of flirting in an otherwise downright Victorian society, the game saw its popularity soar and clubs began to form, including the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon in 1868, and the sport reached a ‘golden age’ of popularity in the early war years.

More than a century since it first became popular, there is renewed vigor as it has become more and more formalized. There is the national Croquet Association, the regional Yorkshire Federation and the 15 clubs it runs through the region from Hull to Sheffield, Huddersfield, Beverley and York.

Club members Joe Neal and Chris Score practice on the lawn. Image: James Hardisty

Last year the association was able to play from June, but a delayed start to the season put an end to Yorkshire’s competition ambitions. This year there is hope that it may return.

Croquet, Ms James said, is the “perfect social distancing sport”, with only one player usually seen on the lawn at any one time, and two hammers exactly six feet away.

There have been adjustments this year, but not all for the worse. In Beverley, at the Rowley Manor Hotel, which allows the club to use its three lawns, a tent has now been set up for guests’ afternoon tea.

“Even when you’re not playing, it’s nice to just be there and experience the benefits of fresh air and a change of scenery,” said Ms. James.

Club members practice on the lawns of Rowley Manor Hotel. Image: James Hardisty

And the game of croquet, which started as a leisure activity for the wealthy in Victorian country gardens, has evolved into a game of rules and strategies and a rigid sense of fair play.

There are hoops and balls and points on pegs, starting shots and stopping shots, and sticks called “bisques” that mark a golf handicap for extra turns against an opponent.

Then there’s ‘association’ croquet, which is described as a complex cross between snooker and chess on grass, or ‘golf’ croquet with somewhat fewer strokes to master.

For Mrs. James, who has been playing for nine years, it’s “plotting” on grass, mastering breaks and strategies to turn a roquet into a croquet and run a hoop.

Nationally, she said, there is a drive to “get more people playing more croquet in more places,” and the hope is to expand the reach of the sport.

Debbie James, club secretary, Beverley & East Riding Croquet Club, walks out of their small clubhouse in preparation for her warm-up game. Image: James Hardisty

The game has evolved over a century, she said, into a game that can be accessible to everyone.

“Once lawnmowers were introduced, the quality of the lawns changed,” said Ms James. “But the basic enjoyment hasn’t changed, it’s still hammers and hoops and balls.

“Croquet often has an image problem,” she added. “It’s seen as a sport for chic people, but that’s not true at all. The sport has evolved and is generally more professional.

“It appeals to anyone interested in sports or meeting people. And you don’t have to run around to play it. If you can hold a hammer, you can play croquet.”

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