A very English pursuit

Croquet - it's all cucumber sandwiches and Pimms isn't it? Well no, not really.

James Marston

Croquet - it's all cucumber sandwiches and Pimms isn't it? Well no, not really. JAMES MARSTON finds out more.

SURROUNDED by trees and in one of the more peaceful parts of the park - the croquet lawn is in an undeniably stunning location.

And as you approach the lawn, in the lower arboretum of Ipswich's Christchurch Park, you can make out the unmistakeable sound of mallet on ball.

Quintessentially English, the origins of croquet are unknown.

Some say it is originally French, others that it came to the UK from Ireland - whatever its history it took Victorian England by storm and early in the 20th century the Ipswich and District Croquet Club was formed.

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Club chairman Martin French said: “The earliest record we have in the club is the game being played here in the park in 1930. But we also have one trophy dating back to 1909 - so we are not really sure how old the club is.

“I played for 11 years from 1982 to 1992 then I had a break for 12 years and started again five years ago.”

With about 25 members the club is currently looking for new members to join its ranks.

Martin said: “You can come along and play when you like whenever the park is open from May to September. We have club nights on a Tuesday and a group that play on a Wednesday afternoon.”

Ranked in the top 40 of UK players, Martin, 55, a management consultant who lives in nearby Constable Road said playing the game at tournament level takes him all over the UK.

He said: “Croquet is one of the few sports where age makes little or no difference to the quality of the game and women compete with men on equal terms.”

As Martin talks it quickly becomes clear the game he plays is far removed from the simple pleasures of hitting a ball through a hoop in the back garden - the game many people think of as croquet.

But there are two versions of the game.

Martin said: “There is Association Croquet and Golf Croquet. Golf croquet is when you play in sequence and you all aim to get the ball through the hoop.

“The other form of croquet is Association Croquet which is much more competitive and tactical. It is more like snooker, you build breaks, you can have safety play and a game can take up to three hours.”

Social as well as competitive, croquet attracts players of all ages and the club ranges from players in their teens to their 80s.

Martin added: “You can play at a relatively good level almost regardless of age. It has been called lawn chess. There are world championships and a world federation and the game is played all over the world.”

Retired postman and one of the club's newest members, Chris Yarker, 68, of Charlton Avenue, Ipswich, is enjoying the game.

He said: “Croquet is a very pleasant way of passing summer evenings.

“It is a non taxing game and I am playing golf croquet at the moment. I never played it before but it just appealed to me.”

Financial consultant Iain McWhirter, 50, also of Constable Road, also joined the club recently.

He said: “I've been a member for the last few weeks. I've been playing croquet all my life at home in the garden but it is very different when you play using the proper rules.

“When you learn proper croquet the rules are more sophisticated. I'm enjoying being a member of the club, it is very friendly. I have seven children who are all very sporty - this is something I can do.”

Martin Leach, 54, of Whitby Road, Ipswich, is a software engineer. He has been a member of the Ipswich and District Croquet Club for ten years,

He said: “I played golf but I thought that was unfair to my wife as it took me away on weekends so I took up croquet, now I play in tournaments which still take me away for the weekend!

“I've become a reasonable player, I like the people here. I like the tactics and it is a mixture of snooker and chess.

“People think it's a toffs' game but it's untrue. All sorts of people play and it is very friendly, I'd encourage people to give it a go.”

If you would like to find out more visit www.ipswichcroquetclub.com

Do you play croquet? What do you think of the game? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Ipswich Croquet Club was founded around 100 years ago.

Approached along the mayors walk from Fonnereau Road, its two full-sized lawns are situated in the arboretum gardens within Christchurch Park.

Affiliated to the Croquet Association , the game's governing body, the club has a long and fine history producing many fine players who have won honours throughout the croquet-playing world, including four internationals.

The club welcomes people of all ages, and runs events throughout the season, which cater for both beginners and more experienced players.

There is also the opportunity for beginners to receive coaching during the club's practice evening. This is held every Tuesday starting between 6pm and 6.30pm.

The origins of croquet are obscure. However, it is known that the sport was introduced to England from Ireland in the 1830s.

In the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century it grew very rapidly in popularity, being an agreeable pastime for the upper classes, while being played on equal terms by men and women, the old and the young.

When lawn tennis took off, croquet declined in popularity and a large proportion of courts were turned over to the new game. Indeed, the dimension of a tennis court owes itself to two fitting snugly within the area of one croquet court.

At the height of its popularity, croquet spread throughout the British Empire and this laid the foundations of the game's strongest supporters being within the present Commonwealth.

Between the 1920s and the 1960s croquet was in decline. However, since then, an increase in leisure time and successful attempts to market the game have led to a surge of interest worldwide.

In the past 20 years far more young people have taken up croquet and players between the ages of about 25 to 45 form the backbone of international competition.

It is said that snooker probably owes its origins to croquet. A theory, supported by strong circumstantial evidence, suggests that in the rainy season in India, when croquet could not be played, an indoor version was devised. Based on the already established game of billiards, it had green baize instead of grass, six pockets instead of six hoops, multi-coloured balls were retained and the two games have much in common in terms of estimating angles, devising breaks, etc.

Croquet is played on a lawn or court of dimensions 35 by 28 yards.

Almost all croquet is played on completely flat, closely-mown fine grass (similar to bowls).

There are six cast-iron hoops set firmly into the ground, and a peg. The layout never varies.

Balls, four to a game, each weigh one pound and have a diameter which, in top-class competition, is only one sixteenth of an inch less than the inside width of a hoop.

Mallets typically weigh 3lb. Modern materials improve their durability and balance, but substantial change to their playing characteristics through design is banned.