Tucked away on the north edge of Victoria Park in East London there is a bowls club unlike any other. The Victoria Park Bowls Club has been running for 119 years, a rectangle oasis in the people’s park.
It doesn’t conform with many stereotypes surrounding bowls. The green is rough, no one says ‘good shot old boy,’ tracksuits are as common as blazers, and playing bowls is almost incidental. At the Victoria Park Bowls Club it’s as much about the people as it is about competing.
Victoria Park Bowls Club is a public green, one of only three left in Tower Hamlets, the other two being in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs. Anyone can turn up and give bowls a try and the club is always keen to welcome new members. For many of them it is an essential social hub, and they want to see that continue.
There are many who no longer play bowls, or who are no longer active members of the club, who can still be found most days in the clubhouse chatting over a cup of tea. The walls of the clubhouse are lined with honours boards and trophies and faded photographs, while the surfaces are just cluttered enough to feel homely.
On match days the members move outside to play, chat over more tea, and, of course, heckle. If you play a bad shot at Victoria Park Bowls Club you’ll know about it. But it is all in good fun. It’s very relaxed there. The mental and physical health benefits of playing are obvious.
Club president Brian Jolly, who lives a stone’s throw away on Parnell Road and coached in football for 50 years before getting into bowls. He knows a thing or two about fitness. He also has his name emblazoned on a Victoria Park Bowls Club jacket. ‘You do keep fit going up and down that rink all the time,’ he says. ‘The least we do is 11 ends. On match days it’s 18 or 21.’
The activity carries over into the social benefit. Stephen Cordes, who also lives on Parnell Road, is one of the club’s more recent additions and he already characterises it as a home away from home. Fresh air, exercise, and the sense of belonging amounts to something quite special for its members.
‘The social side of it is what a lot of people look forward,’ he says. He has opted for a bright yellow Nike t-shirt rather than bowling whites. ‘If you’re not working, you can come over here, have a cup of tea, have a chat and pass an hour away. In the summer I’m hoping it’s going to be open seven days a week, and I’ll be over seven days a week.
‘A lot of people want that camaraderie and that fellowship. We’re human beings, we’re not an island. We need social contact. You don’t want to be sat indoors watching Coronation Street and rewatching bits of Emmerdale Farm from 30 years ago. Everyone needs to belong.’
Members worry that potential additions are missing out because they don’t know about the club. It has the dubious honour of not being signposted anywhere in Victoria Park, and bordered on three sides by trees one could walk right past it and not know it was there.
In days of yore the club had a wide range of ages on its books. The youngest member at Victoria Park Bowls Club, Stephen Cordess son, is 37. The current membership wants to change this. They see bowls as a game for all ages, and they want to be able to pass the torch.
With the summer fast approaching there will be plenty of opportunity for novices to try their hand at bowls. Skill is no obstacle. All players, from novices to national competitors, are encouraged to come in and have a go. Just wear flat shoes.
We arrived on a crisp afternoon in early May. It was the first game of the season and the opposing team hadn’t turned up. There was some mild grumbling about this but the members are largely philosophical. They’re here, the bowls are here. Let’s play.
These photos capture an afternoon at the Victoria Park Bowls Club. There’ll be plenty more like it in the coming months. Don’t miss the Children’s Day on 28 May, or the Bowls Taster Day on 7 July.
To get involved in the Victoria Park Bowls Club contact club secretary Terry Downey on 02077 397 223, or if you’re walking past and see some bowls going on, pop in! They’ll be glad to see you.
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