The game of bowls is as old as it gets. It is played all over the world. There are thousands of clubs and countless players, about 400,000 in Britain alone. Sir Francis Drake thought it more important than the Spanish Armada. Its roots go back to the Romans and even the Ancient Egyptians. In this country it dates from the Middle Ages. Henry VIII was a big fan and there are references to it in Shakespeare. There are World Championships and Commonwealth Games Gold Medalists. Why then, as the countdown gets louder by the day for the biggest shindig in British sporting history, is it still left outside the Olympic Games arena?
Maybe grass is a factor? When you think that cricket, rugby and, until recently, golf, have long since been sidelined, the conspiracy theory gathers pace. If you think about, it there won't be too many triples trimming the fescue with the 'five rings' fluttering nearby next summer. There are 302 gold medals up for grabs at the 2012 Games. Only the horsey events - oh, and football's single gold - have any link to turf and, with respect to our equestrian friends, it certainly isn't of the fine variety.
Bowls can't even get its foot in the IOC door since there are no longer demonstration sports. Heaven knows, darts is probably above it in the pecking order.
The real problem for lawn bowls is not that there won't be podium recognition for the world's best next August - though that is a mysterious annoyance to many a bowler - it is that the money made available by councils for the upkeep of hundreds of clubs in towns and villages up and down the country is shrinking. Ironically, though the appeal of the game may be growing, the number of bowls greens is actually in decline.
So called 'Big Society' changes, whereby amenities are being transferred into community ownership, is a route cause. A prime example is the threat hanging over the most famous of all bowling greens, the City of Plymouth Bowling Club's on the Hoe where the Armada was put on hold in 1588. It is owned and maintained by Plymouth City Council, which says it costs £20,000 a year to keep it in playing condition. The club and two others - Plymouth Hoe Ladies and the Visually Impaired - that play on the green have a combined income of about £5,000, so there's a massive shortfall. The choice is either to lease the green and do DIY maintenance with no kit to hand and little know-how, or put membership fees up dramatically - by as much as 300% - and seek a reliable contractor. This definitely puts a club's future under strain.
The body that represents and governs the game, Bowls England, is making positive moves to redress things. It was part of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, an umbrella voice for 320 bodies which, in autumn 2011, lobbied Parliament to do more to protect sports clubs up and down the country from being squeezed by economic conditions and by local council austerity.
The Alliance is doing what it can to get MPs and Peers to support clubs' futures across a range of issues, but it's surely a bit strange that this is necessary as politicians have been talking endlessly about the wonderful sporting heritage the Olympics will bring this country. Tony Allcock, one of bowls' greatest ever players and Chief Executive of Bowls England, sees the Alliance's effort as, at the very least, a good opportunity to raise the profile of the game of lawn bowls as it comes under pressure at grass roots level.
On a more practical front, part of what Bowls England offers member clubs - its Greens Maintenance Advisory Service - is doing what it can to help its 2,700 member clubs look after their playing surfaces. It's a service that has been in place for about thirty years and was set up by the English Bowling Association which, in 2007, amalgamated with the English Women's Bowling Association to form Bowls England as part of the government backed Sport England effort to strengthen all sports, especially in the area of fund raising and development.
Initially, the service was set up purely as a first aid to clubs, but nowadays, as outside help from councils begins to dry up and clubs are having to fend for themselves over greens care, its role has a bigger value.
The service has advisors for each county. They are experienced bowls greenkeepers whose role is to respond to requests for assistance from member clubs on matters relating to the state of their green. They are literally 'on call' and all clubmen themselves, so have the interests of the bowls club fraternity at heart.
I spoke to 78 year old Graham Robinson, who's been a greenkeeper for over thirty years, has Level 2 National Certificate in Sports and Amenity Turf, and is, these days, coordinator for the Bowls England service in Surrey, Kent and Middlesex, about how it works. I visited the Cranleigh Club in Surrey, where he is also secretary.
"The service is, primarily, a first port of call for a club finding it has a problem with its playing surface," he said.
"It's getting to be more and more the case that clubs don't have someone who knows what they're doing keeping the green in good order. Local councils are, often as not, saying you can have your green for an annual ground rent but we won't look after it anymore. You're on your own."
"For many clubs this is a big, big problem and perhaps the beginning of the end for some of them."
Barry Baker, President of the Cranleigh Club, coincidentally, earns his living as a bowls green contractor and looks after fifteen clubs in Surrey, one of which, of course, is his own. No surprise that, with the two of them seeing that the bowls run smoothly, the green looks in immaculate fettle long after the playing season. Barry often looks to Graham for advice on latest thinking and techniques in greens care because, even as a professional, he values Bowls England's up to date word on things. They frequently discuss ideas. Cranleigh is one club that is fortunate to have professional help on hand. The vast majority do not.
"All the research and development for materials and equipment, of course, comes via the golf industry," says Graham. "There is no real money in bowls, so we hitch a ride on the results of golf's huge funding. No getting away from it, we are very much a poor relation. Clubs more and more have to 'beg, steal or borrow' when it comes to looking after greens. What the Bowls England service offers is free to member clubs and, at the very least, it can point them in the right direction. Very often, it can save them a lot of money."
"I've just visited Croydon for Bowls England, and there used to be twelve greens run by the council there. Last year, it decided to cut this number by half. I reckon there are something like 350 bowlers and they'd been paying £90 (£60 for pension age) for a year's membership, enabling them to play on their local green - or any one of the other Croydon greens for that matter. I estimate that income to the council would have been in the region of £21,000 to £26,000, which is a long way short of the £88,000 which, the council says, it was shedding out annually for the upkeep of the twelve greens. This adds up to what can only be described as a recession for bowls greens."
"The work is now being done by three dedicated greenkeepers and outside contractors at an annual cost per green of £8,000. They are doing an excellent job, it has to be said, but it still leaves Croydon bowlers with more money to find for fewer greens, and the council losing cash - something like £30,000 a year, too."
The problem boils down to kit and know-how for clubs trying to keep a decent playing surface within budget. If a club can afford a reasonable mower, and there's a willing hand or two from within the membership, keeping the three or four cuts a week during the season in house, it can be quite a money saver. Equipment for other routines, like aeration, scarifying, spraying and seeding, and the skills to carry them out properly will, in many cases, have to be put in the hands of a contractor. For know-how, the freely available Bowls England service is a must and a money saver.
It does, at the very least, identify problems and what's required to deal with them, so clubs can put out appropriate and, therefore, cost effective tendering. It also offers a Bowls Loan Scheme, which can provide clubs seeking equipment with up to £5,000. The Bowls England contact for this is Arnold Goad, who can be contacted on 01926 612280 or email email@example.com for more details.
"It costs a club nothing to have a Bowls England check on its playing surface," again Graham emphasises.
"All you have to do is look in your Bowls England handbook or your county handbook, or these days, of course, the respective websites, then make contact with your nearest advisor. There's every chance they can visit you within days."
"Whenever I'm called to a club, I usually spend about an hour examining the surface, taking core samples if necessary. Like all my Bowls England colleagues, I endeavor to get a written report of my findings to a club at the earliest opportunity, and this would include recommendations for action and an estimate of cost. Whether a club acts on advice given, of course, is entirely up to them."
"I have to say that, in the majority of cases, any problem I find is due to a lack of basic maintenance. I do sometimes have to be rather gentle in any criticism I make, not wishing to offend willing, but not necessarily able, helpers. The days of simply tackling things by chemical attack are long gone and now good husbandry, if I can put it that way, is at the heart of producing and keeping a good bowls green."
"I have to say that one of my big concerns is the storage and handling of chemicals. My guess is that at least twenty-five percent of clubs would face action for breaching Health and Safety legislation. Civil penalties, let alone Court action, could land a club with a bill of up to £50,000, and it would wipe out some. We advisors do what we can to see that clubs we visit get on the straight and narrow, but it is a worry."
Graham, who is a Past President of Surrey County Bowling Association, says that one of the main failings he sees as a Bowls England advisor is that too many clubs have a habit of watering little and often, producing a soft surface and lazy root structure. It makes a lot of difference to playing conditions and, as a Surrey County Badge Holder, he should know. He recalls one recent and, as it happens, quite amusing visit he made.
"I had a call from a club in north west London after a tremendous thunderstorm had ended a long dry spell, but the surface rainwater from it had not drained away ten days later. When I arrived at the green, straight away I noticed a huge Victorian iron roller about three feet high, with counter balances for each of the ornate handles, that must have each weighed half a hundredweight. My suspicions were aroused. Indeed, I learned from the club that contractors hired by the local council had, for some time, been using the antiquity to roll the green three times a week. I wasn't surprised to learn that these people were not fine turf carers at all and generally dealt with cemeteries and the like. A recipe for compaction if ever there was one, and an example of no knowledge, wrong kit. They were making a road, not a bowls green."
"It gets worse. The council was shedding out something like £15,000 a year for the contractor to maintain the green. When I subsequently discussed the issue with the man at the council in charge of awarding and supervising contracts, he admitted the only thing he knew about grass was it should be green."
Returning to the numbers game, Graham spells out some harsh statistics.
"If you take a typical scenario of a club with, say, thirty members, each of whom pay £100 annual membership subscription, which is pretty standard, and you have no other source of income, such as a club bar, then your £3,000 isn't going to get you anything like decent playing surface maintenance over a year. Well meaning volunteers may not cost you anything, but the chances are they do things wrong and increase the chances of more costly problems.
"I can only speak with certainty about the state of things in Surrey, but in the 1980s there were about 220 affiliated clubs in the county, with something like 12,000 affiliated members. Now there are around 140 clubs with 6,500 members. Some clubs do have benefactors with deep pockets, but there aren't many. Bowls in is financial decline all right, and it's the greens that are at the hub of the problem."
The Cranleigh Club, where I met Graham, has seventy or so members and a flourishing bar, so it's untypically a flourishing concern. He points out that clubs like this, which are a social focal point for a village or town, with facilities shared among a number of other non-bowls clubs, are tending to do well. What will it take to see that bowls gets a rub of the green all round?
The Bowls England Greens Maintenance Advisory Service is an excellent means of support for any club up against it as far as its playing surface is concerned. As Graham put it, you can only help clubs that ask for help, so the call goes out to clubs to use it.
You can find out all there is to know about Bowls England by visiting www.bowlsengland.com