Cheltenham Croquet Club
PUBLISHED: 18:16 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:47 20 February 2013
"Croquet is essentially a racing game," Phil Cordingly says solemnly as I wrestle with a mallet and a set of balls which are surprisingly heavy....
I am at the Cheltenham Croquet Club, a venerable institution situated on the Old Bath Road. I am to partake in a master-class, taught by esteemed members of the Croquet Association.
The sun is out, the sky is a light turquoise blue and every so often you can hear a gentle "thwack" as a ball is hit. It really is a most agreeable setting - an apple green lawn surrounded by thick hedgerows, and tea and coffee conveniently at the ready in the clubhouse nearby.
Phil Cordingly represents England in the World Croquet Federation meetings, and therefore is somewhat of an expert on the subject. He explains that croquet can be played as either singles or doubles, and a coin is tossed to determine who goes first.
"It is always the blue and black balls against the red and yellow. If you are playing doubles, then the winner of the coin toss plays the blue, then red, black and yellow follows. All balls are initially played from a spot on the lawn that is within a yard of the corner."
Rather handily, each mallet is about a yard in length, so if you want to be really pedantic about it, you can measure out an area with your mallet to make sure you are playing safely within the confines.
My first game is with Bernard Neal, President of the Croquet Association and also of the Cheltenham Croquet Club, Jonathan Isaacs the Chairman of the CA and Patricia Duke-Cox who is the CA Vice-Chairman.
The good thing about croquet I quickly find out is that it is incredibly easy to pick up. The bad thing is you need exact hand-eye coordination and ability to judge distances; otherwise the ball can end up bouncing gaily over the lawn miles away from the hoop, while everyone looks on encouragingly with patient looks.
The first shot to the hoop is a distance of perhaps twelve feet straight ahead with the hoop at a right angle which Bernard executes perfectly with the ball going straight and stopping conveniently perhaps a foot away from the hoop.
My shot is straight which is good. It travels steadily for about seven feet then abruptly stops which is bad. (Alice in Wonderland made it look so easy with her flamingos and hedgehogs). Everyone smiles rather indulgently and I feel silly. "Good smooth shot," Jonathan says approvingly however, and I smile weakly. The game progresses in much of a similar way with the three professionals playing a serious game, and me seemingly playing a game on my own, three feet behind them.
Despite croquet's reputation for being a rather geriatric pastime there were some rather tense, critical moments, especially when "stop shots" were employed. This is when your opponent's ball is completely blocking the hoop from your perspective, so you hit their ball with your own, making it shoot off elsewhere when your ball neatly takes its place. Sometimes it is even possible to do this and make your ball go through the hoop, therefore not only netting yourself a "hoop point" but also winning that particular round.
It really is an enjoyable but gentle way to spend an afternoon, particularly if it is a sunny day. Also I was told that a few more games and I could become quite competent - quite often you can become almost on a professional level within six months which is instantly preferable to the years of hard gruel some sports insist on.
Yes, croquet really is highly recommended.
The Cheltenham Croquet Club is available for enquires on 01242 242318. Please ask for Klim Seabright the Club secretary.