The fine art of croquet

The sight of John Prescott wielding his mallet at Dorneywood raised a few eyebrows. But behind the game's elitist image is one of the few sports Britain excels at, writes Matthew Beard

John Prescott has made little secret of his affection for Dorneywood, the Deputy Prime Minister's idyllic grace-and-favour mansion. After his marital infidelities were recently revealed, he was apparently determined not to lose the Buckinghamshire residence along with his ministerial responsibilities. Photographs prominently displayed in The Mail on Sunday yesterday go a long way to explaining why.

Within two hours of Tony Blair jetting to Washington for a summit with George Bush last Thursday, Mr Prescott emerged in the mansion's grounds with members of his Whitehall office team, including his £100,000-a-year principal private secretary and two Special Branch guards. It turned out they were there for an hour-long game of croquet.

The Deputy Prime Minister's critics have suggested he would have been better employed at his desk in Westminster. But almost as surprising as Mr Prescott's decision to take the afternoon off was his choice of activity. Isn't croquet a sport favoured by the upper crust?

Croquet is thought to have started in France in the 17th century, and the earliest record of it in Britain was of a game called "Paille Maille" being played next to St James' Palace, hence the name Pall Mall.

It became one of the sports crazes of Victorian England, with national championships played at Wimbledon, which is still known as the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and still stages matches.

Because of these prestigious roots, and the fact that it was often played on the manicured lawns of country estates, croquet has failed to shake of its associations with the social élite. But those playing competitive croquet in the 21st century insist it is totally egalitarian, having undergone a revolution similar to golf.

"It is not at all exclusive," said Julian Tonks, secretary of the North-east regional branch of the 1,500-member Croquet Association, and a member of the York club. "We have members from all walks of life, such as lorry drivers, teachers and physiotherapists. People tend to be older, mainly because they have got the time to do it, but there are plenty of people in their forties." In common with bowls, the majority of players are pensioners, but at the game's top level, players are much younger, since eyesight is crucial in a sport which demands that you can knock a ball through a small hoop 30 metres away. Croquet is one of the few sports where men and women compete equally, although there are few women at the very top level.

According to Mr Tonks, the numbers playing croquet are holding up, though it remains more popular in the south, due probably to the drier weather.

"Golf croquet", the game almost certainly being played at Dorneywood, is the more simple of the two main versions of the game. Under "golf" rules, the winner is determined by which player, or team, takes the fewest shots to knock two balls through a circuit of hoops before striking them against the peg.

"Association croquet" is the more advanced form of the game, has much in common with snooker's tactics and rules, and takes a season to learn.

The "association" code is the competitive form of the game played at clubs across the country, most commonly on croquet lawns at hotels, council-run sites or multi-sport clubs.

The sport is played elsewhere in the world, mainly in former Commonwealth countries and the United States. But croquet, notwithstanding Mr Prescott's rather patchy performance last week, is one sport in which Britain does lead the way. As winners of the MacRobertson shield, the major international trophy in association croquet, Britain is officially the world's leading croquet nation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links