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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat