A game with stickability

Dave Hadfield heads for the beach to witness the preservation of an old school sport

Connoisseurs of esoteric ball games played on just one wind-scoured stretch of Lancashire beach will be relieved to hear this: the future of Rossall hockey is safe. Since 1863, generations of blue-kneed boys - and, more recently, girls - from Rossall School have played this quirky team sport on the foreshore between Blackpool and Fleetwood.

Quirky? Well, how else would you describe a game that gives you a stick and then rarely allows you to hit the ball with it? Character- building? "I'd describe it as a cross between hockey and rugby," says Tony Todd, the head of games, who has been supervising this arcane ritual for the last 20-odd years. "It's a dribbling game, not a striking game. It's good fun, but it takes the kids until the upper sixth before they really learn how to play it properly."

Ever since the game was introduced from Eton - where it has long since faded into disuse - Rossall hockey has been played in the term between Christmas and Easter. As befits an institution whose own printed history is entitled "A Very Desolate Position", Rossall does not really have spring or summer terms; just three winter ones. A hybrid game on the sands has proved useful over the years when the playing fields have been frozen, flooded or both.

Conventional hockey and rugby union are Rossall's mainstream sports and Rossall hockey contains elements of both. It is played on a hockey pitch marked out between the groynes on the sands - an art-form in itself - but it starts with a species of scrum, with sticks protruding from its flanks like galley-oars, and develops into a form of continuous, armed rolling maul.

It is not a spectator sport - indeed, the occasional locals walking their dogs on the beach ignore it completely although the dogs themselves can become quite agitated by the sight of 18 highly educated youths wielding sticks. The participants, however, claim to enjoy it enormously, even though they are only permitted tracksuit bottoms in what are often Arctic conditions.

They don't have much choice but to participate cheerfully; even future rugby luminaries such as Peter Winterbottom and Liam Botham have been required to take this sport as seriously as their own. "Everyone has to have a go at it," says Todd, "although the girls have their own competition. And it's all inter-house, because there's no one else to play."

There's the rub. With such a limited market, Rossall's previous supplier of sticks - which resemble National Health walking sticks left against a radiator for too long and partially straightened - went out of business. For a while it looked as though the game would go the same way, until the world's largest manufacturer of lacrosse sticks - in Eccles - came to the rescue.

The new weapons are not strictly traditional, being made of hickory rather than the original ash. Some of the old ash artefacts still survive, handed down from father to son and highly decorated, but the new ones stand up better to the sand and salt-water and the school expects to be fully equipped well into the next millennium. "It's important to keep these traditions going," says Todd, as the sixth-formers of Spreadeagle and Mitre Fleur de Lys houses scratch out the markings on a stretch of sand that looks suitable.

Spreadeagle are the school champions - if I had a fiver for every time they told me that, I would be close to the pounds 3,500 a term it would cost to send one of my own offspring to this very desolate place - and they prove too good for their opposition.

Close control is all in Rossall hockey, because failure to keep in contact with the ball results in a hand-over of possession. If a member of the stick-wielding ruck gets ahead of the ball, he must loop around, rugby- style, and tag on to the back. Only when they reach their opponents' semi- circular goal area can they shoot and Spreadeagle prove distinctly more efficient at this, putting the ball between Mitre Fleur de Lys' posts three times.

There are, inevitably, excuses. The sand is too dry and cuts up under the onslaught too easily. What old-style Rossall hockey would have done to the beach must have been a sight to see. "The whole school used to play in one huge game," says Todd. "Since then, teams have been cut down to nine-a-side." Even so, in the height of the house-match season, there can be a series of games taking place simultaneously on the sands, ranging from strapping sixth-formers to shivering novices.

Rossall hockey has proved a survivor with real stickability and is likely to be depleting the hickory woods and driving the dogs wild well into the next century.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Receptionist

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A bookkeeper/receptionist posit...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£28500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique corp...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Product Support Specialists

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leader in the design...

Recruitment Genius: Field Engineer

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has 30 years of ex...

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