Boules: Taking the piste at Sherston

Andy Martin throws light on the invasion of a quiet village carnival in Wiltshire by 1,000 boules players
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The Independent Online
It was a classic English pastoral scene: an ancient Saxon church standing sentinel, the flag of St George fluttering from the steeple, immemorial elm, massive shire horses hauling hay wains, friendly bobbies, Morris dancers jingling their bells - and about a thousand boules players capering in the sun.

On Saturday, the cobbled High Street of Sherston, Wiltshire, was sealed off and turned into an immense "boulodrome" for the biggest one-day boules tournament in Britain. On the eve of Bastille Day, as if in an inversion of Asterix, this sleepy English village succumbed to a Gaullish invasion of berets, horizontally striped shirts, and massed baguettes.

Only Franglais was spoken, the mixed teams went under such atrocious names as "Les Enfants Terriboule" and "Les Incorrigiboules". David Kemble, who won here a couple of years ago and has since been immortalised on a wooden jig-saw in a proud shooting stance, has the almost unfair advantage of having married a Frenchwoman and teaching French. "This event has 'snowbouled' in the last few years," he said. "There's a real esprit francais in the town."

The nine-year-old brainchild of the local vicar Hugh Thomson Glover and the GP (now retired) Dr Colin Owen, the boules tournament merged with the Sherston carnival in 1993 to become the swelling Anglo-French fusion evenement that it is today, with 128 teams, sponsorship from Smiles Brewery, and a large supporting cast of barrel organs, hoop-la and crazy floats.

This year the founders, "Clerical and Medical" , with the Rev Richard Maslen, finished runners-up to the Bathonians John Gaynor, Brian Hepburn and Greta Sahoy. "It's made a big contribution to village life," Dr Owen said. "Now two pubs - the Rattlebone Inn and the Carpenters Arms - have pitches and a few of the houses have their own, too." He has even raised a petition to fund a public boules facility that will be available for children, too.

But not everyone in Sherston is quite such an unequivocal boulophile. There is a Eurosceptic school of thought at large. Cilla Liddington is the author of the recently published Sherston, The City Of White Walls: A Village History (pounds 7.99 from her house in the High Street) and the keeper of the village traditions.

Liddingtons have lived here for several centuries. Sherston has seen off the Romans and the Danes, and been staunchly defended by John Rattlebone fighting by the side of King Edmund Ironside - and now this last stronghold of Englishness is being surreptitiously taken over by the boulistes. It was like the Norman Conquest all over again.

"It's all very well for one day," Liddington said of the beret brigade. "But I wouldn't like to see our village change like this the rest of the year. I'm not a Francophile, I'm a Sherstonian. There's still a few characters left here, thank goodness."

I sometimes wonder if we really won Waterloo. Not only did the French get their hands on Tahiti while we ended up with the Falklands, now everyone is playing boules and drinking Perrier. But there is one consoling thought. The French did not actually invent boules. Before sailing off to sink the Spanish Armada, Sir Francis Drake was not truly playing bowls, but boules, with the aid of a few spare cannon-balls. There were no manicured lawns in those days.

Going further back, the original Olympics (discus, shot) were an offshoot of boules. A Pharaoh's boules have been found in the Pyramids. It is probable that early English Neanderthals, who used to fling rounded boulders at passing woolly mammoths, discovered that, even in the absence of woolly mammoths, you could still have fun flinging boulders about.

Admittedly on the contemporary international scene, the French rule the roost. They took first and second places at last year's World Championships in Brussels. But Singapore, Senegal and even New Zealand are coming up behind them. There is a fully fledged semi-pro British Open circuit, with events in Harwich (20 July) and Newquay (10 August), culminating in the finals in the Isle of Wight on 14 September.

But it was the French who developed the modern variant of the game, petanque - from the Provencal ped tanco, feet together - when a handicapped player around the turn of the century managed to outlaw the run-up. Now the British Petanque Association (BPA) is the guardian of the rules in England. Two official BPA umpires, a man and a woman, who asked not to be named, were keeping the Sherston boules tournament under surveillance, and they were shocked at local laissez-faire laxity with regard to the rule book.

"Look at that," they gasped in horror, "a leg in the air." This is, of course, strictly forbidden. The local umpires were more permissive and only intervened when there was a complaint. There was a lot of loose talk to the effect that boules is popular because it is easy to play for everyone from toddlers to old codgers.

But the truth is, it is immensely complex and meticulous, almost impossible. The steel boules themselves have to measure up to strict specification (between 650 and 800gm, diameter 70.5 to 80mm). "Leisure boules," smaller, lighter fakes, are very much frowned upon, but still in deplorable evidence in Sherston.

I began to share the slightly inquisitional severity of the scandalised petanquistes towards some of these West Country heresies. Rules are rules, mon dieu. "Throwing from a semi- circle," I chimed in. "And there, a circle over 50cm in diameter." Incorrectness was rife in Sherston: they were saying "pitch" not piste (or terrain), and the pronunciation of milieu (the middle man of the triples teams) was lackadaisical in the extreme.