Bowls: Tradition makes way for hi-de-hi life

Britain's oldest holiday camp has placed its faith in an unlikely attraction as it attempts to boost its image
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The Independent Online
DAVID LE MARQUAND did something rather daring at the World Indoor Bowls Championships this week. Are you ready? He used bowls which matched the colour of his shirt: yellow. Well, I mean to say...

Within the sport, according to Anne Dunwoodie of the World Bowls Tour, Le Marquand's little innovation is regarded as "futuristic".

Evolution, rather than revolution, is the name of this particular game.

Imagine, then, the furore when the game's authorities decided to shift the World Championships from their home of the last 10 years at Preston's Guild Hall to the venue they currently occupy - Potters Leisure Resort, Coast Road, Hopton-on-Sea.

"People wrote to us to say it was like moving football from Wembley, or snooker from the Crucible," said John Potter, whose family runs the centre on the Norfolk coast. "Even those who supported us said what we were trying to do was impossible." Like it or not, the traditionalists are going to have to get used to it. Having invested several millions in building the world's largest indoor bowls arena, the Potters have laid out a further pounds 1.3m to host and sponsor the Championships for the next four years.

In return, they hope to establish a new clientele of paying - and staying - spectators to enliven their slack midwinter months. More than 20 hours of mid-afternoon exposure on BBC2 will do nothing to harm their ambitions.

The decision to seek the grey pound associated with bowling was a calculated risk by a company founded on a stroke of fortune by John's great grandfather, Herbert, who established the enterprise with pounds 500 he received for winning a national newspaper competition. The now defunct Sunday Chronicle judged that the young solicitor's clerk had responded best to their challenge of coining an apt three-word phrase starting with letters in "resemblance". Herbert's masterstroke of wit - "Seldom Mutually Agreed" - provided Britain with its first holiday camp, 16 years before Billy Butlin got in on the act.

Thus, as the millennium approaches, the participants and spectators of the 21st World Indoor Championships find themselves contained within a cosy, warm, carpeted dome.

The setting - indoor fountains, pot plants, chandeliered restaurant, bars, gym, swimming pool - is deliberately intended to give visitors the sense of being on a cruise.

For bowls followers such as Sylvia Carter, staying throughout the entire three weeks of competition at a cost of around pounds 1,200, the whole concept is working wonderfully. As she prepared to watch her favourite bowler, Ian Schuback, in action - "I first saw him at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and I thought: `Oh, isn't he gorgeous'!" - Sylvia reflected upon how it felt to be The Complete Package, to use the new alias bestowed upon her by Radio Norfolk.

"I'm having a marvellous time," she said. "I have seen something of every match. I'm here alone, but I haven't been alone. Everybody has been mixing in together - the players, the officials and bods like me. There's always someone to talk to." For some of the players, however, constant contact with the paying public can sometimes have its downside.

"The facilities are excellent," Les Gillett, one of the 16 seeded players this year, said. "The only minus is you can't get privacy. If you have just lost, you want to get away to consolidate your thoughts. Here people keep coming up and saying `hard luck' or asking for autographs. They mean well, but it has bothered a few of the players. You can't really go anywhere."

Should any of the tormented competitors make a dash for freedom across the surrounding windswept fields, you fancy they would be bounced back inside by one of the huge balloons that used to thwart the escape bids of Patrick McGoohan in the TV series "The Prisoner".

The holiday atmosphere may also have contributed to the discomfiture of the No 2 seed, Hugh Duff, whose unexpected defeat in his first match followed an evening of jollity in the bar which had concluded in the early hours. Some reports referred to the 35-year-old Scot as the nearest thing bowls has to a wild man. By all accounts, that is not very near at all - Alex Higgins he most certainly is not.

The sport's biggest problem, says the World Bowls Tour's chief executive Gordon Dunwoodie, is that it is seen as being a sport for old people. While the spectators at this year's championship - averaging 400 per session, which is up on Preston's figures - uphold that perception, Dunwoodie points out that most of the top players are now in their 20s and 30s.

This is true. But if they are anything like Gillett, youngest of the seeds at 28, these players have such wise old heads on their shoulders that it is easy to see why the genial Duff stands out as an enfant terrible. Gillett, who broke through to the top level after winning the 1997 Bupa Open title as a qualifier, believes it is up to individual bowlers to discipline themselves.

"It's very easy to be led here," Gillett said. "You've got a lot of people wanting to buy you a drink. But they serve soft drinks here as well as hard ones. If you get drunk as a skunk when you are due to play the next day, you won't play very well. At this standard, you just can't get away with it."

Gillett's restrained preparations - single pints and plenty of practice on the same portable rink that was used in last year's Championships at Preston - appear to be paying off for him. While half the numbered seeds have made an early exit, he managed to win his opening match against the Australian player, Steve Glasson.

Meanwhile, Sylvia, who has had an unrivalled opportunity to study the form at first hand, has sorted out her own unofficial rankings for the competition, which ends this Sunday. "I have a feeling for David Gourlay," she said, with a smile.

Results, Digest, page 29