For Boules, you need bottle (and wine)

Click to follow
The Independent Online
With what sport or game is the city of Bath most associated? If that question came up in a pub quiz, most people would plump for rugby union, but a good secondary case could be made for boules, because once a year the elegant Queen Square is taken over for a three-day boules event which is as much fun as anything that ever takes place in Bath and a lot more fun than anything ever described in Jane Austen's novels.

Bath Boules started a few years ago as a simple festive thing organised, aptly, by food and drink people - the local Beaujolais Restaurant and Great Western Wines - and, amazingly, it still is. The Beaujolais is a real French restaurant, run by an extrovert Frenchman called Jean-Pierre Auge. In fact, there are French restaurants all over Bath and lots of real Frenchmen living in Bath, usually called Patrick or Philippe or Thierry, who seem to take it in turns to run them, and all of whom emerge at Bath Boules time to defend the honour of their national game.

The Sunday contest is, in effect, a battle between the pubs, restaurants and hotels of Bath (and Bristol and beyond these days - where will it end?) and it must be the hardest day of the year for anyone to get a meal in the area, as all the best chefs, waiters and bottle-pullers get the day off, and those who are left are probably embittered at not being selected for the team. As the lone media representative player I saw all this from close quarters, and as there were no spare French waiters available, I engaged my old mate, Python Terry Jones, to bring his wife Alison down from London to see that there was life outside the pages of Time Out. And so it was that we strode out into the dawn of Sunday 13 July, our reflexes sharpened by ice-cold hangovers.

We felt like knights striding out ready to do battle. Queen Square might have been made for some sort of medieval tournament. The green lawns are criss-crossed with gravel paths which, when subdivided, make superb boules pistes. Add a marquee, a wine bar, sunshine, and hordes of fired-up Frenchmen and it really does make you think of jousting.

Every game is played up to nine points, and you cannot believe how alarming the tension becomes when both sides are within sight of a winning total. Boules isn't just a game - it's a tiny piece of theatre, a series of four- minute dramas within which you can get sudden death, vicious disappointment, incredible joy and retribution. If the ancient Greeks had had boules, they wouldn't have bothered to invent classical tragedy.

"I haven't felt adrenalin crashing around my system so much since ..." Terry told me, looking for a parallel.

"Since we last came and played boules here," said Alison. It really was that tense. Then there came a moment about midday when we found that we had actually won more games than we had lost, so we opened the first bottle of rose and the tension eased slightly thereafter. We knew, though, that we still had the toughest opponents in our group ahead, the Royal Crescent Hotel, who were still leading on points.

It was about this time that I recognised Jeremy Guscott walking round the square, pushing a baby chair with his good hand. His other arm, of course, had been broken by a South African. And it occurred to me that boules is almost the only outdoor sport where having a broken arm can be no handicap. Many players, in fact, hold something in their non-playing hand to balance themselves, and in the case of the Royal Crescent Hotel, when we finally met the three young men representing that august establishment, it was ice-cold lager bottles they were holding. It is just possible that this may have affected their reflexes and contributed to their undoing - at any rate, we beat them 9-6 and, much to our mortification, qualified for the quarter-finals.

What was mortifying about this was that we had assumed that qualification was out of the question and Terry and Alison had planned to get the next train back to London. Off they went, and I conscripted Jean-Pierre and Philip Addis, the two organisers, as my team. To their intense relief we lost narrowly to Lucknam Park Hotel, who went on to the final to meet - and be defeated by - the Beaujolais Restaurant. Yes, the French had come out on top again, honour was satisfied, and civic unrest and widespread rioting in the volatile French community had been averted.

The heavens opened a few minutes after the final. "You have never seen the square cleared so quickly," a witness told me. But I wasn't there. I was already back home by then. I was out in the garden, practising for next year.