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.
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