Bowled Over – the bowling greens of Britain

  • By: Hugh Hornby
  • Format: 232pp softback 210mm x 210mm
  • ISBN: 978 1 905624 98 0
  • Published by Historic England in October 2015
  • Special offer: £10 post-free to UK (original RRP 17.99) BUY NOW

Bowls is one of Britain’s oldest and best loved sports. Its first recorded rules, published in 1670, predate those of every other major game played in Britain, including football, cricket and golf. It is played at over 7,400 clubs spread across every part of the country, by around 350,000 bowlers of all ages. Yet bowls is little understood by the general public and for centuries its history has been mired in myths and misconceptions.

The result of ten years of painstaking research, Bowled Over is the first book to explain what the game of bowls is all about, and to provide a comprehensive, illustrated look at its unique place in British social life and sporting history.

Beginning in the medieval period, the sports historian Hugh Hornby, himself a bowler at county level in Lancashire, traces the sport’s origins from rough alleys and open grassland to the reign of Henry VIII, when commoners were banned from bowling because it was thought to encourage gambling and drinking and be a distraction from archery practice. Despite the ban, bowls became Elizabethan England’s favourite sport, beloved by the aristocracy, celebrated by Shakespeare and of course, according to legend, played by Sir Francis Drake, who reportedly insisted on finishing his game despite the approach of the Spanish Armada. Hornby explains why the Drake story struck such a chord with the public – one that still resonates today – and how bowls clubs then started to form in the 18th century, with their emphasis on dining and drinking. By the 19th century bowling greens became the focal point of hundreds of towns and village across Britain, not just for bowls but for concerts, dances, flower shows and hustings.

Having visited hundreds of clubs and greens across Britain, Hornby also explores the enduring differences between the ‘crown green’ game, with its uneven greens and culture of gambling, and the more formal ‘flat green’, developed in Victorian Scotland, popularised by the cricketing legend WG Grace, and now played around the world. On the south coast of England he discovers a variant called ‘Olde English Bowls’. Behind a pub in south west London he encounters ‘Elizabethan’ bowls, and in pockets of Worcestershire and East Anglia an obscure hybrid involving the mysterious-sounding ‘roving cot’. In Scotland he finds out what bowlers really get up to when they decide to play a ‘promiscuous game’.

Exploding the popular belief that only old people play bowls and that games only take place in reverential silence, in north west England we join football-style crowds at floodlit crown green bowls tournaments and, in London, groups of beer-toting hipsters enjoying ‘barefoot bowls’ to the accompaniment of DJs and sizzling street food.

Accompanied throughout by maps and striking photographs, contemporary and archive, Bowled Over is also a visual celebration of bowling greens – from country houses and castles to pubs and public parks, from rural villages to inner city back streets – and of bowls-related buildings, ranging from humble sheds to grand pavilions.

Bowled Over is my pick of the sports books to read in 2016. Hugh Hornby explores a sport little known outside of its coterie of enthusiasts… yet absolutely woven into the fabric of English life. The history and changing culture of that connection tells us so much about both the intrinsic value of sport and the making of Englishness… Never mind the hype of the Premier League, Rio, Wimbledon and so on, Bowled Over is my number one book to help us understand the true meaning of sport in 2016.” Mark Perryman, Philosophy Football

“Only a book like this could make turf interesting.” Mark Mason, The Spectator

“A brilliantly illustrated book, packed with tales.” Janet Christie, Scotland on Sunday

Hugh Hornby (1969-2021), author of both Bowled Over (in 2015) and Uppies and Downies (2008) was a much loved member of the Played in Britain team before his untimely death in 2021 at the age of 51. A keen crown green bowler, Preston North End supporter and a regular participant in traditional football games, Hugh studied Modern History at Oxford University, spent six years as curator of the National Football Museum in Preston and was a regular contributor to the Lancashire Evening Post and Lancashire Life . He was also secretary, captain and greenkeeper at the St Michael’s Bowling Club, and secretary of the North Lancashire & Fylde Crown County Bowling Association. Hugh’s obituary can be read on The Guardian website.