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Why bowls skill won't feature on epitaph

PUBLISHED: 18:23 20 September 2007 | UPDATED: 12:01 30 June 2010

MUG'S GAME.... CERTAINLY NOT! Around 1980 Derek Webster (left), currently Yarmouth bowls festival manager but then chairman of Gorleston Football Supporters Club, presents a Greens mug to screen and stage comic actor Robin Askwith at the club gala and fet

MUG'S GAME.... CERTAINLY NOT! Around 1980 Derek Webster (left), currently Yarmouth bowls festival manager but then chairman of Gorleston Football Supporters Club, presents a Greens mug to screen and stage comic actor Robin Askwith at the club gala and fet

TODAY, if everything has gone according to plan, the 62nd annual Great Yarmouth Festival of Bowls will end after almost a month of competition in which 1,700 entrants have contested the several titles on the seafront greens.

CATFIELD: Where a shoe-less Peggotty formally cast the first wood to open its new carpet bowls amenity in the village hall about 20 years ago. This photograph of a village store was taken in 1960

TODAY, if everything has gone according to plan, the 62nd annual Great Yarmouth Festival of Bowls will end after almost a month of competition in which 1,700 entrants have contested the several titles on the seafront greens.

The closing of the much-loved tournament more or less marks the passing of the 2007 summer season and, although it will be 11 months before the first wood is bowled to open the 2008 festival, no doubt its manager for the past 13 years, Derek Webster, is already eagerly anticipating that far-off day.

It attracts players from across the country and attains a high standard, so he will be relieved to learn that I have no intention of entering and spoiling matters for both participants and organisers...unless, that is, my prowess has improved infinitely in the intervening period before the 2008 entries close.

Three is claimed to be a lucky number, but my trio of forays into the skilful sport have been 99pc disappointments.

ENIGMATIC EPITAPH: Inside Martham Parish Church, sometimes called "the cathedral of the Fleggs," is a tombstone with an inscription that puzzles those who read it.

The most recent was last month in a pairs fun challenge involving bowls and petanque (its French equivalent) players at Freethorpe to raise money for village hall funds. Each pair comprised a green bowler and a petanque player, each of whom had to try the other's discipline, first on the immaculate grass and then on the stone-sprinkled pistes.

I can acquit myself moderately well at petanque, but it took me longer to adjust to bowls than most of my colleagues, putting a burden on my experienced teammate. With only two bowls each an end, and a succession of short or wide deliveries, I had just about found the right length and direction when we lost.

A few more ends and who knows what I might have achieved...

When we trooped from bowls green to petanque terrain, my partner sampled the unaccustomed experience of tossing 700 gms of steel into the air in the direction of the cochonnet (jack/cot) and, to his credit, soon got the hang of it.

THE FIRST OF MANY: The opening day of the new bowling greens beside the old Marina open-air ampitheatre before the war

My only previous stab at bowls was 25 years ago when three couples, all total novices, sampled it indoors on a full-length rink (if that is the correct term) at the long-gone Sportsmen's Club on Riverside Road in Gorleston. There was nobody to guide us, and our efforts provoked plenty of mirth among ourselves although our bowls neighbours probably - and understandably - did not share the joke.

It all went awry from the outset when hardly any of the bowls we hired matched and we had to try to remember whose was whose.

Hardly a shot finished anywhere the jack/cot or whatever you call it. Aware that the bowls have a bias, we tried aiming wide - but instead of the bowls curving in towards the little white ball, they either swung outwards or, worse, continued in a straight line, scattering the heads in adjoining games. Those whose games were spoiled by our uncontrolled efforts took it in a more sporting spirit than any of us deserved, perhaps remembering that they were once beginners too.

We mutually agreed that green bowls was not for us and discreetly slipped out of the Sportsmen's Club, never to return.

BIRD'S EYE VIEW: The bowls greens near the Marina on Great Yarmouth's Golden Mile after the second world war

My only other involvement with bowls was the best part of two decades ago when I was flattered to be invited - as “the Mercury man” - to Catfield to perform the official opening ceremony of its carpet bowls amenity in the village hall. I dutifully said my congratulatory few words and sat down, only to be told that my responsibilities were not yet complete...because inaugurating the new long green carpet meant I had to cast the first wood!

Memories of that funny yet ignominious occasion at the Gorleston Sportsmen's Club flashed back immediately. And worse: as I was not wearing the special shoes or carpet slippers required, I was asked politely but firmly to remove my own footwear so as not to damage the new mat.

Even in those days, sock-darning was a thing of the past so I knew that darned heels or toes would not be exposed, but were there any potential holes, thin patches with a pink heel or gnarled toe-nail showing through?

Surreptitiously I forced my trousers down an inch or two so the bottoms were as near to floor level as possible, hopefully concealing any sock blemishes. Not that I needed to have worried, because the spectators' attention was focussed on my incompetence with bowls that either veered wildly off the carpet and on to the floor, or kept knocking over that wooden barrier placed to stop the player reaching the head directly, forcing him or her to use the bias to bypass it.

My hosts were very polite about it all, insisting that it was an acquired knack that they only achieved by practice. In hindsight, I ought to have bowled better. I have sympathy for Yarmouth mayors who have traditionally cast the first wood of these annual bowls festivals, watched by crowds of spectators; perhaps somebody gives them some quiet tuition to prepare them...

I am confident that my tombstone - if there is one, which I doubt - is unlikely to remind generations to come that my bowls ability is worth recording for posterity. It would seem a waste not only of the stonemason's time and effort

but also of my family's cash.

This summer there has been national publicity about epitaphs and efforts to preserve these encapsulations of the life of the deceased. One that springs to mind is comedian Spike Milligan's - “I told you I wasn't well” - while another, a spoof, is the only other I can remember - “Here lies an atheist, all dressed up and nowhere to go.”

A combination of vandalism, age and cemetery and churchyard clearances has resulted in thousands of gravestones being broken or removed every year; with them, of course, go the epitaphs. As a result of this deteriorating situation, the National Archive of Memorial Inscriptions is recording details of those that remain and, with the BBC History Magazine, has instituted a hunt for the most memorable.

An eminent qualifier must be the Burroway one in Martham Church, summarising a convoluted and puzzling relationship that remains the subject of interest and speculation 277 years later. The inscription, regularly publicised, reads: “Here lyeth the body of Christopher Burraway...and there lyeth Alice, who in her life was my sister, my mistress, my mother and my wife.”

When trawling through a pre-war Mercury, I chanced upon a letter to the editor from R Burton, of Manor View, Ludham, who wrote that in a “believe it or not” feature in some newspapers he had received from New Zealand was one about Yarmouth headed: “Tombstone of a Dyer to be found in St Nicholas' Churchyard”.

The epitaph read: “Here lies a

man who first did dye/When he

was 24./

“But now he's gone and certain 'tis/He'll not dye any more.”

The correspondent wondered if the tombstone was still there. Pass, as they say.

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