Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Victoria lawn bowling club fights to stay alive

Photograph by Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 12, 2008


Ray Turner dressed against the morning chill with a blue wool sweater beneath his blue coveralls. A green scarf covered his neck. A workingman’s cap kept his head warm.

In his labouring days, he cared for golf courses and he cut lawns as part of a city crew. Now 81, he is president of the Canadian Pacific Lawn Bowling Club, a magnificent title, although one which he did not have to contest.

“I’m stuck with the president’s job now,” he said, his Yorkshire homeland crunching through every syllable. “No one wanted it.”

The club occupies a small greensward on Belleville Street downtown, just one long block from the Inner Harbour. A magnificent lawn has been used for bowls since 1930.

For years, the landscape surrounding the club went unchanged with the brick-and-glass Crystal Gardens to the west, and the Church of Our Lord, in its charming board-and-batten, Gothic Revival style, to the northeast. A modest, two-storey motor lodge is across the street. The Legislature and the Empress Hotel are just a few long bowls farther west.

Yesterday, an earth mover roared back and forth just beyond the club’s northern fence, pushing dirt in front of the twin towers of the adjacent Aria condominium development. Across the street, the motor lodge’s windows are boarded.

The club is located on city-owned land that it leases for $1 per year. The city issued a study last week looking at options for the block. Among the wish list were an art gallery, a children’s museum, a conference centre extension, an open space above underground parking.

None of the possibilities included keeping the lawn for bowling. Page after page showed a building atop the grass where players will soon return for the club’s 85th season, the 78th on this site.

“We’re trying our best to stay alive,” Mr. Turner said.

“I know we’re only tenants. We don’t have much power.”

As it now stands, eviction could come soon after Labour Day.

If so, the city will lose one of the features that makes downtown unique. The sight of bowlers in their whites cavorting on grass trimmed to crew-cut perfection has long captured the imagination of tourists, who have been known to stop their vehicles in the middle of the road to snap a quick photograph.

Travel writers still refer to Victoria as a remnant of Olde England, which is what happens when you stick a pitchman in a beefeater’s costume and having bagpipers among your buskers. The club, originally launched for railway workers, is one of the last authentic throwbacks to the city’s British heritage.

A guest book greets visitors inside the door of the clubhouse. The most recent entry is dated Sept. 15 and is signed by two bowlers from a club in Surrey. England, that is, not the Vancouver suburb. Other travelling sportsmen hailed from Jersey in the Channel Islands.

Nearby, an automatic bowls polisher manufactured in New Zealand offers players a better grip. “Cleans, polishes, restores for better handling,” it promises. The machine costs just 25 cents.

In the main room, a portrait of the queen is flanked by the Canadian and British Columbia flags. A display case in one corner shows 11 wooden bowls donated by a member identified only as “Mrs. Peden,” the mother of the famed cyclist Torchy Peden and great all-round athlete Doug Peden.

The trophy case holds a dozen beautiful silver trophies, including the Ladies’ Rose Bowl and the Adshead, which is awarded in an over-80 competition. The most coveted is the Yarrow Cup, donated by the Esquimalt shipyard in which were built the vessels that helped win the Second World War.

Mr. Turner walked into the club one day 13 years ago and immediately felt he had found home.

He emigrated to Canada back when the great monarchist John Diefenbaker was still prime minister. The new arrival came to Canada out of curiosity, eager to see a new land. The son of a Sheffield steelworker did his damnedest to avoid his birthright at the steel mill.

“I was too scared to go in there,” he said. “It was like hell. Flames and heat from the furnace. All the noise.”

Nearly a half-decade later, he still ends his spoken sentences by saying, “innit?” As in, “Everybody used to bowl. It’s in decline these days. Too much other stuff going on, innit?” Think of it as Yorkshire punctuation.

The inexorable march of time has cut the membership of the club in half since the current president joined. The 50 members now pay an annual dues of $125, little more than $10 a month, which is about the price of a movie admission.

The old-time members were jolted last year by the arrival of a handful of 30-something wannabe acolytes. Among them was Kris Constable, a self-taught computer privacy and security consultant who expected bowls would be similar to the Italian game bocce. He was surprised to discover the bowls are biased, being “eccentrically balanced,” which is not a bad description of more than a few players.

Mr. Constable, 31, admits he came to the sport in unlikely fashion. He was enjoying drinks in a bar with some mates when one of them noted that lawn bowling — a genteel, sociable recreation — remained a medal event at one of the world’s top sporting competitions.

“Delhi 2010, that’s our goal,” he said. “We figure if we start practicing now, we could make it to the Commonwealth Games.”

First, though, he will have to protect a postage-stamp lawn from being turned into a construction zone.

No comments: