I first met Terry 'Tell-Boy' in the summer, when I was researching for a documentary based on the inhabitants of Walthamstow. Wandering around in the sweaty heat I stumbled across Aveling Park Bowling Green at the edge of Lloyd Park, tucked away within a leafy recess. After hours of talking to resistant strangers the club was a refuge, and Terry Willis, the Club Secretary, was first a friendly, then a familiar face. Chat was easy with him—he was always welcoming, always had a story to tell. I would go there often to sit on the concrete veranda, sipping lemonade or coffee with other members while Terry handed out Rich Teas and sausage rolls. “That’s one of England’s current champions,” he would nod towards a quiet, unremarkable figure, gleaming white on the vivid green.
When I return in December the green is desolate—it’s out of season and the biting frost has driven everyone indoors. Terry has managed to rally a few of the ‘old boys’ to come and talk to me and we sit in the small club hut nursing cups of tea. Bill Warren, Reg Short, Derrick Hudgell, Steve Jackson, Colin Greaves, David Gifford, and, of course, Terry Willis, comprise what Reg terms ‘the nucleus of doers’ each investing their time and skills to keep the club what it is. The inside of the Aveling Park Bowling Club is two-tone green; mint and forest, with walnut fixtures. The walls are adorned with club photos, trophies, plaques, and medals. In one corner stands the bar, built by Bill, and in the opposite, the kitchen—also built by Bill. Before I arrived, Derrick, Colin and Kevin had spent three hours painstakingly clearing the green of leaves; four large bin bags show the fruits of their labour. “Terry does everything,” Reg tells me— organising the club matches, the socials, their new kit, this interview. “Oh yeah, and I’m chief cook” Terry laughs—“and bottle washer” Bill quips.
Bowls has always been associated with an older generation, but the reality of this only became clear when Terry explained how he got into the game.
“I first started bowling the year I lost my wife—she was only young. And like in everything, you’re completely lost—you are, no doubt about it. And a friend of mine, Kenny Cook, was bowling at the time and said, “eh why don’t you take up bowling?”, he said, “get you out.” And that’s how I started. I come over on the Wednesday morning, and I been here ever since. To me bowling is the finest thing that can happen to anybody in my position.”
For Terry and many others, the bowls club offers sanctuary in the face of great loss. It’s a place where “you meet so many other people in the same position as yourself”— a social hub and a support network for the older generation. More than this though, it’s a lifestyle. Terry muses, “It’s far better than sitting on your own, looking out of the window” to which Bill responds, existentially, “Keeps you in touch with life doesn’t it?”
On a physical level, the benefits of the game are surprisingly tangible. Terry explains: “If you talk to a heart consultant, he says, “what exercise do you get?” and I say ‘bowling.’ He says, “don’t you ever stop that. It’s the finest exercise you can have.” It’s not strenuous but it keeps you moving all the time. I mean in a game you walk up and down twenty-one times.” Bill chimes in: “Goes on for about three hours, at a run—” “And you’re bending, you’re moving your legs your arms,” Kevin adds.
The consensus is that a player must walk between a mile and a mile and half during one game. This is a sport of stamina and endurance, albeit ‘gentle exercise’. “But you’ve got to realise” Terry adds, “that a lot of these walk a lot longer than that because when they bowl their wood goes anywhere, and by the time they’ve walked to retrieve it—” he is cut off by protests from around the table, and chuckling, he gives me a wink.
Terry, Bill and Reg—the oldest and longest standing members—form a kind of Three Musketeers trio. Bandying between themselves, their high-speed conversation is irresistible. Every Saturday, while the club is used for a yoga class they ‘sit round the back,’ in the ladies’ dressing room, talking of ‘all the yesterdays that’s been.’ Eliza, the teacher, once commented on Reg’s ‘lovely hair’ (it’s certainly impressive), so Terry and Bill told her it was a wig. They also said that Reg was 97 (he’s 80). A week later, when Eliza asked after Reg, Bill replied, “He took the wig away, got it cleaned—he’s like a new man!” The three descend into laughter with this punch line, Reg shaking his head in dismay. David says wryly, “they tend to go on like that the whole time.” “I love it,” Reg says, “it’s all part of the—” “camaraderie,” Bill finishes. Reg smiles—“Exactly.”
“But you’ll find that practically everyone has a history of different jobs and they use their skills in different things.” David swings the conversation back to the subject at hand. A large wooden plaque dominates one wall of the hut, with a list of all the club champions, each individually carved by David. “Most clubs, well all clubs will have a board like this,” he tells me, “and some of them go back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. It’s a social history. Most people come and they look at the board, ‘cause you can’t help looking at it, and… it brings back memories.” And this is a club imbued with good memories. Reg reminisces: “We used to have a social on a Friday night—fantastic. Bill used to do the bingo, and we used to have another guy, Jack, behind the bar. It was lovely. Chocolate board. Darts—we had darts.” The socials have changed a lot since then, however, as Bill notes: “Yeah when we first started we used to get over 40. Sadly four years later, you’d done well if you got twelve. So that died a natural death.”
The social life of the club is not the only thing to have struggled against time: the very fabric of the tradition has met with a re-design. “When we joined, you wore whites—you always wore whites—and that turned a lot of people off. But now, like cricket, colours are coming in” Bill remarks. Bowls traditionally had a very strict dress code: “you always used to bowl in a collar and tie,” Derrick tells me, and “you wouldn’t go anywhere without your blazer” Terry emphasises. For ladies it was even more orthodox—they had to wear hats throughout the game, and each item of clothing had to be a specific make. The rules have slackened considerably since then, as Bill explains, “Ladies’ bowls has changed quite a bit. If you go back twelve to fifteen years they always wore these ‘St. Trinian’ hats, and it was always a blazer, with a little bow. And you never saw women bowl in trousers – now you hardly see them bowl in skirts.”
For some this shift signals liberation, for others, like Reg, it signals loss: “well I’m a traditionalist I suppose, I don’t know. I prefer the whites. In a big game it’s really lovely to see everyone dressed in their whites.” I sympathise: there’s something sad about the disintegration of the tradition—eventually dulling the uniform brightness of the game. David offers a more rounded outlook, however, seeing the merits of both casual and formal wear. “If you come along on the weekend and you see everyone in white, it looks impressive—it really looks impressive. But if you come along on the Tuesday to the over 50s open session, you’ve got 20 to 30 people playing bowls, all chatting away in casual clothes. It’s good in a different way. I think there’s room for both. It’s like tennis, you watch Wimbledon and it looks far better with everyone in white, but that’s life—life changes.”
Change is a big theme around the table—change in the game, change at the club, change in “life”. As numbers reduce steadily each year, the club is forced to adapt, to loosen tradition and change convention in order to attract more members. Derrick tells me that since he and Steve joined in 2004, “we’ve probably seen the decline of about twenty bowlers.” Despite attempts to modernise, the club’s quota continues to decrease, as Bill points out: “a lot of colour [in clothes] is coming into the game, but it’s not really attracting members. That’s the trouble: every club’s losing members every year.” And it’s not just because people aren’t joining the club, it’s partly because those already existing members sadly cannot play forever. “We’ve just lost our oldest member—101—he died a fortnight ago” Terry says. Murmurs of appreciation and reverence ripple around the group. In a perverse twist of fate it would seem that bowls is literally a dying game. Within a drastically altered social landscape, British traditions like bowls struggle to remain relevant.
It’s not all bleak, however. The club is doing well financially, and they still have a stronghold of members. In the summer the green is spotted white and the veranda is packed with figures, quietly dozing or chuckling in small groups. Aveling Park Bowls Club remains a hive of activity, a thriving social hub in the face of adversity. This is mostly due to the merit of its members—to that “nucleus” that sits at the table with me. Looking around, I don’t doubt that “there’s not a friendlier club anywhere.” “I can’t think of any major upsets,” Bill says frankly and everyone nods in agreement. Terry reinforces just how special the club is: “nobody ever leaves to go to another club.” With a history that spans over a century, lawn bowls is a pinnacle of British culture. This quiet spot, hidden from the eye—and overlooked by those who pass it by—is a crucible of forgotten athletes upholding this enduring British tradition. For these men, it’s clear that bowls is for life and very much a living sport.