'Bowled Over' is a real bowler's book

Sun Inn, Barnes, London

Multiple exposure photography illustrates the extreme bias of the 'woods' used at the historic green at the Sun Inn in Barnes, the last remaining pub green in London. This photograph and many others are included in the 'Bowled Over' book.

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, 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.

It is never too early to start dropping hints about what you would like for Christmas and this book would make a welcome change to socks and fancy toothpicks! The book covers flat and crown greens and is on sale now for £10 including postage from here.

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