From five members to over 100 in two years, and much more...

1st January 2023.

Lawn Bowls in Crisis

Lawn bowls is a sport in crisis and communities built around local clubs are imploding.  Of 183 Surrey bowls clubs in 2001, only 118 remain.  The number of English bowlers according to Bowls England has declined from 150,000 twenty years ago to just 80,000 today.  And the demise of Addlestone Victory Park’s Bowls Club had been dramatic too.  From over 100 members in 2001, it was reduced to a rump of just five by March 2021.

Before the 2021 Season started, the remaining members held an emergency meeting, voting 3-2 to stay open.  Here at least was a chance to try something new – the “gift of desperation” as the Club Secretary Albert Tapper described it.  The Club would have to face head on three big challenges:

                              

  1. An old-fashioned club management that had made the Club inaccessible and excluding of the public.
  2. Covid 19 and longer term declining public engagement in pubs and clubs as people “hunker down” at home.
  3. The misplaced negative public image of lawn bowls as “old”, “slow” and “boring”.


Into Action


The Club did have £3,000 in the bank.  By June it had spent every penny on an all -or-nothing Open Day and rent to the Council.  The Open Day was heavily promoted in social media, especially local Facebook groups.  100 free cream teas were given away to bring in the crowds.  New members were encouraged to join with a £10 annual membership offer, reduced from £100.

It worked.  Twenty-three new members joined up and fixtures that had previously been cancelled were reinstated.  At a full meeting of the new membership, the whole club voted by a margin of 87 per cent to adopt new guiding values of “Accessibility” (opening the club up to all the public) and “Inclusivity” (making everyone feel welcome and at home within the Club).  A third value of “Financial Self-Sufficiency” was also adopted.  To be a community asset and not a burden on local taxpayers, it was felt the Club should be self-supporting. 

By the end of the 2021 Season, the Club’s paid-up playing membership had grown from 23 to 36.  Via Bowls Surrey news of the goings on in Victory Park had now reached Leamington Spa, headquarters of Bowls England.  Here was a pioneering Club with reversed attitudes that offered new hope for the sport.  It was shortlisted from over 100 nominations to the final three for the “Bowls England Story of the Year Award”, and now subject to a national vote. But it was up against two much larger clubs, Bristol and Wimbledon.

The Club placed park legend and its President, Barrie de Suys, 87, at the heart of its bid, not least for his Hannibal-like heroics walking 2,400 laps of the park in Lockdown (1,400 miles), raising £10,000 for the RNIB.  A campaign was run within the supportive local community of Addlestone, using social media, local BBC Radio Surrey (twice), even broadcast television to ask the public to vote for Addlestone’s very own Captain Tom and its amazing bowls club.  It won the national award, winning more votes than its two more illustrious rivals. 

But the job was not finished.  In April at the start of the 2022 Season only 23 of the 36 members had paid the membership fees, set at £100 to stay with the Club.  This was barely enough members to fulfil a now lengthy fixture list and the Club no longer had any funds to offer subsidised £10 memberships.  With the award won, and amazing community goodwill, something was needed to maintain momentum, uplift membership and thank locals for voting for the Club for the award. 

Another £3,000 of funds were raised from generous local Councillor John Furey, to hold an “Open Day” in May and a “Party in the Park” for the local Community to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee in June.  The Club’s new Sponsor, the local Gingerbread Man Bakery, provided 600 boxed afternoon cream teas at a reduced rate.  Team England Commonwealth Games para lawn bowler Gill Platt hosted the Open Day with Disabled Bowls England, themed on the inclusivity of Bowls for disabled persons. 

200 attended the Open Day, making it the largest bowls club Open Day held in England in 2022.  Then, astonishingly, a staggering 800 locals attended the free Party on Thursday 2nd June.  All the cream teas were given out within an hour, but everyone over 18 got a free glass of Prosecco or two.  The most inspiring result was the 160 children who played bowls for the first time on the green. 

Before long the playing membership had quadrupled to over 100, including 18 Juniors and three additional needs bowlers.  On top of that, the Club now has 24 non-playing social members – in total it now has 128 members.  A Club lottery registered with the Council raised a further £1,100 and funded five new sets of junior bowls for the new junior members, four of whom are now playing for Surrey Under 25s.  The Club has run for the last two years a weekly roll-up for Adults with Learning difficulties and this year offered a month of coaching for all its new bowlers, from a fully qualified Bowls England coach.

The Club continues to excel at online marketing and public relations.  It has over 750 friends and followers on Facebook, a presence on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and a YouTube channel with videos attracting 24,000 individual views, currently 3,000 a month.  It has a new website – addlestonebowls.com – and new branded merchandise with a logo designed by a 17 year-old member. However, the extraordinary growth in 2022 and transformation of the Club’s image has another cause – the new Clubhouse community cafe. 


Clubhouse Café


It was hoped that the Club could eventually draw more people into the park – and towards bowls – by opening a clubhouse café.  This was sanctioned by the Council as part of a trial to assess demand for further capital expenditure on facilities, with its £20,000 bid to Surrey County Council’s “Your Fund Surrey” community development programme.  In thirty weeks of operation, it has gained a five-star food hygiene rating and generated £9,000 in total weekend sales of Gingerbread Man Bakery items, from an average of 46 customers a day – nearly all of whom had never been inside the forbidding territory of a bowls club. 

Whilst little financial profit has been generated, but the exercise has proved the solution to the Bowls Clubs image problem.  For ninety years it had been trying to keep the public out.  Now they were being welcomed with open arms into the Club’s inner sanctum.  How many bowls clubs would tolerate this?  The high barriers between the public and the bowls club came crashing down.  People saw with their own eyes that the Club was not intimidating, inaccessible, exclusive, old, slow and boring.


The Future


However, park footfall remains stubbornly low, and doubts remain that new hospitality by itself, and a thriving bowls club, is going to restore the fortunes of Victory Park – or will prove financially self-sufficient by themselves.  It’s felt new attractions other than bowling are required to draw more people into the park.

Keen to find out what the public wanted, the Club commissioned an online survey of locals in November 2022.  402 Addlestonians responded to the survey, with 85 per cent showing support for a new Community Interest Organisation to improve the park.  Respondents were asked to chose from eleven potential new park facilities and over fifty per cent preferred a crazy golf course with a café and licenced bar.

Already a fifty-strong WhatsApp group has been set up to pursue this idea.  Whilst the project is in its infancy, the Council are looking at the feasibility of the idea in terms of planning and land ownership, and the bid to Your Fund Surrey has been expanded dramatically to £750,000 for a new multi-purpose park pavilion and a state-of-the-art 18-hole mini golf course.

It is proposed that the new facilities will be run commercially by a new Community Interest Company (CIC), regulated to serve local people, including supporting all park amenities, including the bowls club, serving school groups, local business hospitality customers, other community groups and residents of Runnymede of all ages and needs.