FEATURE: How does a blind person play bowls?

Four members of the Rotherham Blind Bowling Club. From left Vic Roddis, 77, Vera Bennon, 92, Pete Hazelhurst, 45, and Ray France, 70
Four members of the Rotherham Blind Bowling Club. From left Vic Roddis, 77, Vera Bennon, 92, Pete Hazelhurst, 45, and Ray France, 70
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Ray France laughed when Rotherham Social Services rang him to ask if he would help set up a club that would allow visually impaired people to play bowls.

“How can they see?” The secretary for the Clifton Park Bowling Club asked himself.

Ray France, 70, who founded Rotherham Blind Bowling Club 25 years ago

Ray France, 70, who founded Rotherham Blind Bowling Club 25 years ago

But then he thought: ‘let’s have a go’.

That phone call was 25 years ago.

Since then, members of the Rotherham Blind Bowling Club have enjoyed an hour of bowling every Tuesday at 10am throughout the summer months.

Mr France has also helped to start up clubs in Sheffield and Cheshire.

From left Vic Roddis, Alan Kemp, Ray France, Pete Hazelhurst, and Vera Bennon

From left Vic Roddis, Alan Kemp, Ray France, Pete Hazelhurst, and Vera Bennon

“I have always been a big believer that if disabled people want to have a go at any sport, they should.”

But the question remains unanswered - how does a blind person play bowls?

I went along to Herringthorpe Valley Park, which is where the Rotherham team play, to find out.

To my surprise, the visually impaired bowlers were very, very good.

Alan Kemp and Vera Bennon enjoy a cup of tea before starting a match

Alan Kemp and Vera Bennon enjoy a cup of tea before starting a match

I was beaten easily by 92-year-old Vera Bennon, who chuckles modestly every time anyone remarks on her talent (which happens about ten times an hour).

Watching from a distance there is no obvious difference between bowls and blind bowls.

Ms Bennon, as the first player, threw the jack to start play.

The five players then took it in turns to stand at the same point on the green and rolled their two bowls so that they came to a stop as close to the white jack as possible.

Action shot: I had go at bowling and quickly discovered my lack of talent

Action shot: I had go at bowling and quickly discovered my lack of talent

The player with the bowl closest to the jack at the end of the round wins a point, or two points if their second bowl is the next closest to the jack.

The winner is the first player to 21 points.

But the secret of blind bowling became clear when I joined with the game and could hear what the players were saying to each other.

Pete Hazelhurst, 45, who can see clearly, acted as a ‘marker’ for visually impaired members of the group.

He described to Ms Bennon and Alan Kemp, 75, how to improve on their first bowl.

At a competitive level markers describe to the blind bowler what the time would be if the jack was in the centre of a clock face and the bowl was the hour hand.

The Rotherham Blind Bowling Club won the Specsavers Stockport Trophy five years running

The Rotherham Blind Bowling Club won the Specsavers Stockport Trophy five years running

If the bowl came to a stop five feet to the right of the jack, the marker would tell the bowler ‘Five feet at three o’clock’, for example.

For players who have some sight, there is also a white mark on the ground close to their feet that indicates which angle to throw the bowl.

So, the Rotherham Blind Bowling Club can play bowls. But are they any good?

Competitive streak

The Rotherham club came third in their first national competition at the annual Specsavers tournament for the visually impaired in Stockport in 2004.

“It was magic,” said Mr France. “I was chuffed to death.”

But the bowlers themselves weren’t happy and told Mr France on the bus home that they wanted to win.

So, for the following year, they did.

In fact, the indomitable Rotherham team took the top prize for the next five years.

Mr France admitted he even began coaching the other teams to help them through the tournament.

Although the bowlers certainly have a competitive side, it became clear during my time with them that beating each other isn’t the reason they come each week.

Sitting in the clubhouse for a pre-game cuppa, I was touched by how fondly the players spoke of each other.

All of the members were keen to point out that without Vic Roddis, 77, the club would not be able to play.

Mr Roddis has let the team play at the Valley Park club free of charge ever since their earlier training ground at an indoor green in Doncaster became too expensive for them.

Mr Kemp said the best thing about the club is “the people we’ve met on the way”.

Mr France agrees.

“When you think about friendship it is something millionaires can’t buy.

“Nobody can take that away from us.”

The youngest member is Mr Hazelhurst who first joined the club when a brain tumour caused temporary sight loss.

He has “never looked back” since, and now that his sight has improved he is essential as a marker to help the blind members play.

But the future of the club is in doubt.

Bowled over?

Mr France, who is 70 years old, will retire in three weeks’ time because “it’s time for a rest.”

The other players are worried that the club might struggle without him.

Blind bowlers who are unable to use the bus rely on a lift from Mr France.

Many original members have passed away in recent years, and the players spoke matter-of-factly about the possibility that the club will fold if they fail to recruit new members.

One thing is for certain: these players can cherish 25 years of laughter, victory, tea and biscuits, and most importantly, friendship.

The Rotherham team play on the bowling green in Herringthorpe Valley Park, Rotherham

The Rotherham team play on the bowling green in Herringthorpe Valley Park, Rotherham