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Crown green stalwart Peter keeps bowling along
CROWN Green bowlers like Peter Hodgkinson are the tough-as-teak footsoldiers of the sport, they keep it going with their fierce commitment and care.
We met and talked at The Alexandra Bowling Green, a tranquil setting on Dukes Brow, and in the company of his great friend and playing pal, Jim Cunningham.
When Peter carefully unfolds a dog-eared list of names, a host of entries for the 1974 Alexandra Bowling Club Presidents’ Day competition and thumbs through the scribbled surnames, there is a concern in his voice when he speaks.
“We’d perhaps have a hundred entries then, now we are lucky to have a dozen,” said the President of the East Lancashire Federation of Crown Green Bowls.
“I’ve been playing bowls in Blackburn since I was 15, but this is the most difficult period we’ve had facing the game locally.
“It does make me sad that not as many people are playing anymore.
“Unless we get more youngsters involved, I worry for the future.
“If I do paint a bleak picture, then that’s the reality facing bowling.”
Hodgkinson remains an important and influential figure in the history of local bowling and he recalls a different era when the game thrived across the county.
“We’d sneak on to play at Queen’s Park Bowling Club when we were kids and my dad had to be up there by early afternoon or he didn’t get a game.
“That’s how keen people were to be involved on the greens, although I never remember them encouraging the kids much.
“It was very strong then and the parks were always busy “Nobody really goes on the parks much now.
“Queen’s Park had two square greens and two round greens. Sadly, they are all closed.”
Cunningham’s a friendly Scot, born in Montrose, who discovered the game by chance when he came south to find work.
He celebrates his 80th birthday this year, but continues to work extremely hard in his role as the local youth and junior secretary.
But he too shares Hodgkinson’s concern for the future of their beloved sport.
“I’ve said this is going to be my last year, but getting people to do the administration is almost impossible,” said Cunningham.
“They just want to turn up with their little bag of bowls, play and then it’s ‘bye……see you next week.
“I said to Peter it will fold if we don’t get more youngsters interested.”
Cunningham has also seen the game change almost beyond recognition.
“My son Roy took me to Feniscowles Bowling Club one day, and I thought ‘What the heck are they playing here?
“It was an old penny to hire the bowls, and I loved the way people were so friendly and welcoming.
“I was hooked from my first game and that was nearly 40 years ago.
“There was six league’s in Blackburn then – 12 teams in every league.
“Now we are down to four, that’s what has happened to bowls in Blackburn.
“I’ve done everything since, playing, administration, looking after the greens, but I still love the game passionately.
“I have never been bored with the game. Never.”
Even the much-loved Alexandra Classic has suffered, with the competition cut to 32 competitors, half the number the tournament attracted a decade ago.
The golden era, says Cunningham, was the 1980s, when Lancashire bowler Brian Duncan, the king of crown green bowling, dominated the game.
“Brian was an uncanny bowler, a brilliant talent.
“He won the Alexandra six times I think, and he gave the game a national profile, with the crown green bowling tournaments often televised at the Waterloo in Blackpool, the Mecca of bowling.
“We’ve had so many characters. There was a Blackburn priest who played, Father Geoff Hilton, who won The Classic in 1997 and 2011.
“And there was a chap called Vernon Lee, a ball-room dancer, who would do a routine around the balls during a game if you asked him.”
But there could be a silver lining for the sport locally.
The third Inter-School Bowling Competition, recently staged at Blackburn’s Corporation Park and promoted by the Blackburn with Darwen Bowls Partnership, attracted a host of young talent.
“Bowls has had this old image for far too long, something your grandparents did, and that image needs to change,” said Cunningham.
“I’m often amazed by the young talent on show, but there’s not enough children playing.
“We are struggling to get that talent through, and unless that changes then I worry for our great game.
“We have to get children interested while they are at school, otherwise our sport could die.”
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