In the first of our new series, the Bowls England team visited Darlington South Park BC in County Durham, a club that has been making incredible strides, highlighting the accessibility of the sport to all. This Club, and Secretary Scott Morland, won the Story of the Year in 2020 thanks to their efforts.
The club’s mission, to change the image of bowls, has been widely publicised but to see it in action was truly amazing.
Only a few years ago, South Park had a membership of only 13 and was facing an uncertain future. And now in 2021, the club has a membership of 120 and that number is still growing.
Our goal heading up to Durham was to take the opportunity to learn more about the club, its people, and its achievements. We actually discovered a club, not only dedicated to the community of Bowls but to the wider community of Darlington.
On arrival, we were greeted by several members of the club proudly dressed in their club colours, who extended the warmest of northern welcomes.
Many of them giving up their spare time; with one member, Carol Wade, joining during her lunch break.
We immediately began discussing why the club had to change following a progressive decline in members.
The commitment and resourcefulness of their approach to growing the game, from what could best be described as modest resources, is little more than astonishing.
Their inclusive attitude, promoting Bowls to all parts of the community of Darlington, is an inspiration.
Under the management of Scott Morland and club president John Suggett, South Park defies the sizable challenges and achieves the most remarkable results.
This may not always be measured in trophies and awards but in making our game a community builder, their success transcends any prize.
With limited club facilities and using rink space that is part of the local park, Scott and his team of volunteers have created a club worthy of everything that should be promoted in the game.
The club is situated in the centre of the park, the main green space in Darlington, using Council ground staff to maintain the rinks for play, as the club does not have a dedicated greenkeeper.
Refreshments are available through the neighbouring South Park Cafe that supports the Club and storage for equipment and changing facilities are limited to a very small area of the Council-owned pavilion.
Without the protection of dedicated fenced-off areas and secured changing facilities, the club is vulnerable to crime, and has in the past had valuable equipment stolen.
Yet despite these challenges and the club continues to grow and reach out to all areas of the community.
Growing a female membership was a key goal of the club and South Park Bowls is now able to boast 42 female members, up from only 6 at the end of 2019.
Club member Glenyce Toole formed the first women’s league team from ‘women only’ open events, training new starters indoors to build their skills.
She said “it was massive recruiting more women, the club were struggling for many years trying to get more girls into the game. Wives and their daughters would only come to watch the odd social game, but they had no platform to play.”
Glenyce a six-month bowls veteran, devoted her own free time to build the female membership; incredible dedication for someone only recently involved in the sport.
Youth membership, under the guidance and enthusiasm of members Sue Laycock and Sue Waller, provides both variety and interest.
Both are looking to build a full youth set up and, alongside coach Ken Bousfield, are planning to build a foundation for a future junior weekly bowls programme.
Ken told us, that “what we want to do, is get young people into our club, and at South Park we are catering for children of all ages and abilities to come and play the game.”
Other initiatives include affordable rink sessions and introductory memberships schemes, engaging with local mosques, scout clubs, and schools all designed to keep bowls as a great team and community option to different groups.
The club hosted a “Drag Night” breaking a perception of the sport and using the event to engage with the LGBT+ community.
South Park have also focused on engaging with people of disability.
Scott told us “For years we had spoken about getting a wheelchair, and getting more people involved. We had a member that represented us indoor that couldn’t play outdoor as we didn’t have one. During Covid and for my mental health I needed a project and decided to try and mobilise something.
“We gained a grant and raised donations for our first electric wheelchair (Bowls Royce) then gained two further grants which meant we could buy another two manual chairs and lots of launchers, lifters and other aids.”
There are countless stories of people who would never have begun playing the game – without South Park.
John and Jane Bassett, two members who have embraced the club since joining, spoke about how South Park never feels anyone is beyond the sport and how the game is never inaccessible, no matter what limitation individuals may need to overcome.
The club are hoping to expand their disability programme, with a brand called “Without Bias.” This new initiative will increase their ramp bowls participation at the club and encourage bowlers of different abilities to join.
South Park Bowls sees itself as a conduit to the game of Bowls and this level of engagement across this range of groups speaks so loudly when you consider the resource limitations.
The need and desire to simply make things works is an ethos at this club. Their attitude and approach speak so loudly that having the opportunity to meet with the membership was an honour and a humbling experience.
And as their 2021 President, John Suggett says, “our club is a people’s club in a people’s park’ and that is the ethos that changed us, we started embracing our open space and targeted letting people use the green more socially without barriers than worrying about green damage.”
The last eighteen months have been extremely challenging, but South Park has shown that with a lot of hard work, dedication, resourcefulness, and a degree of ingenuity, blended with a never-say-die approach much can be achieved with very little.
The club told us “they have taken the line of making bowls accessible to all which means we want everyone to bowl and change the mentality of the sport, we want children, different communities, older members, men, women, those with disability”
“It is no longer about just surviving, it’s about building a club and sport that can be enjoyed in the social way that other sports are without barriers.”
The Bowls community salutes you all and we are proud to take this opportunity to recognize your remarkable achievements, and may South Park continue to serve the sport and the people of Darlington.
Has someone at your club gone the extra mile to grow your membership? Perhaps your club has come together and increased exposure for the sport? Or perhaps your County Association has worked tirelessly to get new people on to the green?
We want to hear from you! Nominations for Story of the Year 2021 are now open ahead of the inaugural Bowls England Awards Night in February 2022. You can tell us your story, alongside nominate in our other categories, here.
Nominations close on Monday 6th December.