Nestled underneath Bredon Hill on the Worcestershire-Gloucestershire border in the heart of a Cotswolds village stunningly beautiful Overbury BC is as typically English as it gets.
The 60-year-old club also has an excellent green and clubhouse facilities that match the quality of its location. To first time visitors it therefore appears to want for very little, but according to vice-chair Neil Williams prior to the start of the 2022 season the club he has called home since the 1980’s was short of one key ingredient – members.
“We used to have over 100 active bowlers,” he said, “But that number had been dwindling for some time and by the time we started again after COVID we were below half that level.
“Through our Bowls England affiliation we therefore got very involved with Bowls’ Big Weekend and on the back of that we had 20 new faces arrive at the club. We now have around 40 men and 20 women members – we’re still a smaller club than we were in the 1990’s but it was a huge boost for us.
“We very much rode off the materials provided by Bowls England, especially the online resource and also the banners and balloons provided which helped us get a good atmosphere going. Along with the early-season open day we run ourselves we managed to get plenty of people bowling.
“It’s all about getting as many people on the green rolling woods as we can. Our conversion rate of signing up full members is really high once we have got them here – they get the ‘bowls bug’ quickly once they have given it a go.”
The club celebrated its 60th anniversary by researching its history, gathering some fascinating memorabilia and inviting its members to enjoy afternoon tea complete with a specially baked celebration cake – and the backstory new members heard for the first time on that warm Sunday is a good one.
Prior to 1962 Kemerton – a village close to Overbury – had a bowls club based in the rector’s garden, but this came to an abrupt halt when he wanted his lawn back and duly evicted them.
Half the members shifted towards Tewkesbury and founded a club in Bredon while the rest came to Overbury and launched a club on an old tennis court next to the cricket ground on the Overbury Estate owned by the Holland-Martin family.
To do that the local butcher – a keen bowler – had first to go to the family with the request and after a few attempts permission was granted on the stipulation that all the members lived within a mile-and-a-half of Overbury.
According to Neil a connection with the Holland-Martin family has been maintained to this day, although the original restriction has been eased.
“Our membership catchment area is now quite broad going towards Evesham one way and Cheltenham the other,” he said. “We are a Worcestershire club but have plenty of members from across the border in Gloucestershire.
“We still have a strong connection with the estate and tradition dictates that the opening bowl of the season is delivered by our President, who is the person currently running the estate, so we enjoyed having Penelope Bossom here in April this year.
“The 60th anniversary celebration was a really enjoyable afternoon. Sadly, we don’t have any founder members still around – Eric Hancock who was a real stand-out figure in our history was probably the last active bowler from among that group.”
Overbury may look like the perfect location for an episode of Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders but its bowls club is anything but sleepy as their progress in local leagues and national competitions proves.
“We have two men’s teams in the South Worcestershire league – we were runners-up this year – while the ladies are in the Concorde League which is a triples competition,” Neil said.
“We also enter the Top Club and Two Fours Bowls England competitions which are brilliant for us as we don’t have enough men to play in the male version of the league. The Top Club needs 11 players, like the eight for the Two Fours that is really achievable for us and gives our members who want competitive bowls – including some very new ones – a way of being involved really quickly.”
“We started out this year with no great expectation of doing well, since while we have a few county standard members plus some good club bowlers we also had a load of newcomers. Then, almost before we knew what had happened, we got to the Hereford & Worcester regional final where we lost a tie-break end to St Dunstan’s BC from Worcester.”
“They went on to lose to Cheltenham BC in the next round who in turn went on to win the whole thing at Leamington – so in a way we were quite close and certainly exceeded our expectations. It’s incredible to think we had players who turned up at an open day at the start of the season having never bowled before and within a few months they were in a regional final.”
“At the other end of the spectrum Bruce Hayward is a great example of how this sport is open to anyone aged from eight to 90. He’s 80 this year, is still skipping our Two Fours and our Pairs in the Top Club and went to the National Finals at Victoria Park as part of our Men’s Triples team with Dan Mason and myself in 2019.”
Looking to the future, Neil said Overbury BC are aiming to build on their successful 2022, continue to attract more members and to provide a good mix of competitive and social sport.
“We have friendly bowls on a club open night and a daytime morning which is all about getting people here to enjoy themselves, practice and socialise,” he said.
“We are very much a family club and on occasions have three generations of the same family playing at the same time. Bruce Hayward and his wife Daphne who have both bowled at a really high level are around 80 and have been involved for years while their daughter Gillian is our club coach and ladies’ captain.
“We are currently looking at extending our season a bit so we are giving more value to our members by allowing the green to be used a bit earlier and later than our current season.”
“The Bowls England greenkeeping advisory service may come into play for us there – our green is our primary asset and we have a gang of members who come every week to maintain it at the moment with 12 of us mowing on a rota basis several times each week.”
“Because of the success we had with Bowls’ Big Weekend, we very much have Bowls Bash on our agenda for next year as a ‘pay-as-you-play’ approach is something we’re looking hard at.”
To find out how your club can experience the same benefits that Overbury has realised from its Bowls England affiliation click here.
To find out about Bowls’ Big Weekend 2023 click here.