All of a sudden, I find myself surrounded by people who are fanatical about bowls. You may know the game – it’s a bit like French boules, but on a square of manicured grass called a bowling green.
First my parents took up the sport. They’ve been playing for about eighteen months; my Dad even coaches the ‘youth’ team (anyone under 40!). Then two weeks ago I learned my mother-in-law has joined a bowls club and even plays competitive matches in her local league. Who knew?
But I do understand the attraction. For bowls has a winter cousin, which goes by the name of curling.
First invented on a frozen Scottish loch in the 16th century, it involves two teams, each with four players, taking turns to launch and guide heavy stones down a strip of ice to a circular bullseye target several metres away.
I have first-hand experience of this sport. It was about five years ago, on one of those grey, rainy days we occasionally get in December. Skiing was out of the question and while part of me would have loved to lounge around at home waiting for the weather to improve, we had friends to entertain. So, we booked a curling session and trundled off to the Gstaad sports centre to give it a go.
Sliding and gripping
It became very clear very quickly that curling is a lot harder than it looks. Stepping on and off the ice was weird. We were given special shoes to wear – a ‘slider’ shoe, which you use to glide over the ice, and a ‘gripper’ for kicking off. Or something like that.
What we lacked in style, we made up for in enthusiasm. The most exhausting – and hilarious – role was that of ‘sweeper’. This basically involves brushing the ice like a frenzied demon to reduce friction and influence the direction and speed of the stone as it whizzes by. The harder you sweep, the faster and straighter the stone moves.
It’s a bit like scrubbing a stubborn stain out of a carpet while you slide alongside it, desperately trying to stay upright. Like I said, hilarious. We all came a cropper on more than one occasion. But we were a load of amateurs, so what would you expect?
Chess on ice
Curling is often called ‘chess on ice’ because it’s a highly strategic game (not a conclusion you’d have reached watching our efforts, though). It requires huge skill and dexterity to judge how hard to throw the stones, when to sweep and when to stop. But curling is not without incident, even for the most experienced player. Take Ben Hebert at the 2007 Canadian Open. He was warming up rink-side, swinging his broom back and forth. As he drew his arms back in a particularly exuberant flourish, the brush head detached itself from the handle and flew through the air to land among the audience. Hebert sprinted across the stadium to check no-one was hurt before gallantly presenting the broom handle to the astonished spectator holding the brush head.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of curling. It’s open and accessible to all ages and abilities, the basic rules are easy to grasp and it’s immense fun to play with a group of friends.
We’re lucky to have excellent curling facilities in Gstaad and I encourage you to use them. There are instructors available who can show you the ropes or why not drop by to watch players compete in a tournament? You can even book an hour of curling with shoe rental plus a pizza or burger and a drink for a special price (pre-booking required). So, what’s stopping you? Why not give it a go?