The Old Citizens tour of the West Country and Wales May 2017
John Reynolds reports: Three-a-side fives exists! Bat fives lives! Handball is still being played in Wales!
The Old Citizens have just completed a voyage of discovery to three fabulous fives (in the loosest sense) courts in the West Country and South Wales.
First up was the late-18th century court at Warminster School in Wiltshire. This listed structure is still in great condition but has been largely unused in the recent past and is now being brought back into use by the school. The game is played three-a-side - the wing walls are at about 110 degrees to the front wall and this means the ball can shoot sideways so you need three players to cover the ground.
This is a link to an article by Tony Baden Fuller which describes the court, its rules and other similar courts in the West Country.
Many thanks to Graeme, headmaster Mark Mortimer, deputy head Rick Clarke and to the boys who came to show us the game.
Next were the two ball courts, built in 1854, at Downside School in Somerset. These are enormous structures some 12 metres high and collectively 30 metres wide. Players have traditionally used special long, thin wooden bats to hit the ball but to make the game more accessible the school is considering using tennis racquets.
Headmaster James Whitehead suggested that the game had come to Downside Abbey via Douai (in the 17th century where English and Welsh monks were in exile) from Central America, where missionaries had seen a game of hand-ball played against walls with balls made of rubber.
Fascinatingly, the emphasis of the game is on good sport, rather than winning. "The essence of the game is to have a good dodge (rally) and a close game," the notes explain.
Explanatory notes prepared for our visit had a section entitled: "Benedictine values and the Downside wall game - a cooperative form of exercise".
We felt that this was close to the spirit of the game in Eton fives, where there tends to be a sense of joint enterprise among the four players as the ball is kept alive despite the difficulties posed by the hazards of the court. We also felt that the game-ball rules in Eton fives, where the leading pair is handicapped by a change in the cutting rules, was also in this spirit.
Many thanks to James, house-master Simon Potter and all the boys who showed us such hospitality.
Finally to Nelson, South Wales, for three- and one-wall handball on the only surviving hand-ball court in Wales, built in 1864. The wall is high (about 8 metres, perhaps), wide (10m) and long (some 20m). It was previously 30m, but has had to be shortened because the traffic on the road behind became a nuisance.
Playing on the court - which is positioned in the middle of the town - is a public activity. Spectators constantly came and went during the course of the afternoon, drawn by the tremendous spectacle of athletes hitting a ball in a three-walled court with (in the case of the home players) a great deal of skill and precision.*
Under Caribbean skies - I wonder if the weather in south Wales is always that good - we played both the standardised one-wall handball (which we've seen recently at the Westway Sports Centre but which appeared in Nelson in the 1990s) and the traditional three-wall game (which we preferred, as you can imagine, being Eton fives players).
This features a serve the like of which I've never seen: it's hit from a position very close to the front wall in a great looping lob to the back of the court 60ft back - this allows the server to step away from the front wall and then attack any return which falls short. The home players were able to knock the serve to within a foot or two of the back line (some of the players who met us had achieved global success in the 1990s and early 2000s and their skills and precision were still apparent) and we lacked the technique to hit the serves high enough to avoid immediate punishment.
Our host, Kevin Dicks, has just published a fascinating book about the game as played in Wales. The book also traces the origins of the game and shows how jeu-de-paume/tennis/rackets/fives/handball have been linked.
Kevin also suggests that the name 'fives' could well be a reference to a scoring method in which four lines of chalk were completed by a fifth (either in a square or a gate). Apparently contests scored like this were sometimes referred to as games of 'tallies' or 'fives'. This would explain how 18th century or 19th century courts which are obviously enormous and most resemble modern rackets courts were always referred to as 'fives' courts.
Very many thanks to Kevin and all those with whom we spent such an enjoyable afternoon.