The Eccentric Sport of Eton Fives

'Off the wall, in the pepper the Barbers cut the mustard'

David Hunn watches the eccentric sport of fives, enjoyed with enthusiasm at Eton 

Reproduced by kind permission of the Sunday Times, 17th April 1994

Eccentricity in sport reaches its extreme in real tennis, but Eton Fives runs it close. The noble college has sat just over the river from Windsor for more than 500 years, hatching oddities for the back pages.

They have the field game, a form of football with a bully and behinds; the wall game, played in earnest once a year between Collegers and Oppidians (never have young men been muddier); and they have their fives, which is not much less peculiar, though other schools reproduced it. Eight of them were represented at the Aberconway Cup tournament at Eton yesterday.

If anybody is familiar with fives, it is likely to be with the more popular version originated at Rugby and played in a sensibly rectangular court. That would not do for Eton. In the way of real tennis, their game was shaped by local geography.

While the boys at Eton waited outside the chapel for roll call, they threw balls against a wall where, at the foot of the stairs leading to the north door, there was a convenient space between two buttresses. They hit it back with their hands, making use of hazards such as "dead-man's hole", a drain at the bottom of a short buttress, from which other players had no hope of retrieving it.

So to today's court, the inside of a stony box with problems. The front wall, against which the hard little ball is hit as it is in squash, but by a gloved hand, contains a horizontal ledge 4ft 6in from the floor. The floor is stepped 10ft from the front wall, dividing the playing area into upper and lower courts.

Where that step meets the left-hand wall is an infernal obstacle known as the pepper box. This is a multi-faceted buttress about as high as a lad from the fourth form, and to this the players direct their wiles. Speed and strength are useful, as is lefthandedness, but guile is essential.

The ball whacked against the front wall may hit those parts of the buttress that send it straight back again, or one of the dreadful angles that shoot it off any which way, even squirting the ball across the court to the right-hand wall just when you thought it was going to land at the back.

Two pairs play against each other at this game, one partner guarding the upper court and one the lower. The front man must be very quick, reacting instantly on the volley and trying to dominate the game. Life at the back may be less hectic, but not much less hazardous.

Should the ball avoid the pepper box and come your way, efforts to return it are hampered by another step down into the road (there is no back wall) and by whatever brickwork is installed to hold up the roof - there seems to be no such thing as a standard Eton fives court.

This weird game spread internationally in strange pockets. There were mud courts in Nigeria and even some in castles in Switzerland.

The Aberconway Cup is a fathers-and-sons job created by the old Etonian Lord of that name, in which the balance of ages is crucial. The best of the dozen fathers on show was Graham Dunbar, a recent national finalist, but his comparative youth meant he was playing with too young a son for success. For the fourth consecutive time, Gerald and Simon Barber won.

They have never lost a match in the four years of this competition and, at 51, papa is humiliatingly active. Simon won the Eton College championship for three years running and has lost little of his youthful ebullience. The Wagg family, Anthony and Rupert, made it a lively all-Etonian final but were hardly in it, going down 12-3, 12-5.

"Well done, father," the cries rang out. And father, red of face and with a waist that remembered better times, beamed happily and headed for the Waterman's Arms.