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Saturday, 26 July 2014

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From father to son...Cumbrian bowls club manager hands over reins

Bowls is a sedate sport. Slow and steady. Perhaps the occasional trot of white shoe down manicured green. But nothing to raise the blood pressure too much.

Bowls pair photo
David Taylor, right and son Trevor

David Taylor knows there’s drama in bowls. As well as the sport’s nuances, David’s half century on the greens has included armed guards at matches, devastating floods and strange premonitions that come true.

As for the image of an old person’s pastime, David is convinced that bowls keeps its players young. In some cases he feels it keeps them alive.

On the subject of age, David turned 65 last week. A present to himself is retirement. Well, semi-retirement.

At the end of April he will step down as manager of Cumbria Indoor Bowls Club after 27 years.

He’ll still look after the financial side but the day-to-day running is being handed over to his son Trevor, 35.

On an unseasonably warm spring morning, father and son sit in the manager’s office at the club on Viaduct Estate Road, Carlisle.

“After next month if the alarm goes off at half past one in the morning, he’ll answer it,” says David. He smiles. Trevor raises an eyebrow.

The smile is a frequent visitor. David’s dry sense of humour, often aimed at himself, peppers his conversation and, you suspect, his years here.

He came to the manager’s job in 1985, having spent most of his working life with Carlisle’s water authority.

“I wasn’t happy at the water authority. But it was a safe job. You just about had to commit murder to get the sack. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave. I was married with three young sons. But I decided to go for it. I was fairly confident I could make a go of it. For once, I was right.”

By this point David had been playing bowls for Cumbria for years and was writing a bowls column in the Cumbrian Gazette, under the pen name of Denny Middleton.

“The Denny Cup and the Middleton Cup are the two big bowls trophies,” he explains. “Nobody knew who was writing the column when I had my interview at the indoor club. And the column had been critical of the way the club was run.”

When David got the job he stopped writing the column. “And I don’t think I ever revealed who Denny Middleton was.”

Alongside the humour is determination and an impatience with bureaucracy. “At my interview I said if I took the job I wanted to run it without any interference. If it goes wrong, I’ll carry the can. They said ‘That’ll do us fine.’ It worked very well.”

Club membership increased. An extension was built – its 10 rinks make this one of the largest clubs in the country – and the members bought the building.

David’s first decade in charge was the club’s heyday. There were 1,250 members, with another 150 on a waiting list.

David set up junior membership and some juniors won national competitions. Cumbria was the top-ranked indoor club in the country.

Bowling’s popularity was at its peak. So was David’s talent. His finest hour was the 1986 national outdoor singles championship, at Worthing in Sussex. He reached the final – and felt destined to triumph.

“Earlier that year my wife Hazel had a dream. She saw me on a green somewhere down south in bright sunshine, receiving a big trophy. And the national championship is a big trophy. Because of that dream I was confident I was going to win it.

“In the final I was 18-11 up and laid the three shots I needed to win the game. My opponent Wynne Richards drew the shot with his last ball and I never scored again. I was almost there. If Wynne had missed with his last ball I would have been the champion.”

It was David’s Devon Loch moment. He is rueful while recalling it, then he has to smile when revealing that his wife’s premonition was actually correct.

“I didn’t know the runner-up also receives a big trophy.”

David’s achievements earned him an England call-up. He represented his country from 1985 until 1992. His most vivid memories are of Belfast, for contrasting reasons. He won a tournament there. And on another occasion sport was a side-issue.

“The Troubles were on. The hotel we stayed in had been fire-bombed. When we went to the green there were armed police. The week after it was on the news; some people had been shot by mistake on the road we used to go to the green on.”

Bowls is not life and death, although David feels strongly that the sport is life-enhancing.

“Once my mother retired she just seemed to do nothing. It must be easy to stagnate. We’ve got people still playing at 90. It’s a good social activity. However good or moderate you are, there’s a standard for you.

“The people who come here in their 70s and 80s, they’ve got to get up, the blokes have to have a shave and put a white shirt on. I honestly believe it prolongs their life.”

The flip side of this is a reluctance for young people to take up the sport. To put it bluntly, bowls players are dying and their clubs are going with them. Carlisle Municipal Bowls League closed last summer after 60 years.

“It is a big problem,” admits David. “The average age is 60-plus. People say it’s an old man’s game. It isn’t – it’s a game that old men can play.

“The national bodies are trying to promote it in schools. I think that’s the wrong approach. There are so many sports available to youngsters, sports that look as if they’re more exciting than bowls.

“We should be looking at people 30-plus when they’re giving up playing football and rugby. When we get new members, nearly everyone says ‘I wish I’d started playing earlier.’”

David was a prodigy. He began playing at 16 on his local green at Scalegate Road, Upperby. David and John Bell from Wigton made national news when they qualified for the English championships at the age of 19.

Ask David what kind of player he was and he says he remembers his poor performances more than his good ones.

“I was just steady really. I wasn’t a particularly aggressive player. I can’t play anywhere near as well as I used to. Sometimes it’s frustrating.”

The social side goes a long way to easing that pain. The bowling fraternity are “a good bunch of people. There’s not many nasty ones.”

But there are one or two. Bowling can be the worst as well as the best of British.

“I played a chap at the national singles. He was a nasty character. He was saying things like ‘I thought you’d have been up at that.’ ‘I thought you’d have drawn the shot.’

“He shook hands at the end, and said ‘You were b****y lucky.’ I said ‘Yeah – but I’m in. And you’re out.’”

It’s been fun... most of it. One recollection from David’s life in bowls prompts strained silences, broken by the muttered word “horrendous”.

On the cold morning of Sunday January 9, 2005, David and his sons unlocked the club, when the flood water had finally receded.

“We got there at about seven o’clock. We had torches because the electricity had gone. When we opened the door and came in... I honestly couldn’t believe the devastation.

“There must have been a real current flowing through. Huge benches had obviously floated and were sitting in the middle of the green.

“Kegs had moved in the cellar. I just thought... how the hell?”

The tide mark was four feet high. The green was filthy and beyond repair. David says some people thought the club was finished.

But members and their friends joined the clean-up operation. The insurance company paid the full £200,000 refurbishment cost. And the club reopened just seven weeks after the flood.

“If it happened now I’d just hand the keys in and walk away,” says David. “I couldn’t go through that again.”

And he wouldn’t have to, now that Trevor is taking over, with his brother Gavin as assistant manager.

“Bowlers don’t like change,” says David.

“I think most people are happy that Trevor is taking over. He’s been assistant manager for nine years.”

David will continue to write his News & Star bowls column and is looking forward to spending more time at home in Smithfield, and to playing with his first grandchild. Georgina, the daughter of his eldest son Roger, is nearly two.

Cumbria Indoor Bowls Club will remain a big part of David’s life, although not when the alarm goes off at an unsociable hour.

“I’ll still be in,” he says. “I play four or five times a week. The only thing is, I’ll be coming in when it suits me.”

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