The club was formed in 1988, following a week’s ‘Come and try it’ session during the Downham Market festival. Scores of youngsters and the occasional adult tried their hand at the gentle art. With this inspiration Jonathan Toye continued to load his trusty wheelbarrow with hoops, balls and mallets loaned by the East Anglian Croquet Federation (EACF) and cart them out to a section of the football pitch that had been negotiated with the local Sports Federation.
Regular Sunday sessions were held through that damp summer of 1988, watched by intrigued cricketers strolling by and children and parents struggling across the field to the swimming pool. After a month or so the keener players were coming to the door asking for the wheelbarrow to set out the lawn themselves.
With this apparently enthusiastic response a meeting was arranged to make everything official, in the Sports Pavilion overlooking the playing fields. With the election of Chairman, Treasurer and Secretary, along with a constitution and membership fees, Downham Croquet Club came into fledgling existence.
Ensuing Sundays showed the effect of having to pay to belong. Playing numbers dropped dramatically to two or three and by the end of the season there were only four paid up members. Where had all the kids gone?
The main item of discussion for that first year’s A.G.M. was why? Was it the introduction of membership fees or the condition of the playing surface? (It turned out to be neither of these – we happened to be playing in front of the old pavilion, a favourite haunt for illicit teenage practices). The gathered few, after due debate, decided on a plan of action. A change of venue was necessary. A mile away lies the beautiful hamlet of Stow Bardolph, a farming estate owned by the Hare family. Set in the middle, in spacious grounds, was Stow Hall. At the outbreak of the Second World War the Hall was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence. The NHS had it for a spell as a maternity hospital and later a convalescent home. From the early 1980s it lay empty, a great galleon becalmed in a swaying sea of trees. Amidst these trees are some splendid areas of lawn. Jonathan approached Sir Tom and Lady Rose who said they would be delighted to have us play there and it was from that day that Downham Croquet Club really took off.
Equipment was still borrowed from the EACF until a member held a coffee morning which raised sufficient funds to buy the equipment. Coaching sessions were run by Sarah Hampson of the Hunstanton Club and by those who knew a bit more than those just starting. A second lawn was added.
The equipment was originally stored in what was the game larder of the Hall. In it, suspended from one of the many hooks around the wall, hung an enormous frying pan. A member took it home, spent an industrious morning sanding, scrubbing and polishing and returned a shining griddle to the larder. Thus was the Stow Pan, our first trophy competition, born.
All in all that first year at Stow was a delightful season. Lots of people taking up the game in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere and beautiful setting. Glasses of Pimms and picnics in the shade of great trees. With all that and the wonderful long summer Downham Croquet Club was firmly established.
We give our thanks to Judy Anderson, the original, longstanding and enthusiastic Secretary of the East Anglian Croquet Federation who loaned the equipment which gave us our original momentum. Sarah Hampson for her assistance with coaching, and all members throughout the years who have helped keep the Club running. Long may we continue!