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Joan Coop, 90, is possibly the oldest bowler in Farsley. She took up the sport over 30 years ago and continues to play several times a week. Joan shares her active story
PHOTOGRAPHY: DANIEL JOHNSON
FEB/MAR 2023 ISSUE
Do you think of yourself as an active older person? The word “active” conjures up images of 87-year-old women who run marathons or senior bungee-jumpers. You may not be a sky-diver or a wind-surfer, but you can still be active. Many of the activities we take part every day can keep us active. Joan Coop is 90 and she puts her good health down to “keeping moving.” She’s the oldest member of Farsley Bowls Club and now acts as Club Chair. Joan didn’t start bowling until later in life and she end up captaining several teams. Joan shares her story about how bowling keeps her moving and explains why you should try it too.
How did you get started with bowling?
I lost my husband when I was 56. I did nothing for two years. Then I plucked up all my courage and went up to the Civic in Farsley. It was a Dance Hall. I knew one or two people. One man said to me, “Would you like to have a game of bowls?” I was in my 60s by then. I said, “I don’t know anything about bowls!” I wasn’t sporty – not one bit. He says, “None of us know much, but a few of us are thinking of making a team up, having a go.” So I went with him to Huddersfield to an indoor bowling place. You went up a little narrow staircase and into an attic. I didn’t know what was going on. They said, “Get a pair of bowls.” So I picked two odd ones. I did manage to hit the jack once or twice but I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. A few weeks later the outdoor greens opened. This same chap said, “Do you fancy going up to Bowling Park in Bradford and having a game outside?” I hadn’t been very often but I went and had a go. One of the captains up there was really nice and he showed me everything I needed to do and what to look out for.
When did you start bowling in Farsley?
I used to walk my dog round by the club house. But nobody spoke to me! I used to go up to bowl in Bradford, I didn’t use the local green. You have to speak to strangers. I worked behind a bar for 20 years – my husband was a steward – so I was used to talking to strangers. If they talk to me, I’ll talk to them. But I didn’t feel I could just go up and introduce myself. Anyway, then I went to my nephew’s birthday party. About 6 o’clock I said, “I’m going to have to go.” My nephew says, “You’re going bowling, I know.” And this lady Pauline, who was at the party, she says, “You know, I’d love to learn to play bowls.” I said, “Come with me then!” And later on, we did. She had a pair of her father’s bowls, he used to play. We came down to this green at Farsley – there were no fences at the time – and we started practicing. A friend of hers walked in while we were practising and watched. Then people started talking to us.
One day, one of the captains said, “Joan, do you fancy having a game of competitive bowls?” I said, “I’m no good at it, I’m only practising.” She said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m short and if you’d like to play, I’ll put you in the team. It doesn’t matter if you don’t score at all.” Well, as it happens, I did score. I didn’t win. But then she roped me in for the Wednesday team. And that was that! I ended up captaining a Monday, Wednesday and Saturday team!
Is bowling an active sport? Why is it beneficial for you?
You use a lot of energy because every end you play, you walk. You have at least 29 metres that you’ve to walk every time you change ends. You keep going until someone gets up to 21, so it can go on a while. You get so warm. I might start in a coat and when you play, practically everything comes off! The coat comes off, the jumper comes off, you’ll end up just in a t-shirt.
Then there’s a social side of bowls. You meet other people from other teams. Last year we had a night out, all together. I booked Napoleon’s casino and we got 32 people. A lot of the time on people’s birthdays, we’ll put a bit of a spread on. Everyone brings a little bit of something and we have a Birthday Bowl.
You’re very active, even at 90. How have you stayed well?
I’ve always been a manual worker, that’s always helped me keep fit. I started in an office: could not do it. Not interested one bit. Then I went into commercial sewing. I left school at 14 and did that until I was 25. Then my husband and I went in to running a little club. I’d worked at the Railway pub in Rodley. We took what was Bramley Social Club over. Then we got another club at East End Park. Then Bramley Social asked us to come back! They’d had three stewards in and they’d lost money – the stewards had helped themselves. So they asked us on bended knee to come back. I really enjoyed it. It was the moving about, pulling beer, lifting crates up – it was manual work. After that I worked in shops. Again, manual, moving about. Walking up to the warehouse to get stock. All my life I’ve moved about. People that sit at a desk all day – they have to have some exercise. With bowls you have to get out and meet people. You don’t just sit in the house on your own. And I have a dog. I take him out for a walk every day for about three quarters of an hour.
And you were a dancer too?
At one point, dancing was my whole world. My husband was a lovely dancer. We went to sequence lessons. And we got gold medals. You did certain dances in front of the judges – they watch your feet. Like they do in Strictly. Though I don’t see Strictly as proper dance, it’s more like exercise.
But you say you weren’t sporty as a kid? Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Armley. Near the canal there was a Swan bath factory, which got turned over to munitions. I lived down there, in a house just below Armley train station. When the war started, I was 7 years old. My father was laid off for a few months. He used to drive Sammy Ledgerd buses. There was a steep hill and Samuel Ledgerd bus garage was there. One night, he had to back this bus down into the garage. It was a foggy night and there was nobody there to back him in. He hit a little girl who was there, and she died. These days large vehicles have warning lights and noises. But not then. This little girl, she was the same age as me. It really affected my dad. There was a court case and he was exonerated.
At the time, I was living at my grandma’s because my mother worked in a mill. I went to Armley Board School and my grand- ma lived just below there. I did play rounders at school – and I loved swimming. But when I left school, I didn’t do any of it. I never kept it up.
Tell us about your role as Chair of the Bowls Club.
I’m really only a figurehead. People talk to me when they need to talk to the Secretary – when she’s working. I’m a person you can go to if you have an enquiry or a complaint. People do talk to me. Usually on a Friday it’s a friendly day. People come up for a practice and if they’re strangers I’ll talk to them and tell them what’s what.
What would you say to someone who was thinking about bowling?
I’d tell them, “Come and have a go!” The truth is that nobody knows anything about bowling when they first come. We had a lady come a few seasons ago. Really nice, really quiet. I didn’t do much talking to her. But one of the captains took her in hand and she’s turned out to be a really good player. I said to her, “Do you fancy playing for the Ladies Team?” She says, “I can’t play, I’m not good enough!” Well, once she went into competition, she was wonderful. She bloomed.
Is it a difficult sport? Can anyone do it?
It’s a bit like learning to drive to car. You forget half of it. You have to read the opposition and work out what they’re going to do. I’ve had my bowls for about 10 years. I go them second hand – only paid £40 for them. You can pay up to £100. So you can get bowls fairly cheaply if you know what you’re looking for.
Is it competitive?
We have one gentleman – he’s so competitive. He takes his bat and ball home if he loses! He sulks! He’s such a nice guy – but if you get anywhere near that jack, he’ll have you!
A few years ago a few of the bowling greens in Leeds closed. Tell us about that.
They threatened to close half the greens down. The put together a list and they closed a few greens where the parks had two or three greens. They threatened to close Farsley, but we objected. We’re supposed to be looking after older people, aren’t we? They put the rent up, told us we had to pay more. But we kept it open. Our green used to be a putting green, you know. One of our bowlers used to come as a child. People used to come and putt. So it has a history. We’ve saved the green – but it’s still a struggle.
Will you carry on playing bowls, now you are in your 90s?
I will! If you don’t use it, you lose it. That’s what I always say.
I’M ALRIGHT, JACK-
The Health Benefits of Crown Green Bowls
Around 150, 000 people across the UK play bowls regularly and most are over 55. What’s the attraction? Bowling is a sport you can play at any age. You don’t have to be ultra-sporty, nor do you risk breaking a limb in an aggressive tackle. It’s a non-contact sport and it has a competitive edge that many enjoy. But there are huge health benefits, especially for older people.
As we age, it’s tempting to stay at home; many of us become inactive and unwilling to get out and about. The problem is, if you don’t use your muscles, they become weaker. Anything you can do to keep your muscles going is a good thing. Doing a moderate physical activity like bowling can help to prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.
Bowling burns calories too. A game of bowl is deceptively energetic. According to one study that compares all sorts of different activities, crown green bowling uses about the same energy as horse-riding and playing golf. Even more surprising, playing bowls burns off more energy than having sex! Being physically active has knock on effects too. Keeping your body active means you’ll be more able to stay independ- ent as you age.
Bowls is as much a mental sport as it is physical. To play, you need to stay mentally alert and you need coordination, strategy and agility in order to win. Bowling keeps your brain sharp! The social aspect is important too. You can play as part of a team or just for fun. And because you’re not running around a track, or huffing and puffing on a pitch, you can have a chat whilst you play. A recent BMC Public Health report revealed that older people who play bowls do it for one main reason: enjoyment. They’re not motivated by the keep-fit aspect, nor are they trying to master a skill. The physical and health benefits are almost by-products.
It's not just older people. All age groups enjoy bowls. Lee Chamberlain started bowling in his 40s and was initially sceptical whether the sport was for him. However, he’s seen numerous health benefits. “It has helped no end physically,” said Lee in a piece for Bowls England website. “It’s aiding me in feeling active again, keeping my shoulder and neck moving without extra unnecessary stress. But it’s also helped mentally with a focus, new friends, and something to look forward to.”
Bowls in Leeds
Joan Coop is part of West Royd Crown Green Bowls Club in Farsley. New members are welcomed on Friday afternoons.
West Royds Crown Green Bowls Club
New St, Farsley,
There are several other bowling clubs in Leeds, notably in Burley Park, Stanningley Park and Harehills Park. Beginners should contact their local club for details. Harehills Park Bowling Club welcomes new bowlers to come down on a Wednesday afternoon to try out the game.
Harehills Park Bowling Club Coldcotes Avenue, Leeds, LS9 6ND firstname.lastname@example.org
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