Think of childhood sport and you may think of rugby played on cushioning grass in the cooler, wetter months; a cross country run through winter’s mud; or a verdant cricket square in summer’s warmth. However, school sport is not confined to the great outdoors, as several specialist pursuits, confined to smaller, indoor spaces (and not dependent on the weather’s vagaries) offer similarly engaging, energetic and memorable experiences.
Clifton College in Bristol is one of 14 UK independent schools and colleges that play rackets, a sport most closely resembling squash – the others being St Pauls, Rugby, Haileybury, Tonbridge, Radley, Malvern, Marlborough, Cheltenham, Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Wellington and Winchester.
The college’s resident rackets professional and teacher is former Gloucestershire CCC wicketkeeper Reggie Williams, whose burrow-like office leads directly onto the college’s rackets court. Measuring 60 feet long by 30 feet wide and 30 feet high, with its black, concrete walls and floor, the court has the feel of an empty lock chamber.
“It’s a fast and furious game, usually played in pairs, needing good hand and eye coordination, strong footwork and an awareness of where the other players are,” Reggie explains.
Although the college’s prep school pupils play tennis, rackets’ relative difficulty and the fact that its polyurethane ball can travel at 180mph limits the sport to ages 12 and above. Those giving it a go, however, discover an intriguing sport played at Clifton since 1886. Clifton’s court sees regular use throughout the week, with children practicing in their breaks and after lessons. One former pupil now at another Bristol independent school returns to play weekly – as do members of the Boasters Club, players aged up to 70 who wish to keep their hand in.
Inter-school fixtures see pupils driven across the country during the September-March rackets season, with one dad recently travelling from West Sussex to see his son win his first match at Malvern College. “We also participate in an annual tournament at the Queen’s Club,” said Reggie. “It’s rather nice there and the parents particularly look forward to that event!”
Clifton pupil Lea van der Zwalmen took up rackets in January 2014 and has since triumphed at Queen’s. Elsewhere in 2014, Lea also represented France in squash at U19 level in Helsinki and in October won the U19 Wales Junior Open Squash Championships for France, defeating number one seed Elin Harlow en route.
The message from Clifton seems to be, ‘have racquet, will travel’, with a poster in Reggie’s office advertising the availability of gap-year rackets fellowships in North America. Clifton was the first British independent school to have facilities for squash, rackets, fives and real tennis, the last of which has an outpost in Melbourne.
Former pupil and rackets star Ben McGeoch reveals, “I very nearly travelled around North America on my gap year playing rackets, but chose to travel with friends instead. I am currently at university in Durham and hope to play in both the U21 and U24 tournaments this year – and my aspirations in the game are just to get as far as I can in tournaments. Rackets is a very sociable sport and I have made many close friends around the circuit.”
Ben took every chance he could to practise. “I got into rackets the year before going into the upper school when I started playing during my lunchtimes. By the time I came into the upper school I absolutely loved the sport. For the first couple of upper-school years I would play whenever possible during the day. As I progressed through the school I began to play more in the evening and after school, when Reg would bring in some experienced players from Bristol University or the town. Playing with these adults who were far better than me really helped my game.”
Malvern College’s sports complex was officially opened in 2009 by HRH The Duke of York, while the cricket centre incorporated within it was opened by former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan. The complex’s other sports facilities include an eight-court sports hall, an exercise studio, climbing wall, six-lane 25-metre pool, glass backed squash courts and a shooting range.
The Ron Hughes Rackets Courts were refurbished in 2010, giving Malvern two matchplay-standard courts, similar to those at Queen’s. Malvern’s rackets alumni include Mark Hubbard (2011 Professional Singles Championships winner and 2014 Queen’s Doubles finalist) and Ben Bomford, who played in the Pol Roger Inaugural Championships at Queen’s. Both learned their craft at Malvern under rackets professional Roger Tolchard, and both continue to play the game at a high level and to compete at the school whenever possible.
Headmaster Antony Clark says: “We are delighted to have these outstanding facilities at Malvern College which is recognised for excellence in all fields, our sports complex and rackets facilities being no exception. Our Rackets Courts have been magnificently refurbished and we are now able to host important tournaments such as The Professional Singles Championships and Ladies’ British Amateur Doubles Tournament – the first tournament of its kind for women and now an annual fixture at Malvern.”
Ten-time UK Fives Champion John Reynolds became an instant fan of the sport at City of London School. “Eton Fives (one of the variations within the sport) has been in my dreams for the last 40 years,” John explains. “It is a game of hazards and, like real tennis, its court has history. It was originally played by peasants against the church wall in the Middle Ages, although there are Greek and Egyptian carvings depicting similar games.”
Today his company installs courts at schools nationwide, bringing many advantages. “It’s a very good urban game because its footprint is so small; on an 8x4m court you have four people playing – compared to tennis it is ten times more efficient. There is no need to resurface, and to play you just need a £25 glove. The sport has no referee even at the highest level: players must be their own impartial judges.
“Fives teaches you the valuable life lesson of seeing the game from your opponent’s point of view: of discussing, rather than enforcing your will. Players are, essentially, voting against themselves. Most institutions – Parliament, politics, law, journalism – are oppositional, and members put their interests or the interests of their institution as strongly as possible. In fives, although the player still wants to win, he also wants to be impartial. I am more civilised for playing the game.”
At Somerset’s Perrott Hill School, fencers from years 3-8 participate under recently-arrived Hungarian coach Csaba Hajdu. Under Professor Jim Perry’s coaching, countless Perrott Hillians took part in the annual IAPS tournament at nearby Millfield Prep. Perry’s tragic death saw one of his protégés, Liz Williams, replace him, and the Jim Perry Memorial Tournament – a useful first ‘toe in the water’ for new fencers – was her brainchild.
A full-time professional fencing coach, Liz set up Buccaneer Blades in 2007 to provide fully qualified professional fencing tuition to school children from age 6 upwards, in schools lacking fencing facilities. Schools to have benefited from her coaching include Gloucestershire’s Westonbirt Girls, Dorset’s Sherborne Girls and Cheltenham’s Dean Close.
“Many independent schools we work in have a strong tradition of fencing. although gone are the days of a full-time fencing master and a dedicated fencing salle,” Liz explains. “This is where we come in, bringing all the modern equipment and clothing required to train fencers and run fencing tournaments. Fencing has been likened to a physical form of chess as it teaches lightning-speed reactions along with tactical thinking. In addition, of course, it is also the opportunity to be a Jedi, knight or pirate for an afternoon. For many it is the pull of the history of chivalry, derring-do and adventure.
“For some it is sport, pure and simple – physically demanding, mentally challenging. Whatever it is bringing them to us, our duty is to teach them the values of fair play and the strict rules of combat, and to leave them with an enduring love of fencing. The sport appeals to a wide range of pupils, from the ‘non-sporty’ to the traditional team player to children with learning difficulties like autism and dyspraxia. With the prescribed movements and specific blade positions, fencing can be learned and played at a social level – yet still leaves the opportunity to mentally stretch the individual into a unique elite athlete.”
Liz pays tribute to her inspiration. “My coach and mentor, Professor Jim Perry, coached the British Services champions for many years and was also the first coach of our current Men’s Foil champion and Olympian James Davis. He was a great character and an inspirational coach, and I hope his legacy lives on in our coaching ethos.”
Millfield is one of the few UK schools offering training in all three fencing weapons (foil, épée and sabre) to both sexes at the highest levels, at its dedicated Fencing Academy. Fencing is available to every pupil as a games option, irrespective of their age or skill, while a team of four fencing coaches provide all-round support. Millfield’s purpose-built fencing salle contains ten training pistes, each served with full electronic data recording equipment.
The school strives to provide both junior and senior pupils with valuable competition experience, entering a number of home and abroad tournaments. These range from the Leon Paul Junior Series to World Cup and Grand Prix events. Millfield has had over 60 pupils awarded International honours at all levels, and last year won five British Schools Team titles and retained the Overall Public Schools Championships Crown.