SUSSEX has a proud tradition of bowls.

For more than 400 years the game has been played on flat lawns across the county.

But, with fewer people playing the sport, Brighton and Hove City Council is threatening to close three clubs and five extra greens.

TIM RIDGWAY asks what the future holds for the popular pastime.

IT was the age of Shakespeare, explorers discovering new lands and intellectual enlightenment.

Yet 1600 is also the time that the pastime of bowls is believed to have been first played on Castle Green in Lewes.

Soon after, players were rolling woods up to jacks on lawns across the county, including the Old Steine area of the fishing village of Brighthelmstone.

Five hundred years on and the game is still popular, being played by thousands of people every week.

So why then does bowls in Sussex appear to be suffering with declining memberships and the stigma of being a sport for old people?

Last year the news broke that the national championships, held in Worthing for decades, is to be moved to Leamington Spa.

Next week, Brighton and Hove City Council will discuss plans to close three clubs and scrap up to a further five greens as part of wider cost-cutting plans.

Yet, despite the setbacks, bowlers are still upbeat that the game has a future.

Peter Burton, of Vicarage Bowls Club, which is based in Preston Park, Brighton, said: “There’s certainly a future for it, it’s just trying to encourage them to come along and play.

“When they do sign up, members are pretty much for life.

“Everyone realises that we all must do our bit to save money.

“I think the council are coming at it from the wrong way.

“Bowls has many benefits for people, not only in keeping them fit but socially too.

“Once you close something it’s very hard to get them back.”

Last year the council revealed plans for it to end its subsidy to bowls clubs across the city.

Revised scheme

It claimed the move would save it about £100,000 a year.

However, with players claiming it could see membership fees rocket and force a number of clubs to close, the local authority delayed the move after receiving a petition of 1,600 against the plans.

Its revised scheme, to be decided on Thursday by the council’s economic development and culture committee, will see three clubs with the smallest memberships close by April – Dyke Road Park, Hove Park, and Hove and Kingsway Ladies.

The council will also stop maintaining five further greens – two at Preston Park, two at Hove and Kingsway and one at Hollingbury Park.

This would leave one council maintained green for each club, although the local authority said clubs could take on the maintenance costs if they wished.

It is believed it would save the council about £40,000 a year while leasing the Hove Park and Kingsway Ladies pavilions could raise about £10,000 each.

But Ken Ross, match secretary of Dyke Road Park club, which has been in existence for about 40 years, said this is not possible for them as it only has 23 active members.

Instead, the council believes the green could be turned into a community garden, possibly by Brighton and Hove Food Partnership.

Mr Ross said: “We have been struggling for members in recent years but the council really have not helped us.

“The parking prices in the area mean that basically doubles the cost of bowling every year and we can’t get anything out of them.

“Rather than upset everyone in the bowls world, they are happy to close a few of us.

“I will still play and I think the majority of others will continue to play, but we will have to join other clubs.

“It seems the Greens really don’t care about bowling at all.”

A council spokeswoman said: “As part of the budget process, the council has been looking at the viability of continuing to fund bowling clubs in the city.

“The council supports bowling, but we need to ensure that facilities are used and viable, particularly as numbers playing the sport have fallen and many of the city’s greens are under- used.

“Revised proposals have been drawn up following extensive consul- tation with the clubs.

Slamming doors shut

“We have been working closely with clubs in the city to discuss the proposals and identify the groups wishing to become more autonomous and have greater financial independence from the council.

“Over the coming months we will assist the bowling clubs in promoting the sport and will take into account any rise in membership before any final decisions are taken.”

Conservative councillor Tony Janio said: “The council should have plenty of other areas inside the organisation where they can cut from.

“It should be a case about whether we slam doors shut or find money to keep them open.”

Labour councillor Brian Fitch said: “I think the committee needs to do its best to keep as many bowls clubs and greens open as possible.”

A decision on the plans will be taken at the council’s economic development and culture committee on Thursday at 4pm in Hove Town Hall.