The Blewbury Croquet Club was the brainchild of Jolyon Kay, a passionate player with an entrepreneurial spirit and a persuasive personality. With his colleague and fellow scientist, the late Mike Duck (d. July, 2020), he’d established a croquet club at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (Harwell Science and Innovation Campus from 2006). In early 1993, he triggered his Blewbury campaign with a general invitation in the Blewbury Bulletin to give the game a try. “About ten of us turned up on a bitterly cold April evening”, Paul Wolff recalls. “No matter: we were hooked.”
Over the years, Jolyon became “one of the better players in the region” and the chairman of the Southern Croquet Federation. In his neighbours, Deirdre and Malcolm Cochrane, he found the allies he needed to advance his grand design. Although Malcolm preferred golf to croquet, he loved tending the lawn set among colourful flowerbeds below his house at Hall Barn. Jolyon taught Deirdre to perform at a high level: the Cochranes’ designer sundial points to Johannesburg, Palm Springs and Hurlingham, venues where she has achieved conspicuous success. In September, 1993, Blewbury Croquet Club (BCC) was inaugurated at a general meeting, with 26 founder members. Jolyon and Deirdre played a needle match at Hall Barn… “I’m sure I won”, said Jolyon. Deirdre remains unconvinced.
Initially, Jolyon secured space for two rough sloping lawns on what are now the village tennis courts. Using borrowed equipment, the club organised sessions on Monday evenings and Sunday mornings. The fledgling BCC announced its arrival in style on Boxing Day, 1994 with an impressive entry in the annual village parade: naturally the 20-person Alice in Wonderland exhibit, complete with flamingo croquet mallets, was unchallenged for the main prize. In February, 1995, the victory triggered a merry Queen of Hearts indoor croquet party Down the Rabbit Hole at Blewbury Village Hall. [Picture of parade exhibit]
The mid 1990s saw Blewbury Parish Council unveiling plans to incorporate Ticker’s Folly, a two hectare wheat field on the fringes of the village, into its multi purpose recreation ground. Jolyon’s focus was to lease part of this land for dedicated club premises. When the Parish Council bought the field, he separated BCC from the more ambitious village project and secured his space: enough for two full size croquet courts and a clubhouse on the sheltered side. To get work under way, he raised 12 individual loans of £1000 a head, with the Croquet Association contributing a further £500.
As membership and skill sets increased, BCC started winning league matches but hosting them was a problem: rival teams couldn’t be asked to play on grass that was used for impromptu football and cycling, not to mention weekend camping for scout cubs. While Jolyon’s plans moved towards fruition, the Cochranes kept BCC in business: over the next five seasons, Malcolm meticulously prepared his court for matches, tournaments and general play.
As Lottery funding came on stream for an increasing range of sports, Jolyon employed a marketing man to present a professional pitch to the Sport England Lottery Fund. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, BCC received £42,000 under the Capital Grant Scheme; the Awards for All funding had a top limit of £5000. The sum, by far the largest awarded to any croquet organisation, acknowledged the value of a startup to the community. “Not bad for a Victorian pastime with a somewhat crusty image”, Jolyon mused as he prepared to turn dream into reality.
By 1999, he had £73,000 to spend, a sum that included £10,000 from the Vale of the White Horse and £1000 from the Parish Council, supplemented by further private loans; some of the earlier ones had been repaid, others converted into donations. In October, 2001, bulldozers moved in to scarify and level the area. Over the following 18 months, the courts were seeded and nurtured under the guidance of an agricultural consultant.
By May 2003, the clubhouse was in place and the courts, widely acknowledged as the best in the county, were ready. Croquet enthusiast Roy Jenkins had agreed to ‘hit a few balls’ at the formal opening, but died in January. His replacement on May 31st was Wesley Smith, the popular broadcaster dubbed “the face of Oxfordshire”.
England’s most enduring champion, John Solomon, a teenage prodigy when he joined the British team in 1948, was present for the inauguration. As President of the Croquet Association, he complimented chairman John Munro on the club’s ground breaking success. He watched as BCC played a showcase AC match against Oxford University (the team included Deirdre) and a GC one against Thames Valley: losing both did nothing to spoil the day.
A year later, BCC invited a team from Bayeux in south west France to a singles and doubles AC tournament at Ticker’s Folly field over the same May Bank Holiday weekend. “It was the first international match in any sport played in Blewbury”, said Jolyon. In the evening, the players celebrated the entente cordiale with a catered dinner in the Cochranes’ barn, a legendary party venue for a family with four daughters.
When Jolyon and his late wife Shirley (d. 2020) moved to Cyprus in search of year-round sun, they chose a house near a hotel with a croquet court between Limassol and Paphos. All in the interests of playing and promoting the game.
In 2019, rocket scientist Peter Allan lifted the singles trophy at the International Championships at the Croquet Club of Corfu. Hail the Greek Open Champion: another first for Blewbury, another triumph for the dual Prebendal Cup winner in only his fourth year in the game. With passion and dedication, there are no limits… [picture of Peter lying prone]