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FeaturesReal Tennis - Then and Now

Real Tennis – Then and Now

It took vision, fortitude and passion to bring one of the world’s most intriguing sports to Bridport. Fergus Byrne has been hearing from some of those helping to bring Real Tennis to a wider community

Those that live in this little corner of the southwest and many of those who come to visit are already well aware of the countless beautiful lanes and tracks dotted around the countryside. And unless you’re in a hurry, getting lost on route to a country pub or a local viewpoint often unveils yet another hidden gem.
One spot that never fails to delight is the short journey from Bridport to Walditch. Less than a mile in length, just off the A35 as you head east out of town, a gentle, winding, tree-lined slope has the immediate effect of leaving the world behind. Inquisitive cows graze in the fields around the impressive former home of Joseph Gundry and as you drop down into the village of Walditch an imposing building rises steeply from the roadside. If you’re lucky enough to see it ascend from an early morning mist, you might be forgiven for thinking it has the feel of JK Rowling’s Hogwarts. However, although not quite the home of an indoor Quidditch pitch, the Grade 2 listed building offers sporting magic of its own kind. It is the home of another sport that local people are fortunate to have access to. The building houses The Hyde Real Tennis court, one of only 50 such courts in the world.
Over one hundred people—men, women, and children from all walks of life—use the court in any given month and it is available to everyone, member or not. As a community resource, it is second to none in offering one of the most unique and intriguing sporting activities in the wider area. The professionals currently working at the club, Jez Brodie and Stephen Grier, offer both one to one and group tuition for beginners and more advanced players, and a Junior Academy, part-funded by a new charity that has recently taken over the club, is making the game available to a new and wider audience. Stephen, a former badminton coach, describes The Hyde Real Tennis club as ‘this wonderful, amazing, rare facility.’ But what is Real Tennis and how does it relate to other forms of racket sports that we know? Stephen has a simple explanation of how other popular racket sports are related to it, ‘From Real Tennis, squash was born. From Real Tennis, lawn tennis was born.’
The game is played in an enclosed, covered court, using walls and penthouse roofs to create endless variations of shots. Players use an odd-shaped racquet and a hand-made tennis ball. The racquet is always the first point of confusion for those used to playing more modern racquet games. ‘The shape of the racquet is derived from the shape of the hand and forearm’ explained Stephen. ‘The game is still called “jeu de paume” in France, which is game of the hand or game of the palm. The racquets have always been made the same way.’ The unusual shape and weight of the racquet take a little bit of getting used to but they simply add to the intriguing and addictive nature of the game.
Real Tennis balls are handmade, usually by the professionals at the club. In Stephen’s case, he and Jess make about 70 new balls in a month. ‘Recently, during lockdown, we made a “make your own ball kit” and we were sending them out. A lot of the feedback we had was “I didn’t realize it was so difficult.”’ Stephen says that to make a new ball from scratch takes about an hour. ‘However, most of the time we are recycling’ he says. So that takes less time. Like lawn tennis, new balls make an enormous difference and Stephen explains that the quality of the player can determine the life of the ball. He cites a couple of players who can ‘reduce the life of a ball by about five days.’
Historically, the game probably evolved from handball and is said to have been played by monks in monastery cloisters or in streets or courtyards until courts designed specifically for the game were built. It has a fascinating history which, despite today being a game enjoyed by people from all walks of life, was given a boost in popularity when Henry VIII had several courts built. One popular story relates that Henry was playing Real Tennis while his wife Ann Boleyn was being executed.
The court at Walditch has a perhaps more fragile Royal link, in that the man who began building it in 1883, Joseph Gundry, is said to have commissioned it to enjoy with his friend the future King Edward VII. However, although the court was first played on in 1885, sadly Mr. Gundry died in a hunting accident before the King had a chance to visit. The building then went through a curious but fascinating series of transformations. It was used as a roller-skating rink before the First World War and then as an agricultural building, occasionally hosting village flower shows. From 1939 it was used as a dining room for British troops and then as a repair shop for American troops preparing for the allied landings on the beaches at Normandy in 1944. The tennis court was used for servicing vehicles and guns and also apparently for dances. Legend has it that the actor James Cagney came to entertain the troops on the court where today locals and visitors of all ages play Real Tennis.
After the war the building became an enormous cow shed, albeit a cow shed with a wealth of memories. And that is how it might have stayed had it not been for the vision and fortitude of a group of local men who believed that a valuable community resource could be made of the building. Cleeves Palmer, of Palmer’s Brewery in Bridport, remembers how initial approaches to the then owner were rebuffed. He was doing A levels in school when a group of men including Lord Aberdare (then amateur champion and chairman of the Tennis & Rackets Association), Henry Johns (a professional at Lords) and Chris Ronaldson ‘knocked on Joe Gundry’s door’ asking to see inside the barn where the original court had been built. The men were given five minutes but told in no uncertain terms that ‘no way it’s going to become a real tennis court’. A follow up from Cleeves and his father didn’t make any progress either.
It wasn’t until fourteen years later when Cleeves was going through some of his late father’s papers that he discovered a link between the two families. ‘Both my father and Joe Gundry had been on a double ticket as independents’ said Cleeves, for a place on the then Rural District Council. ‘I found all these posters saying “Vote Gundry and Palmer” so I took them to show him’. It was an opportunity for Cleeves to bring up the question of renovating the Real Tennis court again and on this occasion, Joe was more forthcoming. He agreed that he would pass the building, along with an acre of land around it for Cleeves to put into a charitable trust. However, there was a caveat. Joe was determined that the deal could only go through ‘as long as it’s not in my lifetime’. Not many years later the building and land were passed on.
As three acres of land for the Bridport Leisure Centre had been donated by the Palmer family, Cleeves decided that the obvious charity to put the court into was the West Dorset Sports Trust. Excited at the prospect of renovating the court and bringing Real Tennis to the area, Cleeves then attended what turned out to be an uncomfortable meeting where he was accused of being elitist for wanting to bring the sport back to Bridport. ‘I was quite young and enthusiastic in those days’ remembers Cleeves. With a passion that underlines how he must have felt at the time, he explains that his response was that he was ‘trying to make it less elitist by making it available!’ As far as he saw it, and argued at the time ‘the definition of elitist to me is expensive and unavailable. I’m doing the opposite. It will be the most inexpensive Real Tennis court—and still is to this day—to play on in Great Britain.’ Stephen Grier agrees ‘This is possibly the best value coaching, that isn’t full government-funded, that I know of’ he says. He can offer coaching today to young people at a lot less than he could as a Badminton coach. ‘And it’s wonderful to be able to do that’ he says. Remembering that initial meeting and the reluctance to accept the club Cleeves says, ‘The elitism tag is an irrelevance now.’
After the charity eventually agreed to accept the donation of the club it was up to Cleeves to find a way to fund the renovation and running of it. A furious round of fundraising from individuals and organisations including the National Lottery eventually raised enough money to complete the renovation and the club was opened on June 13th, 1998.
With a natural eye for publicity, Cleeves had contacted the Earl of Wessex ‘or Prince Edward as he was then’ asking him to open the club. He agreed and also played a game on opening day. ‘We were only supposed to play one set’ says Cleeves ‘but he wanted to play three.’ The match, between the Prince, Sean O Dwyer, Jamie Turner, and Cleeves Palmer ended in a gentlemanly draw. Cleeves recalls that apart from the local audience there were over twenty undercover policemen in attendance and the Prince stayed for some time longer than was scheduled. One memory of the day was the Prince’s insistence that Cleeves join him in the Royal car as he drove through Bridport. He remembers it as a ‘surreal moment’ with outriders escorting the vehicle and Bridport residents out waving their Union Jacks. Sitting in the back of the car he turned to the Prince to ask what was he supposed to do. ‘Oh you’ve got to wave too’ said the Prince. ‘So you could see people thinking, which bald-headed one is he?’ laughs Cleeves. The Prince returned as The Earl of Wessex exactly twenty years later as part of a tour of Real Tennis clubs in the country.
It was an exciting time. The club’s first professional was Mark Coghlan. ‘He did a great job’ says Cleeves. ‘He was the perfect person for first pro. Really good with people, very gentle—just the perfect personality. We had great spirit in those early meetings. There was great excitement. People started moving down to this part of Dorset to be near a Real Tennis court.’ The support for the club was infectious and there were many who simply took out a membership to be supportive with no plans whatsoever to play. What had potentially been a drain on Trust resources became ‘a cash provider’ remembers Cleeves.
In the following years after Cleeves’ stint as chairman, tremendous work by the following two chairmen Jamie Turner and John Mackenzie allowed the club to develop in both diversity and vision. Jamie Turner is credited with convincing Ben Ronaldson to take over as the new pro in 2008. A moment that current committee member Guy Mallinson recalls was ‘a game changer’. As current Chairman, Adrian Paterson, puts it, ‘the Ronaldson family are like Real Tennis royalty, so it was a hell of a coup to get Ben down here.’
Stephen Grier remembers how inspirational Ben was, ‘He got so many people into the game that had never played before’ he says. Over the years the club has attracted people from a wide radius around the area, as well as right next door. ‘Just this morning’ says Stephen we had a young boy who lives in the village playing. He walked past one day and said “what is this place it looks like Hogwarts?” He was six at the time and he’s still playing and loving it. The Hyde has produced some fantastic players. The World Number 4 came through here. He came initially on an A level visit from Colfox school.’ Following the visit, he saw the job for assistant pro advertised in the Bridport Job Centre and put in a successful application. Today Ben Taylor-Mathews is the World Number 4.’ Stephen also mentions Mark Mathias as a past player who has won many amateur tournaments. ‘He is one of the best amateurs in the world’ says Stephen. And Levi Gale whose list of Open championship wins around the world is impressive. ‘Having started as an assistant professional at the Hyde, Levi has gone on to work alongside the current World champion Rob Fahey as his assistant’ says Stephen. ‘Another Hyde junior, Neil Mackenzie (son of past chair John) is working with Ben Ronaldson at Queen’s Club as an assistant pro.’
‘The club here has done so much for getting youngsters playing the sport’ says Cleeves. ‘It’s very much a pay and play you don’t have to be a member to play here.’
Like all successful sporting institutions and initiatives, change is necessary for both development and stability. It became clear in recent years that the association with the West Dorset Sports Trust needed to change. Current club chairman Adrian Paterson explains that after about a year of discussion it was agreed that the committee should make the Trust an offer to buy back the court that had been gifted to them back in 1995. A price was agreed and the process of raising funds began again. A new charity, The Hyde Tennis Club Limited, was formed and the next chapter in the life of Bridport’s Real Tennis court had begun.
Adrian sees an exciting future for the club now that it is completely autonomous and believes that security of ownership is the foundation stone for the future. ‘We are so lucky to have the court down here and the opportunity to play such a wonderful game’ he says. ‘Setting ourselves up as a charity and buying the court has been a game-changer for us, as it safeguards the use of the building as a Real Tennis court in perpetuity… something that was not the case when we were under the auspices of the West Dorset Sports Trust.’
Now that the building is secured, both he and Stephen and Jez and the committee members are looking to the future and their support of junior players both male and female. ‘Through a joint initiative between the club, the Pros and the Dedanist Foundation we are able to offer “Junior Academy” coaching every weekend’ explains Stephen. ‘These subsidised sessions work out at only £12 per hour for one-to-one coaching, but can be split between juniors to reduce the costs further for parents. We have had juniors start as young as 6, and with our recently updated court timings can offer 30-minute coaching sessions for the younger players.’
Adrian agrees, ‘Our primary objective is to encourage more juniors to play the game and this is a clearly stated aim and objective of the Charity. Both Jez and Stephen are doing a tremendous job in this regard and indeed when I arrived this morning Stephen was giving a lesson to an eight-year-old boy who lives in Walditch and when I left three more boys had turned up to have a lesson.’
There is little doubt that Real Tennis is a fascinating game to play and The Hyde Real Tennis club offers an opportunity to the local community that is unique and simply not readily available outside the area. It is an intriguing sport that without trying can be hard to fathom. Asking some of the players to explain how they might describe it brings a puzzling yet stimulating series of answers. Cleeves Palmer says, ‘When I’m asked to explain it I say it’s a cross between squash and chess—because it is a thinking person’s sport.’ Stephen, as the one who coaches beginners coming into the game, says a combination of squash and cricket are good starting points. Committee member Guy Mallinson agrees ‘You have to run and think’ and he also points out the health values on many levels. ‘It’s great for de-stressing’ he says. ‘Because you have to think and run, you can’t be thinking about anything else. So you do have to focus on the game and therefore it is really good for you.’
Cleeves also cites the handicapping system as another reason the sport works so well. The system, which allows beginners to enjoy games with much more experienced players without feeling totally unskilled, also makes those better players try that much harder. A point that Stephen explains is one of the reasons the game is so accessible, ‘for example women can compete on a completely level playing field. And they do all the way up to the elite level.’ Adrian reiterates that point, ‘the beauty of the game is that, although brain is required as much as sporting prowess, the handicap system ensures that players of differing ages, sexes, and abilities can have a competitive and enjoyable game against each other… something almost unique to Real Tennis.’

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