For thousands of years sport has unified countries and communities. Whether we’re cheering on our athletes at the Olympic or Commonwealth games or playing cricket in the park, sport is one of our most beloved pastimes.
For the upper classes, sport played an important role in daily life and it was as much about pleasure as flaunting wealth and social status. Henry VIII was a keen jouster, Charles Darwin’s family loved a hit on their court at Down House and even Queen Victoria enjoyed a (conservative) dip in the sea at Osborne. With the money and space to do so, wealthy property owners around the country were able to play sports on their own estates.
While the rules and attitudes might have changed over the years, many historic sports are still recognisable today. Here are some sporting highlights you can explore in our historic gardens.
Archery became a national pastime in the medieval period when it was encouraged by the crown as a way of helping the country’s defence. In a writ sent by Edward III to his sheriffs it was noted that: ‘the art (of archery) is almost totally neglected… so that the kingdom, in short, becomes truly destitute of archers.’
By the 19th century was a popular activity, particularly for women as it was one of only a handful of sports in which they were allowed to compete. At Brodsworth Hall and Gardens an area of the garden called the ‘Target Range’ was specifically designed to practice archery. It’s an unusual example of a purposely designed range – most people just used existing open space.
There’s also a building called the Target House at the end of the range. It’s a small 18th-century structure that would have stored the archery equipment. It was re-roofed in a rustic Swiss style in the 1860s.
Bowling is one of the oldest English sports and has been played in a recognisable form for at least 500 years. It was particularly popular in the 17th century, when bowling greens were laid out in elaborate formal gardens.
Charles I was a prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight between 1647 and 1648. At the beginning of his captivity he had the freedom to explore the island, and an enclosure on the east side of the castle was converted into a bowling green for him. These days we use the grounds for events, including our summer jousts, but you can walk among them throughout the year.
The first mention of a bowling green at Wrest Park is a reference to a window being repaired in the Bowling Green House in 1705. The building was set to one side of the bowling green, which was square with cut off corners. The current building was constructed in 1735 and it provided a place for refreshments and socialising during games. You can still see the building and the green.
Recent excavations have uncovered a Ninepin Alley at Marble Hill House in London. This was marked on an 18th century plan – there was a short-lived fashion for this game in gardens during the early part of the century. It was played using small, solid balls, and was much more like skittles than modern ten-pin bowling or bowls.
The fifth Lord Braybrooke, Charles Neville, was a keen cricketer, and he laid out the cricket pitch on the lawn in front of Audley End House and Gardens in 1842. The diaries of Joseph Romilly, a frequent visitor to the house, recorded many cricket matches. On Friday 29 August 1845 he wrote ‘the hero of the day in every sense was Charles Neville: he was this day 22 and on his birthday got 111.’ Audley End won the match by 230 runs. The cricket pitch is still used by Audley End and Littlebury Cricket Club.
Another cricket pitch with a long history can be found at Down House in Kent, which was the family home of Charles Darwin. The first record of a match there comes from 1865 – it was played on the paddock with the ‘kind permission of Chas. Darwin Esq.’ Today the Downe Cricket Club play on the pitch in the summer months.
At Walmer Castle and Belsay Hall croquet lawns were created alongside tennis courts. The modern form of croquet was formalised in the mid-19th century. Both activities ran alongside each other to create a hub of action in the gardens. At Walmer today you can have a go at playing croquet on the terraces, in the same way the Earl of Beauchamp’s family would have done in the 1920s and 30s.
The first use of the term ‘golf’ is recorded in Scotland in the 15th century, and the first course in England was created at Blackheath, London, in 1766. Although many parks that surround country houses have been converted into golf courses in recent years, it was unusual for golf courses to be built while houses were still in use as a private residence.
A notable exception is the golf course at Osborne, the holiday home of Queen Victoria and her family. It was possibly created as early as 1872, but it probably consisted of only two or three holes. One Osborne guest in 1887 reminded another to ‘bring golf sticks, there is a course on the premises.’ After Victoria’s death, the Royal Naval College used the house and they increased the course to nine holes. The layout of the course has changed over the years, but the Osborne Golf Club still runs a nine-hole course.
The tennis court at Down House is a rare example of an hourglass-shaped tennis court. The shape of the court followed the specifications of an 1874 ‘sphairistikè’, the first commercially packaged version of lawn tennis. The fashion for this shape was soon replaced with the rectangular courts we are familiar with today. Emma Darwin wrote in September 1881 that ‘We are boiling over with schemes about the tennis-court’, and it was built in November that year. Today you can still see the concrete surface, but there’s no net.
Tennis courts were created at Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens in the 1880s. They’re located in the Winter Garden on a large flat area that was levelled for the courts. But the location wasn’t ideal – one side had a low wall with a sunken fence on the other side. In our archives we have designs for Arthur’s solution to this problem. He proposed that the net should be placed along the wall, presumably to contain any stray shots. Today the area is used by the local croquet team.
In the early 20th century Earl Beauchamp enlarged the terraces at Walmer Castle and Gardens so they could be used for tennis. Courts were also set up in the moat and in the area now known as the Queen Mother’s garden.
At Eltham Palace and Gardens tennis courts were included in the design of the garden in the 1930s. These were located where the play area is today.
Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert encouraged his family to swim, believing that it was good for their health. He installed a bathing machine on the beach at Osborne so Victoria could change and get into the sea without being seen. Victoria wrote in her journal of 14 July 1847: ‘A very fine morning, & the day became again very hot…. drove down to the beach with my maids & went into the bathing machines, where I undressed & bathed in the sea, (for the 1st time in my life) a very nice bathing woman attending me. I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I tough [thought] I should be stifled.’
You can still see Queen Victoria’s bathing machine on the beach at Osborne.
The children learned to swim in a ‘swimming bath’, created in 1853 and probably devised by Albert. It comprised of two pontoons with a suspended wood and zinc grating in between. The design can be seen on display in the house today. Albert often accompanied the older princes on a daily swim. The young princesses were taught separately.
In the early 20th century purpose-built swimming pools were the mark of a modern, fashionable county house. Cutting-edge couple Stephen and Virginia Courtauld built one in their garden at Eltham Palace in 1933. It was also used for canoeing by their friend, explorer Freddy Spencer-Chapman, who perhaps demonstrated the skills he used on his Arctic Expedition in 1930. In 1967 the pool was filled in by the Royal Army Educational Corps, who occupied the site from 1945 to 1992.