It’s reckoned about 8,000 Australians play croquet these days. Partly thanks to the 30-year old Australian Croquet Association ACA, which launched its new ACA Academy in 2020, is more and more becoming an all-ages sport. Many youngsters will be practising hard for the Under-21 Golf Croquet World Championship, scheduled for 8-12 February 2023 at New Zealand’s Mount Maunganui. This is the time for Asia Pacific to show it can get through those hoops.
Seniors, however, will have their eyes on the traditional home of croquet, Hurlingham, in south-west London, where the next World Championships, 13-23 July 2023, slot nicely into the social calendar once Wimbledon is over. Croquet is serious business: half a century ago, a near-professional quintessential Englishman who went on to be a Member of Parliament, Conservative of course, claimed a gin and tonic as warm-up always helped accuracy with the mallet.
Chewton Glen Hampshire, 130km south-west of Hurlingham, has a superbly-professional croquet court, or lawn. For more casual playing, continue driving west until you reach Dorset’s county town, Dorchester, immortalised as Casterbridge in the novels of local author Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928. At Summer Lodge, Evershot, 20 minutes north of Dorchester, the admittedly-uneven front lawn is set up for croquet, weather permitting. Here it’s a case of a good cream tea helping your game. Amateurs do need all the help they can get. As the saying goes, croquet takes no time to learn but a lifetime to master.
Summer Lodge’s croquet hoops may not exactly be on absolutely-horizontal ground but that’s all part of the fun. Mallets and wood balls are a-plenty, and helpful hints come for free, too. Come to think of it there’s plenty to do at this country-village hotel, part of the Tollman’s family’s Red Carnation Empire. Summer Lodge’s 1.75 hectares include a conservatory with indoor swimming pool, spa and fitness centre, a tennis court and gardens for exploring.
The main house is a 1789 mansion, enlarged a century later by Thomas Hardy, a fully-qualified architect. Today, devour today’s real-copy newspapers as you sit in the grand Drawing Room by a blazing log fire. One of this elegant room’s windows, 1.5-metre wide and opened by sash pulleys, is ground-reaching. Hardy installed this so that the owner’s pet donkey could come in and out.
The idiosyncrasies of such a 25-room heritage hotel add to its charm (yes, some floorboards do perhaps slightly creak from time to time). But rooms, as you rightly expect at a Red Carnation property are thoroughly modernised when it comes to, say, excellent WiFi. Fabric half-testers tower over some beds, and homemade shortbreads cram a tin on the tea-making tray.
Dining, on pheasant-decorated china by nearby artist Richard Bramble, is mainly a few hours’ drive fare. No wasted supply chain kilometres. Elderberry and marsh samphire botanicals give Conker Gin, from Bournemouth, a unique, and agreeable, flavour to a G&T. Study the menu, perhaps deciding to start with glazed goats cheese, followed by Holway Farm lamb rump from Holway Farm, four kilometres away. Interestingly, pheasant motifs give way to plain china at breakfast, when tables are dominated by 40cm-long pheasant sculptures, fashioned in real silver in Patrick Mavros’ community studio in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Everything else here at Summer Lodge at breakfast, however, is exclusively English, including yummy sourdough from Evershot Bakery, just along the road. There’s local cheese on the bijou buffet, and from the brought-to-order hot dishes, many opt for Summer Lodge eggs benedict, perfectly poached, of muffins. English, of course.