Drive west along New Zealand’s state highway from Invercargill to Riverton, and you’ll pass by the turnoff to the settlement of Thornbury.
One kilometre off the highway, Thornbury is a humble collection of buildings and houses… a pub that’s been closed for a few years, a fire station that’s only been open a year, and a bowling club that’s been open for 70 years – since 1949.
Thornbury is a typical rural South Island bowling club, it is a one-grass-green club with a pavilion catering to the lawn bowls inclinations of a modest number of farmers and retirees in the district.
Only one member, Neville Hancox the Greenkeeper, lives ‘in town’ – next door to the club where he can keep his eye on any leaf of cotula or blade of maniototo that gets out of place.
Neville is also responsible for a highly unusual feature of the club – ‘the Shed’.
The Shed is an indoor-outdoor bowling rink.
“Shortly after the club was established, an old house was dismantled and moved here from up the road,” says Club Vice-President and veteran club member for 32 years, Keith Watkinson. “It was reconfigured as a 60-foot long alleyway with an old pot belly and kitchen at the rear. And
the club started using it for bowls over winter, every night seven nights a week. It was hugely popular. People came from miles around to play winter night bowls.”
“Originally, the rink had a cotula surface,” laughs Keith. “But they soon realised they were on a hiding to nothing trying to keep cotula alive in a dark, windowless environment. So they put down a tar and rubber chip surface. That didn’t prove very satisfactory either, so it was overlaid with a mat, and then 20 years ago further overlaid with the carpet you see today.”
“It’s still used for our winter outdoors bowls programme today. We get 10 teams playing three nights a week.”
But ‘the Shed’ isn’t the only thing unusual about Thornbury.
The land on which the club was built was originally the local sale yards and was donated to the council for a reserve. After the war,
the council constructed memorial gates to the entrance of the reserve commemorating the fallen locals, which subsequently became the entrance to the new bowling club.
“Every year, we have an ANZAC commemoration at the Great War memorial down the road,” says Keith. “Then walk up here to remember World War 2.”
That annual remembrance (and perhaps also unusually!) is unlikely to be followed by any comforting cheer… at least at the Thornbury Bowling Club.
“We used to have a liquor licence covered by the pub down the road,“ says Club President Jocelyn Dobson. “But when that closed, we decided it was too hard to get our own permanent licence. So we apply for special licences every year instead. This year we applied and got a licence for 6 playing days and 2 special event days. Any other day, you need to bring your own!”
Despite all this unusualness, it hasn’t affected the quality of the bowls at the club of 14 full-playing men and 11 full-playing woman members.
“We finished second in the Central-Western Division of the Centre championship,” says Jocelyn proudly. “And the men finished third. That’s not a bad result in a field of 13 teams.”
The secret may be the date scones powering the Thornbury players.
“Jocelyn’s date scones are legendary throughout Southland,” says Keith. “Thornbury is also renowned for the homemade food plentifully served at its tournaments. In particular, we put on a great mouse-trap – with bacon, cheese and pickle!”
For a small, unusual club, Thornbury is in particularly good health.
“The Thornbury Vintage Club had a hay and balage sale the other day,” says Jocelyn, “and they shared the sale proceeds with us. It was a great fundraiser to keep us going for the year.”
Make a point of dropping by Thornbury next time you’re in the deep south of New Zealand!