Croquet and a spot of high tea

2011-10-27 00:00

IT was an unusual invitation — high tea and croquet at Lythwood Lodge on the Midlands Meander. How could I refuse? High tea is a very civilised affair and I am all for indulging in anything to do with gastronomic titillation.

But the croquet part had me confused. I thought this game had gone the way of the dinosaurs. Apparently I was wrong. On examining my wardrobe, I discovered there was a distinct shortage of long frilly skirts or large brimmed fancy hats. Oh, what to do, what to do?

I had last seen Alice In Wonderland playing croquet using flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls in a fantastical movie and a quick look on Google told me some weirdos play nude croquet at full moon. I decided that my ankles would be naked but nothing else.

I am told that women of the upper classes used to play croquet in the olden days, but far from being a gentle game, it was marked by deceit and cunning. While fanning one’s face in the heat with a delicate handkerchief one would be plotting how to knock the opponent’s ball out of play.

Croquet players have dwindled in numbers and it is usually played by the older people, although current world croquet champion Reg Bamford (43) hails from South Africa­ and started playing when he was a lad of 14.

Lythwood Lodge has an air of olde­ worlde gentility and its gentle rolling lawn in front of the lounge is the perfect setting for a sporting match or two followed by a sumptuous tea.

First we had the game explained to us by head barman Skumbuzo Jama, who advised us to order drinks after we had mastered the game. A clear head and a steady aim are preferable when playing croquet.

There are two forms of the game — golf croquet and association croquet. I think we were shown the common lawn variety. It involves hitting a wooden ball with a smaller harder ball with your croquet mallet. The aim is to get the wooden ball through a number of hoops.

If you are inclined to be mean — you can also hit your opponent’s ball out of range of the hoop at every­ opportunity. Jama has been coaching guests on the art of croquet­ for years, so he is a gifted player. As my team partner he gave me an unfair advantage.

The opposition, Nikki and Duncan (the Shongololos), were sadly always in the rear. Jama and I (the Mbibas) were strokes ahead, while Nikki and Duncan wandered all over the lawn chasing their ball. I had my doubts in the beginning — my scores at putt-putt are woeful, but it seems I had found my sport.

Clearly the excellent coaching skills of my partner and the weighty mallet worked to my advantage. The tea was a fantastic climax to a fun morning. General manager Leon Rennison says they are hoping groups will book their high tea and croquet option for birthdays and he hope corporates will see it as a fun alternative for team building.

Rennison, a new resident in the midlands, has been researching the lodge’s history and has been enjoying uncovering little-known facts about the estate.

“It was bought by a British surgeon, Dr Pearson, in 1944, who used the stones from an old quarry on the property to build the lodge. He also got Italian prisoners of war to build the house and fittings.

“One story says that one of the prisoners was relocated from the Cape because he had been romancing the local women there. On the journey to Natal he developed appendicitis. The surgeon operated on him and removed the appendix and saved his life. It is claimed that in return, the man, a talented blacksmith, created all the metal fittings for the lodge.”

Lythwood means “place of stone”. The craftsmanship of the Italians has made the lodge a place of beauty and charm. As we overindulged in cream scones, quiche and salmon sandwiches, the view of the gentle gardens was relaxing on a spring day.

Undone by our appetites we passed on another game, although I had enjoyed my taste of victory. Brief as it was.

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