Nelson hides a very special bowling club : Ngawhatu

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Travel about New Zealand, and you’ll find lawn bowling clubs nestled in beautiful settings throughout the country.

The Pohara Bowling Club comes to mind - a charming green and pavilion set into the hillside on the edge of Golden Bay.  Or a club like Temuka - which enjoys an enveloping backdrop of trees in the town’s domain.  Or even a big city club like Carlton Cornwall - a quiet oasis in a corner of Auckland’s Cornwall Park.

The Ngawhatu Bowling Club in Nelson is another such club.

It’s a club that most visitors to Nelson will have never seen. That’s because most visitors to Nelson come for the sun, sand and surf.  But swing around 180º, and the city is backdropped by beatutiful bushclad hills and valleys : Maitai Valley; Marden Valley; Aniseed Valley and many more.

One of those valleys, Ngawhatu Valley, became the site of the Ngawhatu Psychiatric Hospital in 1922.  And one of the therapeutic benefits touted for patients being admitted to the hospital, was the opportunity to play lawn bowls during their convalescence.

In the early years, that meant an excursion into a city bowling club with keen, accompanying staff.  But such was the game’s popularity. that in 1942 the Hospital Superintendent was convinced to lay down a bowling green at the hospital itself.

The Ngawhatu Hospital Bowling Club was born, and outside players were invited to join in playing the curative game with both the patients and staff.  The club took off.

“With the closure of the hospital in 1991, the renamed Ngawhatu Bowling Club decided to continue to lease the land and facilities from the Nelson Hospital Board,” says Club Greenkeeper Maurice Cattermole. “And although the board sold the former hospital land to a developer in 2003, the club still continues to this day to pay only a peppercorn rental to the new owner, Stuart Calder.  We’re very grateful.”

That doesn’t mean it’s all beer and skittles for Ngawhatu … Maurice and the club have to grapple with their very own unique greenkeeping problems.

“One of the issues with being out in the wop-wops is that we get wildlife wandering on the green,  The wekas and pheasants aren’t too much trouble, but when the odd cow gets loose or wild pigs and deer, hoof across the green, they can really do a lot of damage!”

“On top of that, we don’t have reticulated electricity.  So some years ago, we invested in a generator for the club.  I imagine we must be one of the few clubs in New Zealand where turning on the lights isn’t just a matter of flicking a switch!”

It’s those quirks of the New Zealand of yesteryear which make this club very special.

“We’ve only got 15 full-playing members,” says Maurice, “but with the new Montebello housing subdivision down the road, we’re confident of getting more.  People have assumed we would close, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

That’s because the club is loved not only by its members, but also by the many Nelsonians that belong to other city clubs - who appreciate that with Ngawhatu they have something very special in their city.

“Our big tournament is the St Patrick’s Day Mixed Triples on March 17th,” says Maurice. “Townie bowlers love the excuse to come out and play here every year.  It’s like a picnic day.”

However, being in the ‘country’ doesn’t mean standards are compromised - the Centre is more than  keen to schedule tournaments on the Cattermole-manicured maniototo.

“I’m told the green is as good as anything in town,” says Maurice.  “Players just need to realise that the climate’s a bit more extreme than the town.  It’s much colder up here in winter, and much hotter in summer.”

Those climate extremes never stopped the likes of Neville and Kay Forsyth, the parents of lawn bowling legend Ali Forsyth, belonging to the club for years.

“We’re looking forward to our centenary celebrations in 2042 and inviting Ali back to where his folks enjoyed the game.” says Maurice.

“It’ll be my centenary year as well.  But I give the club a much better chance of getting there than me!”