WHEN bury Croquet Club held its annual open day to mark the start of the season, Bury and RadcliffeTimes journalist Julian Thorpe went along to have a go at one of the world’s most misunderstood sports.

LEGUM servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus – was one Latin phrase I never used during my private school education.

It is one that would have served me well on the croquet lawn, however.

Loosely translated as “we are slaves to the law so we can be free”, it is oddly applicable to a game, which, once you have overcome the initial fear of the weighty rule book, opens up a world in which long summer evenings can be whiled away effortlessly.

Modern croquet in England is generally played in one of two forms: association croquet (proper croquet) and golf croquet, a simplified form, which I quickly dismiss as a game for wimps.

After club chairman Paul Kenworthy shows me the ropes I decide I’m ready for a proper test and challenge the club’s best player to a level, non-handicapped game of the more advanced association variety.

Each player has two balls, and the aim is to get both through six hoops and to hit the final peg.

My opponent, Paul Rigge, is a county-level coach with a handicap of -1, who, when pressed, humbly admits that he has a UK ranking of 50-something, which puts him at about 130 in the world. How hard can this be?

Paul wins the toss and chooses to go first (an advantage), leaving his ball somewhere near the middle of the lawn.

I’m faced with a choice of trying to hit his ball (a roquet) to earn an extra shot or to play it safe to the far side of the field.

Ignoring Paul’s strongly-worded advice to play it safe, I go straight for the kill.

This, I am told, is a bit like going for fool’s mate in a game of chess. It might be effective against a beginner, but employed against an experienced player is likely to result in disaster. Meh.

My ball misses his by a whisker (by which I mean the length of a whisker on a freakishly large cat) and comes to rest in a spot where it can be easily picked off on Paul’s next turn.

The game lasts about an hour-and-a-half, and for 75 minutes I am a spectator, as Paul expertly lines up shot after shot in a series of breaks.

By the end, my balls are scattered to the four winds, and I have successfully managed to guide one of them through just one hoop.

This is despite my attempts to distract Paul by asking him annoying questions about Alice in Wonderland.

I’m saddened to learn that he has never attempted to play using flamingos or hedgehogs, although this at least means I won’t have to report him to the RSPCA.

Croquet’s Lewis Carroll and landed gentry image is a barrier for some – but contrary to this idea, Bury Croquet Club’s members are a friendly, welcoming bunch, eager to help beginners and displaying none of the sneering, patronising attitude of some other sports, mentioning no names. Bury has made several lottery funding applications that have failed, perhaps because of some misguided idea that it’s not “inclusive”, despite the fact it is one of the few sports that can be played by all ages and both sexes on equal footing.

The sport is largely ignored by the media – even Sky, which broadcasts some of the most banal sports imaginable, Paul observes, doesn’t cover it, and it is badly in need of some publicity – of any kind. When John Prescott, as deputy prime minister, was caught playing croquet when he was supposed to be “in charge of the country”, sales of croquet sets reportedly increased by 300 per cent.

“Croquet players have spent years trying to lose this image of the upper class quaffing Pimms and playing their quirky sport in morning suits,” says Paul, who is casually dressed in jeans and a polo shirt and speaks in a broad Lancashire accent.

“It hasn’t worked – I say we should embrace it.”

Too right. Timendi causa est nescire, I say.

l Bury croquet club meets every Monday night at 5pm in Coronation Park, Radcliffe. Prospective new members are allowed two “taster” sessions before they are asked to join, which costs £75 per year.