Though real tennis was invented by medieval Basque peasants, the game has been a firm favourite with royalty for centuries. In England, Henry V, Henry VIII, Charles I and Charles II were all keen players whilst Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I liked to wager large sums on the games they watched. Real tennis was also very popular with French royalty, though their passion for the game sometimes had disastrous results; Louis X died from a chill contracted while playing, and Charles VIII met an untimely end after banging his head on the doorway of the real tennis court at Château d’Amboise.
In modern times the best-known royal player is the Queen’s youngest son – Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex – who took up real tennis while he was studying at Cambridge University. His Royal Highness was so taken with the game, he chose real tennis to be the ‘physical activity’ for his own Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award and, since taking over from his father as royal patron of the scheme, he’s been keen to use real tennis as part of his own ‘D of E Challenge’.
The D of E Challenge is a way for people to support the Duke of Edinburgh Award by raising funds to help disadvantaged children take part in the scheme. Those who accept the challenge are sponsored to achieve a goal that’s particularly important to them – so the Prince has opted to play three sets of doubles in every one of the world’s 48 surviving real tennis courts in one year.
The Prince’s visit to Jesmond Dene formed part of the October leg of this grand tennis tour (which so far has raised more than £636,000) and His Royal Highness was given a very warm welcome by the club’s members, a number of junior players from local schools, and a host of civic dignitaries, including: Susan Winfield, OBE, the Lord Lieutenant of Tyne & Wear; Councillor David Down and Barbara Down, Newcastle’s Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress; and Councillor Ged Bell, Newcastle City Council Cabinet Member for Employment.
The Prince supervised a short training session with the children from Mowden Hall School, Newcastle School for Boys, Westfield School and St Robert of Newminster Catholic School, before playing a set of doubles with three of the best juniors. In this hard-fought marathon match, which lasted more than an hour, the junior pair – Matthew Dyter and Tom Hetherington – beat their royal opponent and his junior playing partner, Eddie Chappel, by 7–5. However, the Prince quickly recovered his breath (and his form) for the next two matches, which involved six senior members of the club.
For the first of the senior sets, His Royal Highness was partnered by Stephen Goodhart, and their opponents were Michael Howard and Gordon Reed; in the second, the Prince was paired with Richard Fletcher, and their opponents were Simon Sanders and Gordon Stanger-Leathes. In both matches, the Prince and his playing partners faced heroic fight-backs by the ‘home’ pairs, after taking early leads, but eventually the royal pairings triumphed 8–4 and 8–5 respectively.
The members watching from the dedans (as the main spectators’ gallery is known) thoroughly enjoyed these highly entertaining matches, especially as Prince Edward’s first visit to Jesmond Dene wasn’t the only historic milestone being celebrated by the club.
The Jesmond Dene court was originally built for Victorian industrialist Sir Andrew Noble but, during the Second World War, the entire site was given to Newcastle City Council. Thanks to pressure from former club members, the court was restored to its original function in 1981, but the fate of the Grade II-listed building remained uncertain until the council gave the club a 250-year lease (with an option to purchase the freehold) in April 2017. As part of his visit, His Royal Highness was invited to attend the official presentation of the freehold of the court building to Club Chairman Alan Douglas, by Councillor Ged Bell.
‘The Jesmond Dene Real Tennis Club is one of Newcastle’s hidden gems,’ says Councillor Bell. ‘It has existed for 113 years and has spawned many champions of this fascinating but little- known sport. I’m delighted that, by working with the club, we’ve reached an agreement that will safeguard its future.’
Of course, you don’t have to be a prince to enjoy real tennis. These days the game is played by people of all ages, from all walks of life, and anyone who fancies having a go at the original ‘sport of kings’ will be pleased to know that Jesmond Dene Real Tennis Club is offering special, hour-long introductory sessions for free. The club will also lend you a racket so (other than trainers with non-marking soles) no specialist equipment is required.
If you want to take things a step further, a beginners’ package of three lessons with Scott Blaber, the club’s resident professional, will teach you all you need to play competitive matches, and there are regular junior days, ladies’ days and club nights to help novices improve their game. With such expert tuition and first-class facilities, maybe next time there’s a royal visit you’ll be one of the members selected to play.
To book a free trial session, or for more information, visit www.jdrtc.co.uk
Or contact the club on 0191 281 6854
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WHAT IS REAL TENNIS?
Not tennis as you know it, the game of real tennis has been described as a mixture of squash, chess and tennis all in one, where the balls can be played off walls and sloping roofs and chases can be laid. There is a handicap systems which penalises experienced players and allows all levels to play against each other – so no matter what your age or ability, you’re good to go.