Can Welsh handball bounce back after extinction?

“Will it be difficult to find, you think? asks my friend Ben Coakley as he leads us through the hills of South Wales. The answer, we will soon find out, is no. Half an hour north of Cardiff, we can easily see our destination: an imposing concrete structure towering over a central location in the village of Nelson. Over 150 years old, it is the last sports complex of its kind.

Flanked by The Royal Oak pub on one side and a small parking lot on the other, three towering walls border a courtyard over 60 feet long and half the width. The surface of the land and its imposing central wall, about 30 feet high, are marked with a few lines and squares. The fourth side of the site is open onto a road heavily used by cars and trucks. It is the unpretentious home of the old game of Pêl-Law, or Welsh handball. It is the only functional court in the country of origin of the sport.

Ben and I are here to play, although at first we don’t know how. “You’ll have it in no time. It’s just about hitting a ball against a wall, ”says Kevin Dicks, our mentor, as he joins us. Dicks, 63, uses a cane – because of two herniated discs, he tells us. He lives nearby, in Ystrad Mynach, and knows the Nelson court well. He is the author of Handball: the history of Wales’ premier national sport, and a former national champion of the game.

The Wales team at the 1997 World Championships, which took place in Winnipeg. Kerry Wilde is in the front row, right; Kevin Dicks stands behind him. Courtesy of Howard Jones Collection

Dicks throws a lime-sized blue rubber ball at Ben and, after a brief summary of the rules, serves as the referee for our first game. Hitting a ball against a wall with your bare hands is extremely satisfying. As we get used to it, Dicks pushes his cane aside and faces us, one on two. He beats us hard.

Nelson’s court is the last venue in a sport that may have emerged from a version brought to the British Isles by the Romans some 2,000 years ago. The peak of Welsh handball’s popularity was in the 19th and early 20th centuries – the simple game ‘ball and a wall’ was popular with minors – but it has been in decline for decades as more flashy sports siphon off. potential players. Now, Dicks and a handful of other enthusiasts are hoping that a new version of the game can carry on the long tradition.

After half an hour of play, we are joined by Kerry Wilde, also 63 years old. He lives a few minutes away and headed out with his obedient spaniel to witness our first foray. He was a Welsh champion in the 80s and 90s and has been playing handball with Dicks since school.

There are several versions of bouncing handball in the world today. The most widely practiced is team handball, which involves seven players per team, throwing balls towards the goal. It is nothing like the wall game that Dicks and Wilde know. In wall handball, players take turns serving and receiving the ball, knocking it back against the wall until it lands off the field or bounces twice.

UK Wallball's campaign to attract a new generation of handball players is gaining momentum.  Its first specially designed facility opened in London in April.
UK Wallball’s campaign to attract a new generation of handball players is gaining momentum. Its first specially designed facility opened in London in April. Courtesy of Wallball UK

At Nelson Court, two versions of the game are played: Wallball, where one wall is used, and Pêl-Law, where players use three walls. The variables added in the three-wall game make it difficult to assess the trajectory of the ball. “I’ve always liked geometry,” Wilde said before firing a pinball-like shot at three walls.

The many incarnations of handball have evolved across the world thanks to basic simplicity. “Basically every country hits balls against the walls in different ways,” says Daniel Grant, founder of UK Wallball, which works to popularize the one-wall version of the game. all over Europe we have Gaelic style handball. Wales, with Welsh handball, is no exception.

At the height of the industrial age of Pêl-Law, the courts spread across the country, sprawling on the sides of coal mines, schools, cemeteries, houses and, of course, pubs. The sport has drawn large crowds of spectators, including those who have staked the equivalent of thousands of pounds today.

In the middle of the 19th century in Nelson, the most used courtyard was that of the Lord Nelson Inn. “The owner of the Royal Oak wanted to steal the business from the Lord Nelson Inn,” says Dicks. “He realized he could build a bigger field with more room for punters, so he did it.”

From the 1860s, the Royal Oak court attracted players from all over Wales. This made Nelson a Pêl-Law hub for the next five decades. However, after World War I, the sport fell into disarray. The number of courts dwindled as expanding cities gnawed at open spaces, and the popularity of team sports, predominant in army regiments, was also rapidly increasing in the civilian sphere. Handball was considered an archaic pastime. The last Welsh Championship, played under traditional rules that required victories at multiple venues, was held in 1922.

Nelson's handball court is still standing and used occasionally.
Nelson’s handball court is still standing and used occasionally. nantcoly, CC BY-SA 2.0

In the village of Nelson, however, the players continued to punch and rush around the three walls. The game barely hung there, even after the advent of television, which increased the popularity of team sports. Then slowly Pêl-Law began to make a modest comeback. A tournament in 1969 received a surprising 40 entries, and regular games returned to the field soon after.

“In the 70s and 80s we had the world handball championships here, but there were only people from around Nelson,” says Wilde, who has won the event several times. “We honestly thought we were the only ones in the world playing.”

In 1987, the Welsh were invited to participate in a Gaelic handball tournament in Ireland. The game is similar to Pêl-Law but has a smaller, closed court. As the Irish won, the event propelled Welsh handball players onto the international stage. Over the next two decades, several Welsh players competed around the world, including in a one-wall version of handball, and the lines of play for that game were quickly added to Nelson’s court.

“We understand why it was adopted as an international variant, it’s just easier to play,” says Wilde of the single wall game. “It has re-energized the sport for us. We went all over the world to compete: Chicago, Ireland, Winnipeg, Belgium.

Nelson hosted the European Championships at a wall in 1995, a moment of glory for the former ball field. It was not to last. In 2006, the self-funded Welsh Handball Association, formed in the 1980s, could no longer afford to send players to tournaments. Local interest also waned in the three-wall, one-wall game.

But, like a ball against a wall, handball seems to keep coming back. The UK Wallball campaign has gained momentum, according to Grant. “Over the past decade, it has gone from being a grassroots sport based in a London apartment building to a national game that thousands of children play,” he says. The organization’s first specially designed facility opened in London in April.

The growing popularity of the one-wall version of handball in the UK may mean that the sun is not yet setting on its close relative, Pêl-Law or Welsh handball.
The growing popularity of the one-wall version of handball in the UK may mean that the sun is not yet setting on its close relative, Pêl-Law or Welsh handball. Courtesy of Wallball UK

Grant hopes wallball will return handball to its roots as a community-driven hobby. “In Nelson and across Wales, handball was a truly working-class sport,” Grant says. “And today in New York and Europe, versions of the game bring communities together. We would love to help this happen across the UK. He adds that British Wallball players make an annual “pilgrimage” to Nelson.

“It’s great what UK Wallball is doing,” said Wilde. “It would be great to resume more regular games, to see younger faces here, whatever variant we play. “

At the moment, the Nelson Court is not regularly used. Before setting down his cane for us to school, Dicks hadn’t played for a few years. Wilde only plays occasionally, with his son Aled. And yet, as we head to our car, looking over our swollen red hands, I hear the two Pêl-Law elders talking. “Are you around this Sunday?” Dicks asks Wilde. “We might as well take another shot. There is still life in the old game.