Mention croquet and many think of vicars and landed gentry playing on lawns in front of stately homes, sipping tea and nibbling on cucumber sandwiches.

Or old folk gently padding round a park.

But in the US the game is really taking off and over here, a younger generation of competitors are being urged to step up and take up a mallet to play the game.

This summer, the Croquet World Championship will be held in Sussex and the British team will be led by captain John-Paul Moberly - who is all of 24 years old.

There are more than 200 clubs in the UK, many officially starting their season this weekend. They are all opening their doors on May 12 for new players to try their hand on National Croquet Day.

Cumbria has clubs at Keswick, Langwathby, near Penrith, Levens Hall and Greenodd.

Howard Bowron has been chairman at Penrith and North Lakes Croquet Club at Langwathby for 13 years. He started playing with a neighbour in Derbyshire 20 years ago as part of a “drinking club”.

There is no booze at Langwathby, but there is plenty of competition.

A group of hardy souls swaddled in body warmers, bobble hats and gloves braved midweek mizzle for their first practice of the season with mallet and hoops (or wickets).

Their lawns are sited between the cricket and the football pitches at the Edenhall and Langwathby sports ground.

“It is a game you can compete at without having any great physical skills,” says Howard.

“We get people who were competitive in football, rugby or hockey, captains of industry and businesspeople who are still competitive.

“It is you against the other person, there is nowhere to hide.

“There are a lot of tactics and the game played by novices is different to that of experts.

“You might become competent at one level, then you learn there is a whole new raft of things to learn as you progress.”

It has been called snooker, or chess, on grass. You have to hit your balls through all the hoops, before your opponent can. This usually involves blocking and snookering their shots.

There are some 20 members of the club, split evenly between men and women and at 66, Howard, who lives at Newbiggin, says he is one of the younger members.

Last year, the club beat Nottingham in the final of the newly-created Croquet Association national inter-club competition.

Ian Ward, of Wetheral, was one of the winning team.

He only took up the game because his wife Bernice was a keen player.

“It is a game of intelligence, a game of strategy and tactics,” he suggests.

“And accuracy,” he adds, after knocking a wayward ball across the grass.

The cup winning team was captained by John Henderson - the only person brave enough to wear white shorts and a white fleece.

The 72-year-old from Thursby took up a mallet 11 years ago when a neighbour started playing on the village green. Like many, he says, it offered a restless retiree something to do.

“I thought it was a great game and looked around for a club to join to play it properly,” he explains

“I used to play squash, cricket, rugby and football,” he says. “It is a great competitive sport. If you can walk about and stand, it doesn’t matter what age you are.

“I would say it is like a cross between snooker and chess. You have to think several shots ahead to make sure you get your balls into position and at the same time, stop your opponent getting his into place to go through the wickets.”

The 72-year-old concedes that the game has an elitist reputation, but says that is unfair.

“We play all sorts of clubs and you would never think the people you played were elite. Most are like ourselves, just ordinary folk.”

John is one of those who plays at Keswick as well so he can play all year round.

He has played in the snow and ads: “It is almost addictive.”

John reckons that as bowls wanes in popularity, more people are taking up a mallet.

The game (can you call it a sport?) is becoming increasingly popular in the US among retirees.

Luxury housing communities are adding lawns, complete with refreshment pavilions, and even professional instructors to their country clubs.

Florida is a key area for the game. Howard went on holiday there last year and played a few games. He’s looking at entering tournaments the next time he goes.

John adds: “We play a club in Middlesbrough that used to have four bowling greens. Now it has one bowling green and three croquet lawns.”

John would like to see more younger people join in, but says it is difficult because working people can generally only play at weekend and at Langwathby, weekends are usually given over to cricket teams.

Irene Faith has played since she was a girl. She helped teach John how to play when he joined the club.

She says the the tactics and thought processes needed for a match can leave their mark.

“It can be quite tiring. Quite often, if I have been playing a match I will go to bed and all I can see is the balls on the lawn and think about moves.”

Former farmer and Keswick councillor Ian Hall is chairman of the Keswick club. The club plays on lawns at Fitz Park in Keswick and at the Braithwaite Institute. All year round.

Ian, who is 70, reckons he is about the average age of the 10 members, but the club is keen to recruit new, younger members and is launching golf croquet next week.

This is played on a smaller pitch. Instead of both players hitting their balls through all the hoops, whoever hits their ball through a hoop first claims the point and both players move onto the next wicket.

“It is a simpler game, easier to play and a good introduction to the game,” he explains.

“Croquet is a game, rather than a sport. You don’t use an enormous amount of energy but you do use an enormous amount of skill.

“It did used to have a snobby reputation, but our club is anything but snobby.

“It is just a very competitive game that is much better than golf because in this case, you are interfering with your opponents balls as well as getting your own round.

“Everything about croquet is a cliche except the reality.”

Howard is so keen that he’s a member of three clubs - Penrith Keswick and Greenodd so he can get more matches in.

His message to would-be players is: “You will never know what you have missed until you get a mallet in your hand.

“The best way to get someone to play is to put a mallet in their hand, then everyone says ‘I wish I’d taken this up years ago.’

“All the top players all started in their teens and kept going.”

n Golf croquet starts on April 29 at Fitz Park, Keswick from 2.30pm until 5pm. All are welcome to turn up and give it a go. Anyone interested in croquet should go to