Pocket pool on grass

If you’d prefer not to punt today, you may be able to see, especially in summer, something just as slow, just as quiet and just as English as punting, something not on anyone’s guided tour. It’s only a few yards away, along a sequestered side of University Parks. To get there from Rainbow Bridge, skirt the parks’ beautiful Cricket Pavilion, built in 1881, and you’ll see some grass that looks more like golf green than lawn. But you don’t putt on this grass, you croquet.

Yes, it’s a verb, too. But croquet, you say? Well, the croquet you see played in University Parks and throughout England is most emphatically not the croquet I played as a kid. What I thought was croquet had cheap mallets, cheap hoops, a bumpy backyard lawn and a race to the final stake. That, as you will see, is not English croquet.

Dead ahead of you are not one, but two tournament-sized croquet courts. These two lawns have nothing in common with my childhood croquet “court,” except chlorophyll. These expansive courts are tabletop-flat and mowed to feathery fineness. One court today has heavy-duty hoops and a single stake smack in the middle – called a peg or winning post here. Even more striking are the people you see, many dressed in whites and unloading mallets from customized carrying cases.

The mallets are a marvel. Most of them are made of wood with long handles. Some heads are square, while others are round with brass rings fitted on the ends. Not a whit like the stubby, nicked, cracked and splintered mallets I used. And once this game begins, you’ll see that English croquet is more like pocket pool on grass than a race.

It’s actually called association croquet, the standard competitive form played both here and internationally. You start at a corner of the court and wind you way through the hoops, finishing in the middle. Here’s one example of its pocket poolness: Unlike what the English loosely call “backyard croquet,” you cannot rest your foot on your ball when you strike an opponent’s adjacent ball. In other words, you’re using your mallet as a cue.

The strategies you see these players deploy will seem impenetrable, if you don’t know their rules. And just as opaque is their jargon, which includes such bewildering but semantically pleasing terms as the Premature Rover Peel, Aunt Emma, Hilditched and the infamous Worse Than Death.

But don’t worry, be happy that you’re watching an exquisitely sedate game in a quiet and beautiful setting. Listen to the sharp clicks of croquet balls being struck and watch the white-clad players – why does white confer such classiness? – thinking ahead two or three turns before they approach the ball, with hickory cue, uh, mallet in hand. The first time I saw this scene, I thought I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe of croquet.

It’s a surprisingly large universe. More than 160 croquet clubs dot the map of England, including the Oxford University Croquet Club, sponsor of today’s game. A list of those clubs screams their Englishness. Where else would you see croquet clubs with names like Burnam on Crouch, Pendle and Craven, and West Wittering, let alone the dead giveaway: the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon?

Today’s croquet can be traced to 13th-century France, where a croquet-like game was played using mallets, wooden balls and hoops made of willow branches. It soon invaded England and by the 19th century had gained great popularity.

In typically English fashion, uniform rules were established for croquet, clubs were formed (Oxford’s in 1867), and national competitions were held. It then spread to the British colonies, especially Australia and New Zealand, and was even played at the 1900 Olympics, though soon eclipsed by the up-and-coming sport of tennis. Today croquet is played competitively in more than 20 countries, including the USA.

The croquet boom in 19th-century England was fuelled in part by a singular quality: It was an outdoor game in which men and women could play on an equal footing. You can see both sexes competing together in two paintings from the time by Winslow Homer (1864) and Edouard Manet (1873), both titled “The Croquet Game.” And Lewis Carroll – a student and then a don at the University of Oxford – injected a phantasmagoric version of the game into his 1865 children’s novel, Alice in Wonderland, where the Queen of Hearts uses hedgehogs as balls, flamingos as mallets and playing cards as hoops.

In backyards it’s a game that embraces both sexes, all ages and every skill level. Even association croquet allows the use of a handicap system, ensuring that any player can compete successfully.

The Oxford University Croquet Club, for example, welcomes everyone from beginners to top players. You can join for a modest fee, whether you’re a student, professor or someone unconnected to the university. And you don’t have to join at all to get four free lessons from one of the club’s croquet coaches. How much more of a welcome mat could a club throw down?

Clear the hurdle of dissimilarity, and you’ll see what’s shared by punting and croquet. Both pastimes are, well, slothfully slow. In fact, they make cricket, a sport that at times can seem stupefyingly static, look positively speedy. You might say that croquet is the antithesis of jai alai, that slashing, slinging, speed-fueled sport.

Croquet and punting are both tied to the color green: the green of riversides and the green of lawns. Both can be enjoyed without being an expert; if you can plant a pole, you can punt, and if you have a mallet and learn the rules, you can play croquet with anyone, even tournament champions. Both are animated by a piece of wood in your hands. And both, gloriously, are but a few steps away from each other in Oxford University Parks, a place of great beauty itself.

In fact, before you leave the 70-acre Parks, you should look around. It’s not on most Oxford tours, except for passing mention over a crackling loudspeaker as groups whiz past the entrance. It’s their loss to miss what’s inside, which is nothing less than a rare and superb combination of arboretum and sporting grounds, designed to be exactly that from the beginning.

The beginning came in 1854, when Oxford University bought 20 acres in this area from Merton College, one of the university’s constituent colleges. The sheer fact that a university had to buy land from one of its own colleges is worth noting. Colleges have enormous power at Oxford; they’re self-governing, and in the case of Merton, exceedingly old.

Merton was founded in 1264, maintains the world’s oldest continuously functioning library for academic faculty and students, and counts as Mertonians such luminaries as T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien. And Merton is but one of 39 staunchly independent colleges at Oxford. That’s a lot of independence, and that’s why the university had to buy land from one of its colleges.

More land was bought after the initial purchase, and by 1860 a committee had been formed (Victorian England was awash in committees) to begin designing the space for plantings and all sorts of sports. In University Parks today you can see cricket, croquet, la crosse, rugby, soccer (called football in England) and field hockey. There is grass galore for throwing a Frisbee, stretching out for a snooze, reading a book or just hangin’ out. As late as 1937, by the way, this grass was mowed – and organically fertilized – by cattle and sheep.

When the land was purchased, most of the trees were elms and willows. Since then University Parks has become an arborist’s dream. You can see a swamp willow, California redwood, maidenhair tree, cork oak, Turkish hazel, weeping lime and Persian ironwood, not to mention a formal garden and a flowery spring explosion of hundreds of thousands of bulbs.

From the first the Parks has been used for public gatherings. Elementary school children were served tea here to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. During World War I hangars for aeroplanes (the spelling at the time) were erected in the Parks and soldiers billeted in a camp. Between the wars bands played in the Parks on summer evenings; in 1927 each concert drew an average of 8,000 people.

During World War II about 80 vegetable allotments (what the English call community gardens) were dug up in the Parks. An air raid shelter was constructed under the cricket pavilion, and obstructions were placed in open spaces to prevent German aircraft from landing.

University Parks is so arboreally and historically and sportingly rich that you could easily spend a day on these acres. But it’s almost lunchtime, so let’s get a bite to eat and a bit to drink.