Newcastle landmark reveals its sporting secret
PUBLISHED: 22:10 17 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:48 20 February 2013
The court is housed in one of Newcastle's most familiar landmarks. But how many of the tens of thousands of people who pass by it every day know what goes on inside? Roger Tames discovers the secret
How many people must have driven along Matthew Bank in Newcastle, looked across at a strange, vast red-bricked Victorian building, and wondered just what does happen inside?
Step into this unusual local landmark and you will find yourself being transported back in sporting time to the 16th century and a game that was a favourite with Henry VIII.
Real Tennis is the slightly baffling contest that spawned most modern racket sports. Newcastle is lucky enough to boast one of only 25 courts in the country and fewer than 50 worldwide. No wonder only the few in the know realise what a hidden gem sits next to the busy Jesmond traffic.
The home of Jesmond Dene Real Tennis Club is one of the very finest examples of such an intriguing sporting venue. Its a Grade II listed building in its own right and attracts visitors from around the world.
The fact that the Jesmond Club is in such magnificent condition is a tribute to the small group of members and priceless sponsors devoted to what even they admit is a somewhat eccentric
game these days.
The place is incredibly well built...superb....one of the best, enthuses resident professional Paul Hetherington, who gave up a career in financial management to dote on a game he loves and take up the running of the club.
Its a game thats completely different from anything else but thats its attraction, the former four-time club champion explains, or at least attempts to. People give it a try and either quickly think its just mad, or feel they could really get into it.
With terms like dedans tambour and penthouses, the game can at first seem fairly impenetrable. The scoring is similar to the lawn tennis that was its successor, and you do hit the ball over net in the middle, albeit a saggy one. But it gets more complicated after that.
The weird indoor court and allows you to hit off the walls and along the roof of the penthouse to one side. Its very tactical with the heavy, solid racket and hard ball producing a game of fiendish spin and cunning shots.
Its well suited to the retired squash player, says Paul. The average age of the members is over 40 and we have some wily older players in their sixties and seventies who, with their wicked serves, can destroy a younger opponent.
Theres a handicap system which gives everyone a chance. Were delighted, though, to be attracting more young players. Newcastle University has recently set up its own club.
The court itself was built in 1894 as a private court for the Noble family, who lived in nearby Jesmond Dene House. Sir Andrew Noble, one of the worlds leading innovators in gunnery and munitions at the Armstrong works, Elswick, was a dab hand with a racket despite suffering regularly from gout.
Airships were supposed to have been constructed inside the hanger-like building during the First World War. However, after 1945, it was only used by a badminton club and developers looked covetously at the prime site. But the court survived the demolition threats and in 1981 the present club was formed and Real Tennis returned.
In fact, the game has more than just returned, its quietly flourished. Eavesdrop on the sports elite and you may even hear a trace of a Geordie accent, albeit, I suspect, a rather refined hint of regional origin.
World Number six Nick Wood began playing at Jesmond and now is Head Professional at Hampton Court.
Current UK Amateur Champion is Jamie Douglas, an outstanding young squash player at the nearby Northumberland Club who swapped rackets to take up the historic game.
You realise youve stepped into another world when you see Paul lovingly making the balls the players use: chopped cork is taped, bound with string, hammered approximately round, then wrapped in felt and hand stitched.
You cant go into one of Mike Ashleys tacky pile em high establishments and expect to buy a tube of real tennis balls. So theres another attraction.
Ive already dragged an invitation out of Paul to give me a game. Ive got to have a go at this - at least I must be fitter than Henry VIII.
If you fancy trying Real Tennis go to www.jdrtc.co.uk
Have you ever played Real Tennis? Wed love to hear what you think of the game.