The monumental growth of curling in and around Preston – with Team GB dreams on the horizon
With curling on the rise in Preston and Lancashire, TOM EARNSHAW talks to the man behind The Flower Bowl, an entertainment centre home to one of two purpose-built curling rinks in England
When many look back at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, their thoughts turn to the somewhat unexpected thrill of cheering on Eve Muirhead as she and her team set their sights on Olympic glory.
But for one Lancashire businessman, the boost in popularity for the sport could not have been more timely.
At the time of the games, Guy Topping was building up to the opening of his new entertainment complex, The Flower Bowl, opposite the Topping family’s Barton Grange Garden Centre at Brock.
The centre, located between Garstang and Preston, is home to just one of two purpose-built curling rinks in England.
Looking back at the project, Guy says: “It came about in 2013 when I went down to Fenton’s [Curling Rink] in Tunbridge Wells to have a go on their curling rink.
“It made my mind up and I said ‘we need to do that’.
“It was the extra piece of the jigsaw that we needed when I looking for something to make us very different to everything else out there.”
It was quickly after then that Guy’s connection to Preston Curling Club began.
“The curling community is very tight-knit as you can imagine, so when I turned up in Kent saying I might build one in Preston they were straight on the phone to Preston Curling Club,” says Guy.
Guy subsequently took the trip to Lockerbie Ice Rink in Scotland to research how these facilities are built.
He says: “As soon as I started having a go I wanted to keep playing and carried on from there.
“I’m the secretary now. No one else would take it on when the former secretary stood down, because he lives in Scotland now.
“He was getting very involved at Kinross Curling so was putting more time into that.
“The secretary is the person that runs the club and does all the work, so I thought if I’m going to have control of what happens when the club moves to The Flower Bowl, it makes sense to be in that position to get it as organised as I want it to be.”
The Flower Bowl opened its doors in summer 2018, home to bowling, golf simulators, crazy golf, cinema and a range of dining offers on top of curling.
And after the opening, curling club membership numbers started to pick up “straight away”.
Since then it has grown to more than three times its size - from around 20 to what is now 70 members.
Guy says: “We had 20 from travelling to Lockerbie and then as soon as we got here one or two people joined straight away having always wanted to do curling.
“They came in, signed up for lessons and joined the club. From then on it’s been a steady flow because if someone comes in and says ‘how do I get into curling?’ we offer them a four week lesson programme to learn all the basics on a weekly basis.
“From then on it has just carried on building and building.
“I think a lot of people just want to have a go. Over the months we’ve been open we’ve adapted the sessions we offer.
“At first it was two-hour curling parties which is really the best way to do it, but a lot of people were saying it’s a lot of money and we can’t get eight people together.
“So we started a ‘try curling’ session for one hour so rather than having a game you come on and try to play different shots.
“And now we have ‘try sliding’ which is the tricky bit, but the proper way to curl.
“We’ve moved along and adapted to suit what people want. It’s evolved as we’ve seen what people want to do.”
The last year has seen The Flower Bowl host a number of international tournaments, including the Welsh Bonspiel and Four Nations tournament.
“We’ve got the Welsh Bonspiel back here again and the Four Nations in January,” says Guy.
“We keep pulling in these events which is good.
“And what’s happening with the Four Nations this year is it’s England’s turn to host it.
“And next year is Wales, who will be coming here when traditionally they would go up to Scotland to host it.
“Then Ireland host it the year after then and they’ve no rink in Ireland, so they may well come back here.
“So we’re in a position where three years out of four we could be playing here and the only time in Scotland will be when Scotland hosts it.
“We’ve become quite a preferred rink as the only decent rink.
“Fenton’s ice isn’t brilliant and only has three sheets to play on while we have four.”
The hope now is for Preston Curling Club to be in a strong position to contribute to Team GB – and hopefully within a decade.
“We’ve got some juniors in now which is really growing, and we’re looking to appoint a full-time curling coach to really move that on because I’d love to think in 10 years we could be sat here with someone at the very least in the Great Britain squad,” says Guy.
“Just going for medals would be amazing.”
He adds: “It’s not an easy route because Scotland has dominated the GB team for so long and have a lot of competitive curlers up there.
“They have the history, tradition and coaches being passed down.
“So I don’t want to make light of it and say give us 10 years and we’ll have someone in the Olympic team because it probably wont happen, but it means we could do, and in 20 years I really hope we might. It just wont happen overnight.
“All the Scottish clubs are really keen on us doing well and the sport growing in England. They want more rinks.
“But equally they won’t want to be giving up the idea of their kids being in the team.”
Looking back at The Flower Bowl’s first year in business, Guy says: “We’ve very proud of it all and we are just enjoying it now.
“There’s nothing like The Flower Bowl anywhere. The mix of activities is totally unique.
“People are also shocked when you see how much in inside because there’s no angle you can look at the building and think it looks massive. It looks quite small, really. It’s the design.
“We know we’re in a rural area and wanted it to look green and fit in.
“I grew up on the fells and when you look across you can’t see the garden centre because it’s behind a big garage and houses.
“But where this is, I thought it was going to really stand out if I just put a shed-shaped building on here. You’d have seen it from up on Beacon Fell.
“But how it is it blends into the countryside which is how we want it.”
And the venue’s personal touch is visible, with a giant snail figure out front being a great photo opportunity for children eager to climb the animal.
“It’s been in the garden centre for about five years,” says Guy.
“I bought it from Chelsea Flower Show from an Australian sculpture and it’s been there ever since.
“It’s been quite an attraction for kids sitting on it for a picture.”
Regarding the future of the club, Guys says: “It’s a tricky one really. We’ve grown to a really nice number.
“We play on Monday nights and it’s been full. Thursday mornings is our other time and we’re using three sheets rather than four, so we could have more there.
“But if we grow much more we’ll have to start growing into another session which can get difficult.
“We’re at a nice number and I don’t feel any pressure or desire to grow. But it will inevitably grow; we’ve added 50 in the last year.
“It’s not really an objective of the club to grow but we will.
“Who knows, we could end up at 500 eventually – but it’s actually easier growing slowly.
“A lot of people in the last year have been complete novices and are now getting quite good.
“The next step will be how do we spread that into another session for more growth.
“There will be growing pains but we always look forward to the challenge.
“We’ve got to start working out with how we cope with that.
“There’s a lot of empty ice at the moment.
“In 10 years people will probably be going ‘I wish we’d used it more when we could get on it’ because in then I can see it being full all the time.”