Blindness and sight impairment and doesn't stop you bowling - as this Sussex group prove

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Every week, a small group of friends meet in Worthing and prove that sight impairment and even blindness can be overcome on the bowls rink.

A thin length of string stretches down the centre of the indoor rink. The bowlers can't see the string but they bend down to touch it. This is the guide that tells them where to aim. The players roll their woods to within inches of the jack, up to 30 yards away.

Members of Worthing Pavilion talk to the bowlers over walkie-talkies, describing the accuracy of the shots by using an imaginary clock face. For example, if the wood ends slightly short and left of the target, the assistant might say: "Eight o'clock, two feet." If the wood finishes directly behind the jack but is a little long, the player will be told: "Twelve o'clock, one yard."

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The bowlers were recruited after Les Fryer placed an advert in the newsletter of Sight Support Worthing, a charity for sight impaired people. Les is a lifelong sports enthusiast who at 86 years young has more get-up-and-go than many people half his age.

Les Fryer, centre, with the sight impaired bowlers and helpers from Worthing Pavilion Bowling ClubLes Fryer, centre, with the sight impaired bowlers and helpers from Worthing Pavilion Bowling Club
Les Fryer, centre, with the sight impaired bowlers and helpers from Worthing Pavilion Bowling Club

"I started bowling when I packed up golf after 40 years," he recalled. "A few of the golfers at Ham Manor also enjoyed bowls and asked me to give it a try."

A footballer and cricketer in his youth, Les was never going to reject the invitation. He played in the twice-weekly spoon drives for 12 years and represented Pavilion in club matches. In 2012, however, he started to lose his sight when afflicted by age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

He already knew of the challenges blindness could pose because until 2009 he had been a volunteer coach driver at Worthing Society for the Blind, which was the forerunner of Sight Support.

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The former serviceman contacted the Blind Veterans home at Ovingdean near Brighton to find out if he met their criteria. "I had done my national service from 1954-56 in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, as a recovery engineer in Germany fixing tanks and other armoured vehicles."

He was invited to Ovingdean for a week-long induction course. That was just the start of a long relationship. "Within six months I was back on the rink with the blind bowlers. We had a team of 11 who were skilful enough to play full-sighted opponents."

Les adjusted to his failing sight but suffered a severe blow when his wife, Valerie, died four years ago. "We were married for 61 years, though I never called her Valerie. We met when she was 16. She reminded me of Jane, the wartime cartoon character in the Daily Mirror. Valerie looked just like her, absolutely gorgeous, so I called her Janie. We got engaged before my national service. When I was in Germany I showed my mate the cartoon strip and told him that was the girl I was going to marry!"

Younger readers might not know of Jane, who boosted the troops' morale by keeping her cool in adversity while frequently losing most of her clothing. Churchill called her "Britain's secret weapon". Legend suggests she managed to maintain a modicum of modesty until June 7, 1944, the morning after D-Day.

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Les and Valerie had two children, Sharon and Paul; three grandchildren, Julia, Scott and Simon; and one great-granddaughter, Megan, who is now 20.

In his working life Les specialised in fuel-injected diesel engines before switching to retail management with the Bejam frozen foods chain. He and Valerie, a care worker, later ran a home in Richmond Road, Worthing, called September House. After 12 years there, they retired and moved to Tarring. Les now lives in Park Road.

His bowls sessions with the blind veterans were curtailed by the Covid pandemic. Once restrictions eased, Les approached his old clubmate Peter Woods, the secretary at Worthing Pavilion, to ask what could be done.

"He offered all the help he could give," Les said.

The directors happily agreed to reserve three indoor rinks each Friday afternoon and Les got a good response to his advert in the newsletter. Building on that success, a new membership section was set up last month.

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The assistance fund of Worthing Lions has given financial support to help establish the sight impaired section at the club. "We now have nine bowlers who all belong to Sight Support and three of them are from the blind veterans. There's one completely blind former bowler, Stephen Benningfield. His wife, Janet, does all the admin for us. Bowling now, I can feel the excitement coming back again."

The most recent addition to the group is Jean Keys, who was the main helper when Les drove the coach for Worthing Society for the Blind. "She had never played bowls but was a good sportswoman, especially golf. She is now sight impaired and has taken to bowls like a duck to water."

With Les, Jean and Stephen at a recent session were Howard Young, David Collis, Jim Carter and Jean Knight as well as helpers from Sight Support.

So what's the next ambition? Les, who served as a cricket steward at the County Ground in Hove for eight years, is in no doubt. "We will need at least six good players; then we can challenge the spoon drivers to an indoor match."

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