Slapping a ball against a wall has entertained people for hundreds of years. As pelota, it’s big in France and Spain. Gaelic handball thrives in Ireland and in New York – where the top players are known for their trash-talking and gambling – thousands of courts have sprung up.
Now, its time may have come in the UK with the opening of the nation’s first community “wall ball” facility. Its organisers are hoping hundreds more will follow.
The first wall ball court, in the shadow of the Shard tower in Southwark, London, is a passion project of NHS doctor Daniel Grant, who is running UK Wall Ball.
It is a bid to seed the sport among the masses, partly as an exercise in preventive medicine, but also for the simple joy of getting together with a friend, a ball and a wall.
A version of the game has led a more rarefied existence in Britain for hundreds of years as fives, but that relies on purpose-built courts and has not spread far beyond public schools such as Eton and Harrow. Wall ball is aiming for a different crowd with the motto: “Any wall, any ball, any time.”
“We need to encourage the demographic that is not good at getting active to get active,” said Grant, who normally works as an A&E doctor but has been on Covid wards this year.
By getting people hitting balls against walls for free in towns and cities, he wants to attract the demographic that “won’t get on the bus to the leisure centre”.
NHS England says regular exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by 35%, type 2 diabetes by 50% and breast cancer by 20%.
Grant wants schools to find space for the walls – roughly six by five metres in dimension – and is working on a way of clipping boards to the outside fencing of multi-use games areas. He is also approaching councils, asking them to find space, and is encouraging people to chalk up walls more informally too.
The rules are simple: hit the ball so it strikes the wall and lands in the court, then rally until someone loses the point.
The ball, which Grant is making available for £1 from a vending machine beside each wall, is like a large squash ball. It is more forgiving than harder balls, known as “alley crackers” used in some Irish versions of the game. They require players to numb their hands with ice.
On Wednesday, one of the first people to slap a ball in Southwark was Levinio Johnson, 35, who was brought up in Los Angeles playing a version of the game – pat ball. He had happened upon the wall with his son, Josiah, 5, and was puzzled it had not caught on yet in the UK.
Also playing was Sammy Simmons, 11, who has tried it at school already.
“It’s good because you don’t need a lot of equipment: just a wall and a ball,” he said. “It could be a massive thing. It’s competitive, but it’s non-contact and you can start playing straight away.”
The initiative comes after recreational football, cricket, tennis and basketball restarted before Easter with outdoor swimming pools and golf courses also opening.
While those with means have paid subscriptions to online exercise classes run by companies like Peloton or TriYoga, many more have allowed their activity levels to slump during lockdowns.
Analysis of 64 studies over the last year found decreases in physical activity and increases in sedentary behaviours during lockdowns – among children as well as adults.
Sport England has said that among disabled people, people from lower socio-economic groups and from black and Asian backgrounds, “there is a clear pattern of low levels of activity and so there will be a sharp focus on providing more opportunities for those who are being left behind”.
Grant reckons wall ball is part of the answer. “Nobody has pushed it yet,” he said. “I think it’s going to catch on. We’re bringing it to the streets.”