Friday, April 24, 2020

A Very British Kind of Place on the Canary Island of Tenerife

          They were very different times. The number of inhabitants in Puerto de la Cruz on the island of Tenerife may not have been much more than five thousand. A fair number of those were British and Irish. Early forms of tourism were just beginning and town houses were being converted into pensions and boarding houses to cater for the growing number of travellers, scientists and artists. So quaint, if we compare it to the five star luxury hotels in today's modern resorts, the beautiful old Martianez Hotel offered improved sanitary arrangements installed by an English plumber. One could stay at the Marquesa for seven pesetas a day. There were no roads but dusty tracks and caminos reales, stone highways connecting the old port with the towns of La Orotava, Los Realejos and beyond. A carriage from the port to La Orotava cost as much as ten pesetas. Visitors could hire a landau for 600 pesetas a month or a donkey for two and a half pesetas for a morning. There was the beginnings of an electricity supply, generated by water flowing from a water gallery at a point near Aguamansa and supplied to only a few wealthy properties. There was no television. There was no rush.

The Martianez Hotel in Puerto de la Cruz

          The small and distinguished community from the British Isles and the growing number of winter visitors were regarded with respect and affection and went about their business with gentility. Nevertheless, although they were a very cultured lot and therefore needed little in the way of entertainment, because they made their own, they lacked a very important ingredient. There was nowhere, outside the privacy of their own home or boarding house, at which to enjoy a decent game of one kind or another.

          So one should not surprised to hear that in 1896 a small group of those intrepid pioneers hired rooms above a chemist owned by a gentleman by the name of Ramón Gómez, in Calle Santo Domingo, a street just above the fishing harbour. It was there that they founded a games club called The Guanche English Club. They had a billiards table and a cardroom, and drinks were served. To them it might have seemed like the beginnings of their very own version of the Travellers or Caledonian clubs in London, to which gentlemen could slip away to escape a female plot. But that wasn't the case at all. Ladies, as in so many British colonies, were very much a part of the act and the club was a regular host to the Orotava English Musical and Dramatic Society, an early equivalent to today's English Speaking Theatrical Association in Tenerife, better known as E.S.T.A.

Puerto de la Cruz with ships at anchor

          What they really yearned for was some outdoor activity, a bit of sport, old bean! Therefore, in October 1902, at about the same time Kitchener was putting an end to the Boer War, the beginnings of an outdoor games club began to blossom in the Orotava Valley, although there had already been attempts to get a golf links going outside the valley, at La Quinta in Santa Úrsula. 

          Captain Hamilton Boyle, Reverend Humphreys, Doctor Lisham and Messrs Woolley and Osbert Ward, author of The Vale of Orotava, a guide-book published in 1903, decided it was time. They met for an afternoon of outdoor activities at San Antonio, where Walter Long Boreham, one of the main benefactors of All Saints church had lived, because there was what they called a cement lawn-tennis court as well as a small croquet lawn. 

          The same group agreed to meet again, this time with Vice-Consul Tom Reid and Mr Gregory at El Robado, Colonel Owen Peel Wethered’s magnificent mansion at the heart of what today we know as San Fernando. El Robado's gardens, which were described as spacious and where croquet and the ancient game of bowls could be carried on in a most scientific manner during picnics and tea parties, would be an ideal venue.

A tea party at El Robado

          Four years later the popularity of these games parties at private houses, and the growing number of visitors to Puerto de la Cruz persuaded these fun-loving British residents to rent the grounds adjacent to San Antonio from doña Celia Zamora in order to establish a permanent club. A huge sum of seven hundred and fifty pesetas a year was the agreed rent. 
          The new club, the Orotava Bowling and Recreation Club was declared open on 15th November, 1906. Subscriptions were set at thirty pesetas a year, twelve and a half for three months and five pesetas for just one week. Steamers, like the Avocet or the Ardeola which belonged to the Yeoward Brother’s Line and could be seen at anchor off Puerto de la Cruz while they loaded bananas, were bringing a constant flow of winter visitors to the club. It was becoming a tremendous success and in 1908 the club was registered for the first time under Spanish law as an association. 

The original bowling green at the club

          Those who preferred bowls were indignant in 1907 when upstarts asked if they might play tennis on their tender bowling green. The request concentrated minds on the fact that proper tennis courts would have to be on the agenda. Alas, they would have to wait because war got in the way. Indeed, suddenly, it all changed. The rumblings of the Great War began to affect the arrival of merchant and passenger shipping to the Canary Islands as German U-Boats took their toll. Few new visitors made the journey and younger club members volunteered to fight for King and country. Life and membership at the games club was badly affected. 

          It wasn't until 1924 that new tennis courts were laid just where they are today, albeit overgrown with weeds since the British Club was asked to leave the premises. Tennis almost became the main event and matches began to be organised against rival clubs such as the Hesperides Club of La Laguna and The British Club of Santa Cruz. Faces grew younger in between the wars and as the 1920s swung in so did the demand for a bit of harmless fun, and dances and other activities were organised in style.

The tennis courts at the British Club (note the long whites)

          The club also survived the Spanish Civil War and, immediately afterwards, WW2. It kept going thanks to that old, solid British spirit, keep calm and and carry on. It was also thanks to its Spanish members like the Marquesa de Villafuerte, the Llarenas and the Salazars that the club actually carried on playing games.

The Club rules were even translated into Spanish

          Indeed, the club bonded great and lasting friendships between families like the Machados and British residents. How they loved their croquet, especially when the game was played on the large green beside the clubhouse. Bowls always seemed just a bit too English for them, with all that bending down on one's knee and those memories of Sir Francis Drake and the Armada. 

Tom Reid (British Vice-Consul) and Noel Reid (First Junior Member, aged 16) pictured on the croquet lawn in 1908

How they loved their croquet!

          Especially after WW2, the club boasted some of the best young tennis players in Tenerife, like Alfonso and Antonio Cologan, of Irish ancestry, and their brother Leopoldo, Marqués de la Candia. They were good years when members like Felipe Machado, who purchased Risco de Oro from George Marriott, was Vice-President and Leopoldo Cólogan were on the committee under Noel Reid who had carried on with the work of his brother Rio.

          In between and after the wars the club had prospered. It became an open and friendly place, and consequently more and more cosmopolitan, with a number of very distinguished and able European members and quite a few American and Canadian representatives always willing to lend a hand. Nevertheless it retained a very British feel about it. Her Majesty´s birthday was celebrated as loyally as in old British dominions and colonies. Officers from visiting Royal Navy ships were graciously entertained by the club for many years and their ship's crests were proudly on display around the bar. A smoky, ruthless game of bridge could be fought in a quiet corner of what was the Dick Peto room, named after a member who donated a thousand pounds, a huge sum in those days, after WW2.

Some club members celebrating Armistice Day in 1929
Antonio, the gardener, is on the left
If anyone would like to know who the others were, I'd be happy to tell you.

          A splendid, strategic and sometimes uproarious bowls competition would entertain a critical audience, before and after a gin and tonic. A serious game of tennis could be had any day, provided one fetched one's own stray ball from the banana plantation. In the latter years of the 20th century bandits fought against angels in thrilling and hilarious Sunday tournaments. A gentle tea and biscuits, served by Rosa and duty lady members, were available to ease one out of an afternoon siesta. Charitable dinners, competitions and seasonal dances were arranged and held in grand and traditional style. The bar was a regular meeting place for many a resident who simply wanted to relax, chat and enjoy a drink at a very reasonable price and in very pleasant surroundings.

The original entrance to the British Games Club.

          It would need a book to fully account for the history and traditions of what is still today known as the British Games Club. Even though the club was forced to move, and did so in style and with that same keep calm and carry on attitude, to Club de Tenis Puerto de la Cruz, sometimes better know as Alvaro's Club, a careful study of many of its members, past and present, would certainly reveal a wealth of talent, culture and experience. The club, just as the other pillars of the British community, the English Library and All Saints Church, reflect a unique British volunteering spirit. Silently, behind the scenes, there will always be those prepared to work tirelessly in the interests of their British community.

Alvaro's Club

          When the current crisis is over, the COVID-19 storm, anyone joining the club will realise at once that present members maintain the old club’s high standards. Newcomers will soon feel glad to be a part of its delightful character, especially with all its lively activities. There have been changes, of course. Apparently, in 1955, when new, young and radical members suggested that cold drinks, including beer, might be served after games, many of the senior members got into a flap. Hip flasks would be permitted, of course, what, what!

By John Reid Young

(This is an adaptation of a previous article of mine, published fifteen years ago in island newspapers, and certain images may have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

Author of books "A SHARK IN THE BATH AND OTHER STORIES" and "THE SKIPPING VERGER AND OTHER TALES", collections of short stories set in Tenerife and the Canary Islands". (For more information click on the images to the right of this page).

Owner of Tenerife Private Tours....

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  1. What a fantastic place. Growing up in the Orotava valley there were three pillars of the British Community - the Anglican Church, the British Library and the British Club (soon to be joined by the British Yeoward School). I came back to all of them with relish in the school holidays and miss them still.

  2. Indeed it was....and those pillars still fly the flag.

  3. A heartwarming insight into the origins of the British community in and around Puerto de la Cruz.
    And to think that I missed it entirely when I lived on the island in 1960 and 1961!
    However, I take comfort from the fact that I learned Spanish out of necessity and became part of a village (Buenavista del Norte), a community and a way of life that I admire to this day.

    Thank you for your historical observations, John, they are always intriguing.

    1. That's kind of you to comment, Ronald. Very few of us ever went beyond Garachico, into the wild and remote "isla baja", so you can count yourself blessed in many ways to have touched and been touched by Buenavista.

  4. Aah, I presume that's the tennis club we walk past on the way to the supermarket from Casablanca apartments. We look forward to walking by again. Thanks for sharing the lovely old photos, particularly the Martianez Hotel - beautiful

  5. Not at all, Belinda. The club is just up the hill from the Casablanca apts., in a dip below Parque Avoceta apartments which is behind the Botánico Hotel.

    1. Yes, that's the walk we take to the Trebol supermarket. Makes me think of walking past the hibiscus hedges with scurrying lizards x

    2. That's right. If you like scurrying lizards, give them a bit of banana! They can't resist them.