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Photograph: Rowans Bowl
Photograph: Rowans Bowl

An oral history of Rowans Tenpin Bowl

How a Finsbury Park snooker club became the stuff of London legend

Written by
Leonie Cooper
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Did you grow up in north London in the 1990s? If you did then you probably have an ingrained, all-encompassing memory of a scantily clad woman with a commanding presence reclining across a bowling lane. She was, of course, part of the billboard advertising Rowans Tenpin Bowl.

Situated above the revolutionary socalist bookstore Bookmarks where my dad would take me when visiting from Manchester I remember being entranced by Rowans’ outlandish advertising years before I ever went inside, first as birthday cake scoffing kid, then as a tipsy teenager and more recently as a hardened karaoke enthusiast.

Rowans Bowling

Finsbury Park has changed a lot since it became the proud owner of the bowling alley and arcade. There's a lot more shiny new builds in the neighbourhood for a start. But while London's become glossier and more gentrified, Rowans has remained a closure-defying constant; the interior a kitsch, untouched timecapsule of many of Londoners' childhoods (including mine). Frequented by everyone from families to Arsenal fans to late-night vodka slush drinkers to serious bowlers in Big Lebowski style shirts, it's a true London institution. In fact, it's got such cult status that when Boris Johnson announced the road map to normality back in January, the question on many Londoners' lips was: what song are you going to sing at Rowans karaoke when this is all done? 

Featuring Hollywood A-listers, real life royalty and a Harley Davidson motorbike pinned to the wall, this is the true story behind the greatest place in north London to have a £1 entry fee. Leonie Cooper 

Rowans Bowling

Bowling 365, 24/7

The roots of the bowling alley that we all know and love can be found in 1988, but the space has a much longer history 

Terry Harrison (General Manager) ‘In the 1890s the building Rowans is in was actually a tramshed, then in the 1920s it was a cinema – you can still see part of the original ceiling upstairs. It was a dancehall in the 60s – The Beatles played here in April 1963! In the 1980s it was a bingo hall. But by the time I arrived it was a very busy snooker club. Rowans is a made up name – the owners used to own betting shops called John Rowan Bookmakers, so that’s where it came from.’

Rowans Bowling

Nicola Smith (Assistant to GM) ‘I started working on the bar in 1989 when I was 18 after my friend got a job here. I was behind the bar for a good three years and then I went on to reception at the front desk.’ 

Terry ‘From 1988 I was the external accountant, but accountancy was pretty boring and I was young, so I said to a girl who was leaving, I wouldn’t mind working here full time. About an hour later the owners called me. It was very busy from day one. There weren’t many other bowls in London at the time. ITV were here for the big opening party. Everything was brand new and perfect; free food and free drink.’

Nicola ‘I was working in the cloakroom on the opening night. It was a bit manic but it was fun. That cloakroom has become my office now.’

Rowans Bowling

Terry ‘At the start it used to be open 365 days a year – on Christmas Day we would have a waiting list. We were also 24 hours – you could come bowing at 5am. We had a few video games but over the years we’ve added five karaoke rooms, table tennis tables, 12 pool tables and a big arcade. And we had a health and fitness club open in the 1990s. We also brought in DJs to give it a clubby, late night feel.’

Rowans Bowling

The DJs arrive

If you’ve ever been to Rowans on a Friday night, you’ll know that it's a special, special place. We’ve got Big Daddy Johnson to thank for that

Big Daddy Johnson (Rowans first ever DJ) ‘I started in 1999 as a security officer. When I came to the UK I was living in Hackney and I went to Finsbury Park to do some shopping. I saw an ad in the window saying they were looking for security. I’m a very big bloke, I’m 6’ 4”, and I got the job. I was previously a DJ in Austria and they wanted to try having a DJ at Rowans. I didn’t impose my music taste on people, I’d play what the crowd wanted. I’d play Nirvana, I’d play The Rolling Stones, I’d play The Beatles. I’d take requests too – I printed out request forms and put them on the tables.’

Rowans Bowling

Emma Jackson (Sociologist and Rowans regular) ‘I lived in Finsbury Park in the mid-to-late 1990s and used to go there as an alternative to clubs. We used to go with our friends in bands (Jackson was in Britpop band Kenickie) and there were a lot of indie kids there too because it was open late at night and that was the kind of life we were living.’

Terry ‘We’ve always had a late night drinks licence and we were the first bowl in the country to have late night DJs. I even did a few stints myself when the DJ called in sick at the beginning. I had an hour’s lesson and played some 1980s music from a box of Now! CDs!’

Rowans Bowling

Big Daddy ‘When the dancefloor arrived the atmosphere just changed - it was electric! People would come in just to dance and drink. Customers would come for the music and stay for the bowling.’

DJ Skid (Rowans current DJ) ‘I learnt how to DJ in Rowans. I was just expecting to go into a normal bowling alley, but when I got in it was totally different. I made friends just like that. When you’re in there all you think about is having a great time.’

Emma ‘There are people of all ages there, which is quite unusual for a social space. If you go on a Tuesday teatime you’ll see young kids with their families, disabled people with their carers – there’s a rhythm to it throughout the week. I’ve seen wedding parties at Rowans and someone knock over a wedding cake. I’ve also seen a lot of really good dance-offs; that’s not an unusual thing to happen there.’

DJ Skid ‘One time I played Rock The Boat and everyone on the dancefloor came together to form a boat and all paddled from left to right. It was unbelievable. I have watched couples propose to each other on the dancing floor. And there have also been times where the crowd have all refused to go home, asking for one more song, with so much passion and love in their faces.’

Rowans Bowling

Celebrities and motorbikes

Whether it's Rowans’ vibe or retro aesthetic that’s behind its cult status, we’ll never know. We do know that its crowd’s spread wayyy beyond locals to the likes of J-Lo, Craig David and more 

Terry ‘When it comes to the look of the place, a lot of the retro 1950s decor is original and was shipped over from America. We bought the Harley Davidson on the stairs for £5000 many years ago. A man came in once and said ‘that’s my Harley’. He started crying and said he was a young man and needed the money but was so happy it was here. It used to have a model of a man on it, but over the years his arms fell off. Then his leg fell off.’

Nicola Every Christmas we used to put a Santa suit on him.’

Rowans Bowling

Emma ‘A man in his 40s told me he remembered the Harley Davidson being there at a friend’s 10th birthday party back in the day. The feel of it is still very similar to how it was back then, which is part of the reason people have such love for it and why it’s become such a local institution. It’s in the middle of an area that’s changed massively due to gentrification over the last 10 years but Rowans provides this sense of stability. It’s a really authentic place, which is quite funny seeing as it’s a pastiche of 1950s Americana. As Finsbury Park’s changed it has impacted on the Friday and Saturday night crowd; things like the University of the Arts moving in locally means there are more art students there. There were always young hip people at Rowans but maybe the proportion has shifted over the past 10 years.’ 

Terry ‘Quite a few celebrities have been through the doors. Craig David came bowling on New Year’s Eve. Stellios from Easyjet had a party here. Jeremy Corbyn hired out one of our suites upstairs for a meeting. Prince Charles came down to the site when they were getting the building ready in April 1987. 'Killing Eve' were here filming. And J-Lo hired the whole upstairs for a bowling party once.’

Rowans Bowling

Nicola ‘I remember her being very small. Bros was a big one too – that was in the first couple of years I was here. Prince Edward came here quite a few times when he was dating Sophie. There were a couple of security guys with them, but it was quite lowkey.’

Big Daddy ‘Loads of people came down and I DJed for them. AJ and Howie from Backstreet Boys and Wookie too, the guy who used to do garage music. I was on the decks Friday and Saturday – sometimes I’d do Sunday for kids parties and sometimes big bookings would request Big Daddy, so I’d come down for that too.’

Rowans Bowling

The petition 

We’ve been at risk of losing Rowans a few times over the years. As we head out of the pandemic we should treasure the beloved space and others like it

Terry ‘The karaoke is quite new – we got it five or six years ago – but it’s very popular. People love to jump up and down when they’re singing; a lot of alcohol is spilt and we’ve had a few microphones pulled out of their sockets. People think they can swing a microphone like they’re Mick Jagger, so we go through a couple of them a month.’

Nicola ‘I sing quite a lot of 1980s songs. My favourite booth is number 4 in the arcade, the furthest one on the right.’

Rowans Bowling

Terry ‘The economic crunch hit us. From 2006 we went down for about six years and had to make cutbacks. We even got rid of rubbish bins because we didn’t have so much rubbish. But in 2013 it started to go upwards and it’s gone up every year since then. There was a huge petition in 2013; some people thought they were knocking down Rowans after a piece in a local paper. There was a massive panic, but that article did us good; as soon as people thought we were closing down people started to come back.’

Rowans Bowling

Emma ‘I don’t think Rowans is something we can take for granted. All over London these big places of leisure, whether that be pubs or venues, are ripe for being turned into luxury flats because they have such a big imprint. When you see all the flats going up in Finsbury Park and all the changes taking place, something like Rowans is quite vulnerable because it’s so massive and the location is so good.’

Terry ‘When the pandemic hit we went from having record numbers of people queuing up the road, to total shutdown overnight. However, we saw the lockdown as an opportunity to totally refurbish the bowl. We now have a food menu! And naturally everyone at Rowans is excited to welcome back old friends. It’s time we all had some entertainment in our lives again.’ 

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