Shoppers were urged to put down their purchases and pick up a bat as outdoor ping pong came to Blackpool.
St John’s Square was transformed into a sporting arena as a grid of table tennis tables was set up ready for opponents to do battle across the net.
The event was all part of the launch of Ping!, a free street table tennis festival taking place across Blackpool over the next six weeks.
It will see tables set up in places as diverse as the Winter Gardens, the Promenade and Stanley Park in a bid to encourage more folk to take up the sport.
Blackpool was chosen for the national launch of Ping! which will be taking place in towns and cities across the UK.
Supported by Sport England and Table Tennis England, the aim is to increase participation among people throughout the town.
I took up the nearest bat to test my skills against former England international Gavin Evans.
As I attempted to trade strokes with him, he told me he had taken up the sport as his parents were players. The bat I was using was a professional one, costing a few hundred pounds, but beginners can pick one up for around £20.
He said: “Table tennis is addictive and as a sport it’s really accessible for people of all ages.
“It’s a bit difficult playing here today because of the wind! But everyone seems to be enjoying it.”
Also spreading the word was Karina Le Fevre, currently ranked number three in England.
She said: “It’s great to see so many kids playing here today.
“I started playing at primary school and then went onto join a club.
“But it’s such a versatile sport, you can play on holiday or with your family.”
Among those enjoying a game in St John’s Square were youngsters from nearby St John’s Primary School.
Jensen Burgess, 10, said: “I’ve played table tennis before on holiday, and it’s great fun because you can play with your friends.
“I think I’d like it if I could play more often.”
Emily Brennan, 10, added: “I’ve never played before today but I like hitting the ball.
“I think if I had a lot of practice I could get quite good at it, and it would be nice to have a table at school.”
At the other end of the age range were Tina Maskery, 82, from South Shore, and Ann Whitaker, 76, from Anchorsholme, who are both members of ‘Old Bats’ who play each week at Moor Park Sports Centre in Bispham.
Ann said: “We took up table tennis a year ago and there are about 10 of us who play regularly.
“It’s very good exercise, after I have done a session my heart is beating really fast.
“When we started we were just laughing all the time because we were running round after the ball!
“But we have got better over time.” Tina said: “It’s great as we meet new people as well. It’s a nice mix of people and everyone really enjoys it.”
Susie Hughes, deputy chairman of Table Tennis England, is hoping Ping! will bring the benefits of the sport to even more people.
She said: “There are some technical differences between Ping Pong and table tennis in relation to the bats that are used, but basically it’s about getting people of all ages putting a bat in their hand and hitting a ball over the net.
“It’s about bringing table tennis out of the clubs and making it more accessible.
“There will be some people who want to keep it fun, and others who might want to join a league.”
Over the next six weeks table tennis tables will be set up across the town and can be used for free.
Locations include the Winter Gardens, the Promenade near to the lifeboat station, and parks such as Stanley Park.
A team of 35 volunteers has been recruited who will be on hand with bats and balls.
But people can go along at any time with their own bats and balls to use any of the tables.
The festival will be followed up with a 12-month long development programme in partnership between the council and the Blackpool and District Table Tennis Association.
Blackpool already has a 3 star Table Tennis Centre at Palatine Sports Centre, and hosts three major events at Blackpool Sports Centre. John Blackledge, director of community and environmental services at Blackpool Council, said: “We want to get more people involved in the sport and more physically active.”
Lee Boyer, sports development manager at Blackpool Council, added: “Table tennis is one of the simplest games people can play, with many starting out on the dining room table at home.
“This is about getting tables out into the community to encourage more people to take part.”
Ping! is taking place in 24 towns and cities across England including Blackpool for the first time.
Last year, more than 750 tables were placed in public places in 21 towns and cities, with 1.8million visits to the tables over the summer.