Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Dog & Bone, Lincoln

Such is the fascination for some of Britains more obscure local or regional pub games that they can sometimes crop up in the most unlikely places. Full-on pub game enthusiasts such as those at the Brunswick Arms or Golden Cross are certainly likely to have more examples than most, and my friend and fellow writer on the subject John Penny has a track record of introducing 'funny foreign' games to his local pubs in the Dorset area. There are also numerous examples where foreign visitors have been so taken with a game they've constructed their own version back home.

Then there are those who just get taken-up with an idea for a new or revived game. A bright idea amongst friends over a few too many afternoon pints, or maybe a brainwave for a charitable fundraising event. This is often the origin of some of our most eccentric and unusual gaming 'traditions'.

What led a group of Lincolnshire pubgoers to sign up for a 'World Championship' tournament in deepest Sussex is anyones guess, but needless to say, until they did there was no known tradition of Toad in the Hole play in the county, indeed little indication that the game has ever been played outside of the South-East of England.

Toad in the Hole is a game which has experienced a significant revival in its home county of Sussex in recent years. Though similar in form to the game of Pitch Penny, which can still be found in a handful of mostly Eastern counties pubs, the equipment and rules of the game are entirely unique to the area. The very simple premise of the game is the tossing of metal discs (Toads), onto a lead-topped table with a hole in the middle (the hole!). Landing a Toad cleanly on the surface scores one point, a Toad in the hole scores two.

Toads tables like the one shown here were falling out of use and heading for extinction in their home counties in the south-east, until a late 80's revival, spurred on by a bunch of local 'Toads' enthusiasts, brought the game back from the brink. This revival has been so successful that new tables continue to be built, and the local Sussex league is one of the very few pub game leagues which have actually grown in recent years. More details on the game can be found on comedian Ben Ward's excellent website, and you can follow the games progress through the season on the Lewes & District Toad in the Hole League blog.

The game of Toad in the Hole arrived in Lincoln in 2012 when a touring team from Sussex challenged locals in the city to a friendly match. The Toads Table was subsequently presented to the Lincoln players, resulting in a team attending the annual World Championships in 2015, an open competition run by the Lewes Lions.

The Dog & Bone is now home to the 'Lincoln Toads' team, with regular practice nights and competition in the pubs 'Dog Kennel' games and function room. Recently the team have initiated a North-South Divide competition, playing an invitation team from Sussex for a handsome Toads Trophy.

It's easy to see why the Lincoln Toads team might have chosen the Dog & Bone as their home base. A very traditional and beautifully maintained back-street locals pub with a great reputation for its beer, and as fine a place to settle in for a few pints and a natter as you're likely to find anywhere. The left-hand bar area (left) has a stove for cosy winter drinking, and there's a lovely garden at the rear for the summer months, which is also where you'll find the 'Dog Kennel'.

The bar is also home to a Dartboard, and hosts a team in the local Lincoln & District (Doubles Board) Darts League. The all-black Doubles Board can be seen to the right of the numerous awards the pub and licensee has received over the years (below). The Doubles board is not usually on show, but I visited on the day following a victorious home match.

The 'Dog Kennel' at the rear of the pub is of course the venue for Toad in the Hole games, but there's also a 'Pin' Bagatelle Table, Cribbage Boards, and a couple of good quality Shove Ha'penny boards. The games pile in the 'lounge bar' side of the pub (below) is also well equipped with traditional pub games and more modern board games, so it's no surprise that the pub has hosted occasional 'Pub Games Olympics' in the past.

Sadly the current licensees are moving on following several successful years at the Dog & Bone, but it's hoped that little, other than the faces behind the bar of course, will change under new stewardship.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Selly Park Tavern, Selly Park, Birmingham

Large red-brick boozers like the Selly Park Tavern are still a relatively common sight throughout Birmingham and the West Midlands, albeit that many are sadly no longer trading as pubs now. Built at a time of rapid urban population growth in areas of heavy industrialisation such as the West Midlands, with a resultant strong growth in trade for local breweries. As thirsty workers swelled their coffers, brewers were keen to expand their businesses to meet demand, often through mergers and acquisitions which created major regional brewing concerns. They were also keen to put some long overdue investment into what was often seen as a chronically neglected pub estate. A pub estate that was invariably the preserve of male drinkers, and often with a reputation for intemperate behaviour, perhaps even lawlessness.

Pubs built during this pre-war period were designed to move the trade upmarket, with many of the older backstreet beerhouses de-licensed and closed down for good, often with strong encouragement from local licensing authorities. No expense was spared on the interiors, with local craftsman creating fashionable designs in leaded glasswork, polished brass, and fixtures and fittings crafted from the finest imported hardwoods.

Built in 1901 by Holder's Brewery Ltd as the Pershore Road Inn, latterly the Selly Park Hotel. The pub lies in a suburban area of Birmingham's industrial and commercial sprawl, an area which still retains something of it's independence from the city thanks to several areas of surrounding parkland. Holder's were an important local brewing concern and their logo crops up in pubs all over Birmingham, most notably at the fabulous tile-clad Craven Arms on Upper Gough Street. The brewery was subsequently bought out and closed by Birmingham's brewing powerhouse M&B, and the pub is now owned by Ember Inns, a pubco created from the old M&B estate. Refurbishment and alterations have all-but obliterated the pubs original internal layout, but there are still a number of distinct areas within the large open-plan interior. The Holder's logo can still be seen in stonework at the front of the building, and in an attractive leaded glass window on the rear staircase (below).

The Selly Park predates the trend for what has become known as 'improved' pubs by several years, yet there are indications that the pub adopted at least some aspects of this inter-war style of pub building. These 'improved' pubs were designed to offer recreation and refreshment for all of the local community, with a multitude of individual rooms designed to appeal to different tastes and social classes. This often extended to the inclusion of a large first-floor function room, or concert/dance hall, and provision for one or more of the more genteel games of the day such as Billiards or Lawn Bowls.

Of course most of these grand turn of the century pubs have now lost their multi-room layouts (the Selly Park Tavern is no exception), victims of the late 20th century obsession with knocking everything through to one large easily managed space. But the Selly Park is unusual in that it has retained not only its Bowling Green, but also what was probably a later addition of a fully functioning Skittle Alley.

The skittle alley occupies a separate (listed?) building at the rear of the pub, which a local newspaper feature on Birmingham's better known skittle alley at Moorpool suggests was originally built to house one or more Billiard Tables. It's hard to know just how popular and widespread the game of skittles would have been in Birmingham, but there are certainly records of other alleys, including at pubs in nearby Selly Oak and Harbourne, and there was at least one league to manage competition, the Birmingham & District Skittling League. The only formal competition for skittles that now remains in Birmingham is an in-house league at the aforementioned Moorpool Skittles Club, but the alley at the Selly Park Tavern sees regular use for Skittles Nights and private functions.

To the rear of the pub is what was once a common sight in the Midlands, and one of the classics of the movement to 'Improve' pubs, the neat square of a Bowling Green. Crown Green Bowls is the game played in the Birmingham and West Midlands area, and the green at the Selly Park Tavern has the pronounced rise in the centre which is a feature of this version of bowls. Unlike Lawn Green Bowls where play is down numbered 'rinks', players launch their woods from all directions across the crown which makes for a much less sedate, sometimes loud and fast-paced game. Many of these Bowling Greens have been lost from pub sites, and many that do survive are no longer owned by the pub itself. This one is still attached to the pub, and leased to the local club. The pub itself has a pretty decent range of real ales these days, so what better way to spend a summer afternoon than spectating a game on the Selly Park Tavern's Bowling Green, or maybe an evening of skittles in what is probably Birmingham's last dedicated pub Skittle Alley.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Fountain Inn, Parkend, Gloucestershire

I've been a regular visitor to the Severn Vale and Wye Valley areas of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire for the best part of 30 years, and yet the leafy bit in the middle that makes up the Royal Forest of Dean remains something of a mystery to me. It's a place I've viewed from afar and even driven through on occasion, but I've yet to get a handle on the forests undeniable tourist appeal. Is it good walking country? A challenging cycling space? A happy hunting ground for those who appreciate industrial heritage? Or a slightly mysterious, ancient wooded hinterland, populated by hardy smallholders and dangerous Wild Boar? All of the above and a fair bit more I don't doubt.

Recently though, I've gained something of a foothold in the forest by visiting one or two of the areas better pubs, some of which are home to one of Britain's rarer regional pub games. I've examined Indoor Quoits (known simply as Quoits to those who play it) on this blog before, and if you've never seen or heard of the game before, it may be worth reading my short account of it here. Quoits can be found from Shropshire in the north, Warwickshire and the West Midlands in the East, and throughout Herefordshire and the Welsh Borders to the West. Gloucestershire, and the Forest of Dean in particular, represent the furthest south that Quoits is generally found, and these areas may well represent the historical limits of the game.

Quoits Boards like the one shown here at the Fountain Inn were probably as prevalent in the Forest of Dean during the games heyday as Dartboards and Pool Tables are now. Sadly a great many forest pubs have closed in recent years, and those that remain are more often than not lacking the local game. That's a great shame because Quoits lends itself so well to the casual afternoon or evening game. Easy to learn, and accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Indeed it's an ideal amusement (and curiosity) for tourists to the area, particularly on a rainy day or dark winter evening.

The Fountain takes full advantage of the forest tourist trade, located as it is just a stones-throw from Parkend station on the popular Dean Forest Railway, which runs daytime steam and diesel services on Wednesdays and weekends from the mainline at Lydney. As with many pubs in the forest, food and accommodation are crucial to the success of the Fountain, but that doesn't mean that the locals have been squeezed out.

The main entrance to the pub delivers you directly into the smart, recently refurbished bar area, and this is where the locals gather and the Quoits Board is located. This bar area is defined by a wide bay window with table and seating, and the whole pub has been tastefully decorated with old photographs and fascinating relics from the area, including many associated with the rail line which originally passed close to the pub.

The brightly painted Quoits Board shares an 'oche' with the Dartboard, and is usually folded down out of the way when not in use. Apparently this is the only wooden board still in play in the forest league, most venues preferring the heavy pre-formed concrete variety found in Hereford and elsewhere. Many of these concrete boards are also painted all-white rather than the traditional red and green seen here at the Fountain, though why this might be I've yet to discover. Quoits and Darts can be found to the left of the bar counter, and these include a set of the earlier concave rubber Quoits as well as the more common black and white variety. League play at the Fountain is in the Royal Forest of Dean Quoits League, which operates Summer and Winter competitions at around seven venues in the Forest area.

Other than the Hereford league where scoring follows a similar pattern to Darts, league Quoits play is scored on special scoreboards like the one shown above. I've seen several of these now, and despite the fact that Quoits Boards and the rubber quoits themselves have been manufactured from the early 20th century to the present day, these scoreboards are always homemade affairs, and therefore entirely unique to each pub or club venue. This one is numbered up to 12, which is I think the standard for the Forest of Dean League.

The next time I visit the Forest of Dean, I'm hoping to catch a league game. I play Quoits quite regularly at home and in our own local pubs, but it would be interesting to gauge how good these regular players are in comparison to our own more casual efforts. A better understanding of how the scoreboard contributes to tactics in the game wouldn't hurt either. Minor mysteries for another day in the Forest of Dean...

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Salutation Inn, Ham, Gloucestershire

The last time I visited the Salutation Inn was in the early 1990's on a hot summer cycling holiday. I recall a quiet and traditional village pub, a pleasant enough pint of the locally brewed Berkeley Old Friend, and not a lot else it has to be said. I took a photo of the pub (not reproduced here but almost identical to the one shown above), before pedalling off down the Vale of Berkeley in search of more pubs and the numerous cider and perry makers that were dotted along the vale in those days.

Sadly a great many of the pubs and cidermakers I visited on that holiday are no longer with us. Most notably the Berkley Hunt, a wonderful unspoilt bargees pub in the village of Purton, now a canalside cottage residence (the equally wonderful Berkley Arms is still open in the village, albeit with limited opening hours). A whole host of cider and perry makers are now gone, including Rodney Summer of Halmore, and local legend Jasper Ely of Framilode. The malty sweetish beers of the Berkeley Brewery are also no more.

Thankfully the Salutation is still there, and thriving to a degree that would have seemed unlikely at the time. Located a short walk from the village of Berkeley and its impressive castle, Ham is the quintessential tiny rural hamlet. What little passing trade there is usually comes on horseback or cycle, so for a pub like the Salutation to still be open and enjoying no small measure of success is a testament to the support it continues to receives from the locals, and the hard work and genuine innovation that licensees Peter & Claire Tiley have brought to the pub since their arrival in 2013.

I can't in all honesty say that I remember too much about the inside of the pub from my last visit. Presumably there have been one or two minor alterations in the intervening years, but it's still basically the same two-room village local it was back then. One thing I am sure of though is that the beer and cider range has improved immeasurably under the new owners. So much so that the Salutation has become a serial award-winner at both local CAMRA branch level and nationally, achieving CAMRA's Cider Pub of the Year award and the ultimate accolade of National Pub of the Year in 2014. The pub even has its own Sally Cider, and the Tiley Brewery is due to launch very soon bringing brewing back to the Berkeley area. Quite a special place then, and one I've been looking forward to returning to for a good while now.

I finally managed a return to Ham and the Salutation in late springtime this year. A little too early in the year for beer garden drinking, but the bar was cosy, and the locals welcoming. The traditional early evening after-work social was in full swing, one of the very best and most sociable pub sessions of all in my view. The stove was lit, and the wide range of Three Counties ciders and perries were going down a treat. As I rattled my way through a few games of Dominoes with my partner, the early post-work shift was gradually replaced by a contingent Sally skittles players.

The Vale of Berkeley gives its name to the local skittles league, and there are several pub and club skittle alleys in Berekely village alone. I've no doubt that with so many pub closures and refurbishments in the area in recent years, the league will have lost a good few venues and teams, so it's great that the Salutation has retained its traditional skittle alley at the rear of the pub, part of the licensees ethos of running a proper village local rather than going all-out for the destination dining market.

Anticipating our visit to the Salutation, I'd already checked the fixture list for the Berkeley & District Skittles League ahead of our visit, and was slightly disappointed to see that we'd missed the last home game of the season. So it came as something of a surprise to see the pub team roll up and commence play. What I'd forgotten was that league fixtures are frequently cancelled during the winter season due to bad weather and other issues, leading to an inevitable backlog at the tail-end of the season. This was one such fixture, a mop-up game that may or may not have had much bearing on league positions. Nevertheless I was grateful that the teams kindly allowed me to take a few action shots during the match.

The commitment to traditional pub games at the Salutation extends to Shove Ha'penny, and the indoor version of Quoits unique to this area of England and Wales, both of which are available for play on request.

So the Salutation was a fine traditional village local back then, and has developed into a truly great one now. In fact it's a real rarity, a great pub that just keeps getting better.

Monday, 11 July 2016

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.27

Classic Victorian street-corner locals like the one shown here were once a common sight throughout the Midlands. The industrial decline of the late 20th century has done for a great many of these urban working-mens boozers, yet good examples still survive in one shape or another. Few it has to be said are as beautifully well preserved as the Dewdrop in Ilkeston though, most having had their interior knocked through to a single room, losing most of their former character and heritage in the process.

The Dewdrop today is a warm and welcoming local with a reputation for serving great beer, but also well-worth seeking out for the rare treat of a largely unspoilt multi-room interior featuring many of its original period fittings. Originally named the Middleton Hotel (the old lettering is still visible on the outside), the Dewdrop would have served the nearby rail station (currently closed but scheduled to reopen later this year) and a local populace working in the heavy industry of the area. The pub is similar in style to the nearby Gate Inn at Awsworth, itself a very fine heritage pub with a similar reputation for good beer. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of both these pubs is the wide Lobby which usually functions as an additional drinking area served from a hatch off the central bar servery (below). Both pubs feature on CAMRA's Heritage Pubs list as having interiors of regional importance.

To the right of the lobby is a very cosy Lounge Bar dominated by a roaring fire in the winter months, and a small Snug which now acts as a children's room. To the left is a more basic Public Bar (below), and it's in here that the pubs Pool Table and Dartboard reside. In the yard to the rear of the pub can be found the pubs original outdoor Skittle Alley (left), though sadly no longer in regular use. The licensee informed me that skittles and balls are still kept at the pub, so perhaps a game can be had given a fine day and enough prior notice. Long Alley Skittles is the one truly distinctive regional pub game of Derbyshire (and Nottinghamshire), and the Ilkeston & District Long Alley Skittles League is still active with several venues for the game in the nearby town centre.

CAMRA's inventory of pubs with unspoilt heritage interiors lists 30 or so important survivors within the catchment of Birmingham, including several Victorian and Edwardian classics in the Digbeth area. The Anchor on Bradford Street is one of the very best, and a real feast for the eyes. One of several red brick and terracotta pubs in the area, the Anchor is fitted out internally with wood panelling rather than the elaborate tile work seen in near neighbours such as the Woodman. It also features beautiful Art Nouveau inspired windows, and a rare original glazed screen which divides the public bar into two separate areas.

The pub has a long-standing reputation as one of Birminghams best Ale Houses, and it's a lively, often very busy traditional boozer with a good local following. The public bar features a Pool Table, always in use whenever I've visited, and a Dartboard. The latter squeezed into a corner of the room, and features an unusual folding baffle on the adjacent bench seating (below), presumably designed to protect drinkers from stray arrows during a game.

The rise of the micropub continues apace, with these specialist ale and cider pubs opening at a rate that's proving difficult to keep track of. The way things are going it won't be long before just about every town or large village has at least one micropub to call its own. Welcome relief where local pubs offer little or no choice of beer, but still not a replacement for the very best of our established traditional pubs in my view.

The diminutive size of most micropubs means there's rarely space for games larger than those which are played at a table, and whilst few would regard the opening of another micropub as anything but a positive thing, if they are, as many seem to believe, the very future of pubgoing, games like skittles and even Darts could face an uncertain future.

I hope there's room for both micropubs and the older established 'macro' version. Meanwhile, I'm more than happy to celebrate a return to a more social form of pubgoing, which is undoubtedly where micropubs excel.

Shown above is the recently opened Gas Tap micropub in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. A typical single room beerhouse, casks of ale and a small bar servery at one end, a close formation of seating and tables occupying the front which is where we enjoyed a few games of Dominoes over a pint or two recently.

The Bull Baiters micropub had only been open a few days when I visited. So new in fact, that I only came across it by chance on a visit to a few old favourites in the St Johns area of Worcester.

Again, it follows the formula of a smallish single room with the bar servery and casks at one end, comfortable seating arranged to the front. I was pleased to see that the owner has taken the trouble to provide Cards, Dominoes and Cribbage Boards for customers to use, the ideal games for pubs like this.

Considering the many and obvious tourist attractions of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, including the impressive Abbey and a wide navigable stretch of the River Severn, most of the pubs in the town are still very much 'locals' pubs. As a tourist in the town myself, this is exactly what I like to see. I see little point in travelling far and wide to drink and dine in the kind of impersonal chain bars and tourist-traps you can find anywhere, and which by and large the locals tend to avoid. If I'm having a pint in Tewkesbury, I prefer to be drinking in the company of at least 'some' local Tewkesbury folk.

So I was delighted to find plenty of locals on a recent trawl around the towns pubs, and particularly pleased that the tradition of afternoon Cribbage play persists in at least one of them. The gentleman playing here meet up for regular Cribbage sessions at the Brittania, and I've found that Cribbage is still very popular in the Tewkesbury and Evesham area.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Humber Hotel, Coventry

There are currently just two leagues in the UK for the rare game of Bagatelle. The Chester & District Bagatelle League is probably the bigger of the two, and possibly the more healthy with regard to it's future given the highly proactive committee behind it. Other leagues in Wales and Liverpool have folded in recent times, leaving just the Coventry Bagatelle League to make up the numbers. Quite why the game has survived in areas as far apart as the West Midlands and Cheshire is anyones guess, and given the scarcity of Bagatelle tables, which only occasionally come up for sale, it's not a game that's likely to see a revival of fortunes any time soon.

Bagatelle, sometimes known as Old English Bagatelle to help distinguish it from the smaller pin-table game, was once an extremely popular pub, club, and parlour game. As common in its day as the cue sports of Billiards and Snooker in fact. That the game has declined so dramatically, to the point that few will have even heard of it, is a reflection of the ever-changing fashions in pub gaming. It seems likely that the game of Bar Billiards overtook Bagatelle in popularity at some point, and this in turn has been largely superseded in pubs and clubs by the modern import, American Pool.

The game of Bagatelle has many similarities with Bar Billiards. Played from one end of a relatively small table, the goal is to pot balls into a series of cups, each bearing a different scoring number, the highest of which is the central cup which scores 9. There are of course numerous rules and technical details which make Bagatelle the skillful and highly competitive game it is. Played as a singles, doubles, or team game, the aim is usually to score the highest break. In the Coventry League however, teams of five compete, with each match decided by the first to reach a score of 121.

As in most regional pub games, the rules, and often the equipment used vary considerably. Bagatelle tables in the Coventry league are slightly larger than those found in Chester for example. Another obvious difference is the rounded 'baulk' end of the table, though this doesn't seem to have any bearing on play, and Coventry tables have two side-pockets at the scoring end of the table. Another major difference of play is that in the Coventry league, players are obliged to 'nominate' the cup they aim to pot a scoring ball into, which perhaps makes it the more skillful of the two versions currently played.

The Coventry league has shrunk considerably in the last few years. A rule book and fixture list of the mid 90's which was kindly given to me by the licensee of the Humber Inn, lists around 30 venues for the game, with play spread over two leagues of over a dozen teams each. This number is now down to around 7 venues, and all but one of these are social clubs.

The last pub venue for the game in Coventry is the Humber Hotel, located on the edge of the town centre near Gosford Green Park. This area was once the home of Humber Ltd, and was one of Coventry's principal sites for motor vehicle manufacture. The pub would have originally been built as part of the estate housing the factory workers, and is commemorated by an image of a vintage Humber car on the pubs swinging sign.

The Humber Hotel is a classic large-scale Edwardian pub of a type which is still fairly common throughout the West Midlands, the Birmingham area in particular. Shockingly, the pub was destined for demolition at the time current owners Eddie & Lynne Sheridan took it on over 20 years ago. Since then the pub has seen numerous changes, but still retains a good deal of its original period splendour, and even though most of the internal walls have been removed over time, the original multi-room layout can still easily be discerned.

The lounge (above) has been recreated with a modern partition which separates it from the public bar. This glazed screen matches beautifully with the existing wood panelling, so much so that I initially thought it was an original feature. It's in this comfortable room that the pubs Bagatelle Table resides. A vintage Padmore & Sons of Birmingham table, sourced from another venue following catastrophic damage to the Humber's original table. Most aspects of a quality cue-sport table like this can be repaired following damage, but when the table at the Humber was dropped during renovation work at the pub, the all-important slate bed was broken, and the repair considered too costly so another table was procured locally.

A 'Certificate of Conformance' hangs adjacent to the Bagatelle Table (above), and shows that the table at the Humber Hotel has been inspected and complies with the standards of competition set out in the rules. Note also the wooden 'Bell-Push' on the panelling below, one of several dotted around the lounge, and originally used to summon waiter service in the days when the lounge was served from a hatch to the main bar.

On entering the main bar area, it's easy to see the line of the original corridor which would have separated the 'Smoke' on the left-hand side (shown above with Pool Table), and the Public Bar to the right (below). This traditional 'drinking corridor' would have originally been served from a hatch on the left of the main bar counter, and some of the original patterned tile-work is still in situ in this area. In front of the servery is the pubs Dartboard. A large trophy cabinet near the Pool Table attests to the success of the various teams that play out of the Humber.