Monday, 3 April 2017

Bridge Inn, Worcester

The Bridge Inn c.1972
In the four years I've been writing this blog, one thing has become increasingly, indeed sometimes painfully apparent. Whenever I get the chance to return to a pub, perhaps one that I've featured for a particularly rare or unusual traditional pub game, all too often I find there's been a change of licensee or owner, sometimes an all-encompassing refurbishment, and often little or no sign of the traditional games that attracted me in the first place. That's assuming that the pub is still open of course..

One of the reasons I started documenting these games and pubs in the first place was the current and continuing turbulence in the licensed trade. I wanted to highlight what is often an under-promoted and largely unappreciated aspect of pub-going, but also provide a snapshot of where we are now, a lasting record of what continues to be lost on an almost daily basis.

Whilst I understand that pubs have always had to change and adapt to the market, and the priority should always be to keep pubs open wherever possible, and however that might be achieved, it still saddens me when I arrive at a pub and find the skittle alley closed, the Dartboard removed, the pub re-invented for a different, often less inclusive clientele where the age-old traditions of social game play are no longer part of the business model.

Just occasionally though, I find that the opposite is true, as is the case at the Bridge Inn, an historic pub close to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Lowesmoor in Worcester. I featured the Bridge in a blog post on Worcester Skittles not more than 18 months ago, photographing the sadly neglected skittle alley as a kind of final record, given that everyone I spoke to that day claimed the pub was closing for good and the alley likely to be demolished. I'm delighted to say that the predicted demise the pub and its skittle alley has proved to be premature.

Around a year after I first visited, the Bridge Inn reopened under new, enthusiastic ownership, and has quickly re-established itself as the locals pub it's always been. The pub was in a pretty poor state of repair when I visited last year, a handful of locals polishing off the beer ahead of a final closing party scheduled for that evening. The main bar area was all dark wood and tatty furnishings, not at all inviting it must be said, but even then I could see there was an attractive pub waiting to be rediscovered underneath the years of neglect. It's this bright and attractive space that the current licensees have revealed following an extensive refurbishment (above). An historic pub on the verge of being lost forever is now spruced-up and fit for purpose again.

The separate Skittle Alley (above) at the rear of the pub had fallen into disuse and disrepair under the previous tenants (left), littered with equipment from band practices and parties. The alley surface has now been fully restored to the standard required for league matches, though like most alleys of this type it will still be used for functions from time to time. Sadly the unique 'House Champions' wall plaque that decorated the end of the alley (see previous post) had gone missing before the current licensees arrived.

Two men's and a ladies team are now playing from the pub, and it's hoped that more teams will eventually follow from one or other of the Worcester leagues now that the pub is in safe hands and its future secured.

The unique indoor version of Quoits shown above would have been quite common in the Worcester area at one time, but has now almost entirely disappeared from its pubs. Nearby Evesham was a real hotbed of the game and an active Quoits league still exists over the border in Hereford, so it's probably safe to say that Worcester would have been at the very heart of a Quoiting tradition which covered most of the West Midlands and Welsh Border area. But if the distinctive boards still exist in pubs hereabouts they're not on show, and competitive play of any kind has long since ceased. Which makes the board shown above at the Bridge Inn something of a rarity, and probably the only one of its kind that can be played in a Worcester pub (correction: I forgot about the board at the Brunswick in St Johns). The Board, which originally belonged to a Bridge Inn local, gets regular use for afternoon friendlies.

Games and sport are at the very heart of the revived Bridge Inn, with Pool and Darts teams back again, Poker evenings, and a trusty Shut The Box available to play from behind the bar.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Station Hotel, Hucknall, Nottingham

If we look at the ever-changing face of the great British pub, there's one aspect that might be considered something of a constant (alongside the beer of course!). The most successful pubs are the ones that have always adapted to suit the changing needs of their customers, often closely reflecting the social trends and fashions of the time. A notable example of this is the way that pubs have adapted to service the prevailing modes of transport. The famous coaching inns which served the needs of travellers and the early postal system eventually gave way to a network of railway and station hotels, which in their turn were largely superseded by the 20th century roadhouses that sprang up to accommodate the new trend of motoring.

Despite this and the massive contraction of the rail network in the 1960's, many of the pubs and hotels associated with the railways have survived, even where the associated station is long gone (the Railway remains in the top 10 of British pub names). Sadly, the neglect and decline of the rail network in the latter part of the 20th century has often been mirrored in the abject condition of these once thriving hostelries.

More recently, station bars, refreshment rooms, and other railway pubs have been reappraised by enthusiastic pub operators. Neglected for years, these pubs which are often quite grand affairs, are being lovingly refurbished and re-established as important refreshment stops for both passengers and locals, often with a firm focus on the current trend for real ale and craft beer. There have even been a few micropubs established at rail stations. The pub adapting and changing once again for modern needs.

The Station Hotel featured here is one of the most recent examples of this, a neglected pub in the very heart of Hucknall town which has been comprehensively refurbished and reopened by the local Lincoln Green Brewery as their flagship taphouse.

The team at Lincoln Green can see the potential of a pub like the Station Hotel where previous operators have clearly failed, served as it is by both the nearby rail station and the excellent Nottingham Tram network. They also appreciate the undoubted heritage of a pub like this, a genuine Victorian hotel which thankfully retains a multi-room layout that includes a large function room and several letting rooms. A proper locals pub, and with the excellent range of beers on offer a true destination pub too.

In addition to the pubs separate public bar and lounge, the Station Hotel features a games room equipped with one of the most traditional of all pub games. Anthony Hughes is the owner of Lincoln Green Brewery, and the driving force behind great pubs like this and the Robin Hood (and) Little John in Arnold, another revitalised pub which has already featured on this blog. He's also a born and bred Northamptonshire man, and recalls playing Table Skittles as a lad in his fathers village local. The games room at the Station Hotel presented the perfect opportunity to fulfil a dream and install the local Northamptonshire game in one of his own pubs.

The table is a vintage 1950's W T Black & Sons model, originally from the closed Royal British Legion Club in Hillmorton, Rugby. Skittles tables like this can be found throughout Northamptonshire and the surrounding counties, but I've found no evidence for the game in the counties of Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire. Long Alley and the associated indoor game of Devil Amongst The Tailors are local to the Nottingham area, so this table is unusual, quite probably unique to the county, although they do pop up in unusual places in private hands. The boxwood pins and cheeses are kept behind the bar if you fancy a game.

In addition to the pubs skittles table, the games room is equipped with a very good Mahogany Shove Ha'penny Board, as well as a couple of Pin Bagatelles, Cards, Dominoes, and a selection of good old Cribbage Boards. The pubs original Skittle Alley is currently out of action and in need of extensive renovation, but may come back into use at some point in the future. Since the closure of the Seven Stars, there are no active pub skittle alleys in Hucknall.

The Lounge Bar (below) has a lovely old piano, and like it's sister pub in Arnold, piano singalongs are planned. There really is no excuse for twiddling your thumbs in the revived Station Hotel!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.28

It's perhaps hard for us to imagine just how popular games would have been to pub-goers in the early to mid 20th century. Pub games, alongside singing and performing, and the more prosaic pastimes of drinking and chat, were the cornerstones of what going to your local was all about, and practically all the games associated with the pub were played enthusiastically and competitively by men, and latterly women, in hundreds of local leagues.

A measure of just how widespread this games play was can be gauged by the profuse evidence for leagues which existed throughout the country for everything from Bagatelle to Shove Ha'penny. Almost all of these leagues have now declined or disappeared entirely, with only skittles, Darts, and Pool played at levels which approach their former glory. Brewers and other businesses associated with the pub trade were quick to see the benefits of sponsoring leagues, a symbiotic relationship which continued largely unchanged until the creation of pubcos in the wake of the 1989 Beer Orders, which had the effect of severing the direct relationship most pubs had with their drinks suppliers.
All the skittles medals shown here were for leagues which no longer exist, and sponsored by breweries which are now defunct. Georges' Brewery were based in Bristol, and sponsored an alley skittles league from around the time that this medal was awarded for the knockout competition in 1935. Georges was acquired by Courage in 1961, and the Bath Street brewery closed in 1999.

It's from this era around the war years that most of these silver (sometimes gold) medals date. Post-war austerity led to cheaper, sometimes more practical prizes such as the folding travel clock shown here for the Watney Mann sponsored Northampton (Table) Skittles League. Taunton Brewers Skittles League is still active in Somerset, though no longer sponsored by its namesake.

The Balmoral is a pub that's pretty hard to miss, even amongst the gaudy delights of Leicesters 'Golden Mile'. One of only two pubs on this stretch of Belgrave Gate, it's likely that the Balmoral will not be to everyones taste. It does seem to be a bit of a male preserve for example! But with a recent planning application accepted to develop the pub as a restaurant, it's days as Leicesters last proper Indian locals pub may well be numbered.

As it stands now, the Public Bar would certainly benefit from a sensitive refurbishment, but nevertheless it's a remarkable survivor. The lounge has seen alterations, including the blocking off of the original door from the front lobby, but the public bar is little changed since the pub was built by Ansells Brewery in the 1920's. The bar has a well-used Pool Table and original tables suitable for cards/dominoes, but the biggest gaming interest at the pub these days is when the Indian national cricket team are in action.

Despite Cirencester giving its name to the local skittles league, tracking down a pub with an alley in the upmarket town centre proved difficult when I visited the town recently. The alley at The Wheatsheaf is probably the only one that remains in the very centre of town, and as a consequence it's often busy with league play. A modest Cotswold stone frontage conceals quite a sizeable pub, and a large function room to the rear which also houses the skittle alley.

Two rare and unusual pub games have been squeezed into Worcesters first micropub the Bull Baiters Inn in the suburb of St Johns. Ring The Bull is regarded as being the oldest of all pub games, with perhaps the most famous example at the Old Trip To Jerusalem in Nottigham, one of several pubs claiming to be the oldest in the country. Fittingly, the example at the Bull Baiters is a full bulls head figure, with a choice of two horns to ring.

Below this is a traditional Rings Board, a game that was once reasonably popular and widespread but now confined almost exclusively to parts of Ireland and the Isle of Wight. The presence of these two games should come as no surprise given that the pub is run by the licensee of the nearby Brunswick Arms, a noted collector and enthusiast of traditional pub game.

CardsDominoes and Cribbage Boards for scoring are also available at the bar of the Bull Baiters.
In an attractive Dorset town like Sherborne, it comes as no surprise that most of the pubs have adapted to service the tourist trade, majoring on food for the most part. For more basic beery needs and a more traditional 'pubby' experience, I was directed to the Digby Tap, a backstreet boozer close to the impressive Abbey.

The Digby is a multi-room pub, relatively unspoilt, and regarded as 'the' beer venue in Sherborne by those in the know. A quiet retreat on a weekday afternoon, though I understand the Digby can get quite busy in the evening s and at weekends. There's a Pool Table tucked away from the main seating areas, but I preferred to roll the dice and attempt to Shut The Box with my local pint.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Table Skittles in Nottingham

The Newshouse, Nottingham. The Skittles Table is set up ready for play in the bar, but the pins and ball are kept behind the bar for safe-keeping.
The classic ball-on-a-string skittles game Devil Amongst The Tailors (also known as Table or Bar Skittles) was once as popular and widespread in British pubs as Darts or Pool is today. It's one of those traditional old games that most people above a certain age readily recall, even if they haven't played it for decades. Small 'toy' examples were equally common, indeed I had one myself, but the game is perhaps most strongly associated with pubs and clubs where highly competitive leagues for the game would have existed, particularly in areas with an established 'alley' skittles tradition.

In the East Midlands the game tends to crop up in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Long Alley Skittles areas, the Northamptonshire side of the region having a very different Table Skittles tradition. In these areas it would have originally been an indoor winter game for when predominantly unheated or outdoor skittle alleys would have lost their appeal. Sadly all but one of the leagues for this form of table skittles in the East Midlands has ceased competition, the Newark league being the most recent to fold. Only the Nottingham & Arnold Table Skittles and Domino League remains, a competitive league so diminutive as to be virtually invisible outside of the handful of pubs and clubs which compete in its single division.

In Nottingham itself I know of just three pubs with a Devil Amongst The Tailors table available for play, and of these only one competes in the Arnold league, the bulk of those venues being private members clubs. The Newshouse has a good 'league standard' example, as does the Nags Head and Blacks Head, both in the suburb of Carlton, an area that was once a hotbed of Long Alley and Table Skittles play.

The Skittles Table at the Blacks Head is a classic Jaques model, and is usually set up ready for play in the smaller left-hand bar. The pub was refurbished to a high standard in 2015, but has retained its traditional public bar as well as a lounge and small snug at the rear. This pub doesn't currently compete in the local league, though the licensee is keen to get a team together at some point.


The nearby Nags Head has also had a recent refurbishment, and thankfully it too retains its traditional multi-room layout which includes separate Pool and Darts rooms off the main bar area. Two Pool teams play from the Nags, and the licensee is hoping to attract a Darts team soon. This is one of only two pubs that field a team in the local Table Skittles and Domino league, the other being The Plough at Keyworth.

The Skittles Table, another slightly older Jaques model by the look of it, is tucked away towards the rear of the bar, and has its own dedicated scoreboard. The pins are kept behind the bar for safe keeping.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Horse & Groom, Rearsby, Leicestershire

Whilst there are still a good few pubs in Leicestershire equipped for the local game of Long Alley Skittles, the general trend continues to be downwards. Every change of ownership and subsequent refurbishment brings with it the threat of another lost alley, and the epidemic of closures affecting village and suburban locals has inevitably contributed to the games decline in recent years. Nevertheless, the game is still popular at those pubs which retain an alley. Skittles is an ideal game for team-building and social functions, and competitive play continues in the Tom Bishop Memorial, and Syston & District Long Alley Skittles Leagues. Just occasionally, a long-closed or neglected alley is brought back into use, as is the case at the Horse & Groom in the north Leicestershire village of Rearsby.

Rearsby lies at the very heart of one of Leicestershire's two main areas for Long Alley Skittles. Close to the village of Syston which gives the local league its name, and also Thrussington, home to an unusual pair of outdoor skittle 'alleys' on the village green, and a traditional summer skittles event which has been held in the village for over 50 years. Pubs with good skittle alleys are dotted all along the Wreake Valley as far as Melton Mowbray, and a slightly different version of the game is played just over the border in Nottinghamshire.

When I first visited the Horse & Groom a couple of years ago, the skittle alley was in a sorry state and hadn't seen active service for some time. More recently the pub has changed hands, and licensees Tracey and Eddie Kimber have not only spruced-up and brought the alley back into use, but embarked on a series of improvements to all parts of the pub, including I'm pleased to say the beer range, which now includes the popular Harvest Pale Ale from Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham.

Traditional games and local league play are often the lifeblood of village and suburban locals, and no more so than at the Horse & Groom. The main Summer activity at the pub is Pétanque, possibly the most popular game played at pubs and clubs in this part of Leicestershire. League matches are usually held on Wednesday evenings throughout the summer months, and Pétanque is a good spectator sport, particularly when accompanied by a cool beer on a warm summer evening. Two teams play from the pub in the 1990 Pétanque League.

The Pétanque piste at the rear of the pub
Parts of the pub date from the very beginning of the 19th century, though there have been many later additions and alterations since then. The original layout can still be discerned in what is now a single bar room, and probably consisted of three rooms off a central corridor. The corridor is of course long-gone, but the bar retains these three separate areas and many original features. This includes an off-sales hatch on the right-hand side of the bar counter, a separate servery that would have been accessed from the corridor so that customers could purchase takeouts without having to enter the 'on' licensed rooms. Off-sales were once a common feature of pubs, but have now almost entirely disappeared following the late 20th century de-regulation of alcohol sales, allowing shops, and latterly supermarkets to dominate the lucrative take-home trade.

One of these three areas is dedicated to the pubs Dartboard, and landlord Eddie captains the Horse & Groom Darts team in the Syston & District Darts League.

The pub was originally a coaching inn on the now bypassed Leicester to Melton road, and the skittle alley is housed in the pubs former stabling (below). Note the three large sliding doors fronting onto the main road, the original equine access points. The alley is now back in regular use and has already hosted functions, accompanied by the traditional 'Skittles Evening' supper of Pork Faggots & Peas. It is also hoped that the pub will get a team together for competition in the local league in the coming season.

A boxing day Tug-o-War has been held in the village of Rearsby for over 40 years now. Originally the rivalry was between the Horse & Groom and the nearby Wheel pubs, with teams vying to pull their opponents into the village brook. It seems that competitive spirit runs deep in Rearsby, and the village pubs of the Wreake Valley continue to be at the heart of this healthy local rivalry. It must be something in the water!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Skittles In Dorset

The Chapelhay Tavern, Weymouth
What little I know of the Dorset skittles tradition can be attributed to my fellow pub games enthusiast, and enthusiastic Dorset skittler John Penny. John plays out of the historic skittle alley at the Rose and Crown in the village of Bradford Abbas, competing in summer and winter leagues in the Yeovil area. Earlier this year I was honoured to make up the numbers in the final game of the 2015/16 season at the Rose and Crown, a grand night in good company, and a great opportunity to see how the game is played locally. But is there in fact a Dorset skittles tradition?

A very similar game of alley skittles is played throughout most of the West Country, as well as much of the West Midlands, South Wales, and central southern England. Even Scotland has a historic pub skittle alley (a twin one in fact), though sadly no surviving leagues to my knowledge. Skittles is essentially the same game throughout all of these areas, and yet subtly different almost everywhere you find it, which is of course a large part of the fascination I have for this most traditional of pub games.

So I don't believe we can say there is a specific Dorset skittles tradition, because most of the traditions associated with skittles play are either universal (nine pins, three balls, wooden floored alley), or uniquely local, and therefore can't really be pinned down to a county. Just about every aspect of the game varies depending on where you play it, including the size of the pins and balls, alley dimensions, rules, regulations, customs and conventions, and perhaps inevitably in an area with such a rich and diverse dialect, the terminology of the game. Perhaps one day, someone will write a book that helps explain these myriad differences...

This team photograph hangs in the bar of the White Hart in Sherborne. The pub has been extensively modernised in recent times, and needless to say no longer has a skittle alley, but this and several other sport and games photos associated with the pub have been preserved.

In practice, Dorset skittles is much the same game as the one played in Devon and Somerset, that is to say the pins and balls used are of a similar design and size, including a slightly taller kingpin, or 'Landlord' which is not found in other areas such as Bristol and the Three Counties. There is however one aspect of the game which seems to have originated in the county. The clue is in the name!

The classic single-handed delivery has been used to deliver balls down alleys for as long as the game of skittles has been played. It's a tried and tested method that's clearly stood the test of time. Admittedly some use the right-hand for preference, others favour the left, but the basic technique is the same the world over. Or at least it was until some bright spark developed the 'new-fangled' delivery known as the Dorset Flop!

One of the quirks of skittles as it's played in Britain, and one which enthusiasts of the 10-pin 'Bowling' game probably find frustrating, is that skittle balls have no holes for the fingers to grip. Skittle balls vary in size, but one thing they all have in common is that they weigh a fair bit, all the better to do the damage at the business end of the alley. Traditionally the dense, hard-as-nails wood Lignum Vitae has been used for the West Country game, though many now use resin or rubber coated equivalents. The size and weight of these balls can make them quite difficult to handle, particularly if your hands are small. The colourfully named Dorset Flop gets round this by being a two-handed delivery, one in which the player launches themselves forward, 'flopping' down onto the alley once their hands are free of the ball. It's a very accurate method, and one that's become very popular throughout much of the West Country, particularly with younger players.

Goldies, Dorchester

The Dorchester & District Skittles League has around 60 mens teams playing in 4 divisions, and a further 16 ladies teams. Clubs appear to make up most of the venues, with around four pub alleys in the county town itself and several more further afield. Goldies, (also known as the Borough Arms), has a very good alley at the rear of the building, as does the nearby Tom Browns pub.

One feature of just about all league skittles play is 'home advantage'. In theory a player will always derive some advantage from playing on their home alley, if only because it's the one they play and practice on most of the time, but sometimes other factors come into play. The alley at Goldies is located in a stone walled outbuilding which may or may not have been built for the purpose. If it was, they didn't do a particularly good job of it as the alley slopes significantly uphill giving a very tangible advantage to the teams that call Goldies their home!

The Mermaid, Sherborne

The town of Sherborne lies at the very heart of the Dorset skittles tradition, only a few miles from it's most famous pub alley in Bradford Abbas, and yet finding a pub with a functioning alley proved to be a difficult task on my recent visit. Perhaps no great surprise given the attractive, somewhat touristy nature of a town like Sherborne.

Vestiges of the towns former skittles tradition do remain however, including an alley at the Plume of Feathers in the very centre of town, though nobody was quite sure whether it was still in use, which tends to suggest it's not! The locals at the White Hart, and the George Hotel opposite, proved useful for my search, pointing out several former skittling pubs in the town which no longer had alleys! On a more positive note, everywhere I went the consensus seemed to be that the best, possibly only chance of finding a pub with an active skittle alley in Sherborne was at the enticingly named Mermaid a little way out of the town centre.

Of all the pubs I visited in Sherborne that day, and I think I may well have visited all of them, The Mermaid was in many ways my favourite. Sometimes you just know when you walk into a pub whether it's 'right' or not, and the Mermaid was just that. A proper community locals pub, I found that I was immediately drawn into conversation with the friendly locals at the bar. A crowd which included a keen, and very successful skittles player of old, and all with a tale to tell about the pub in its heyday.

The Mermaid is quite a sizeable, classic early 20th century boozer, built as The Mermaid Hotel by the Dorsetshire Brewery Company probably around the 1920's. Located on the edge of a large area of housing, the population of which once packed into the pub at a time when the beer was served straight from the barrel on a long stillage behind the bar.

Nowadays the Mermaid is a single bar pub occupying the right-hand side of the building, with an adjacent games area for Pool and Darts (below). The left-hand side houses a Chinese takeaway. Certainly not the most traditional aspect of the pub, but I'm pleased to say that a good few customers make use of the bar for a drink whilst waiting for their food order, which can only be a good thing for the survival of a pub like this given that so many like it have closed in recent years.