Saturday, 20 June 2015

South Wigston, Leicestershire

The very centre of South Wigston is not a happy hunting ground for pubs. The closure of classic Victorian backstreet boozer the Grand Hotel, and more recently the Marquis of Queensbury, has left the immediate area around the rail station and shops unusually pub-free. The two social clubs will have mopped up much of the displaced custom, but the centre of the village has clearly ceased to be a destination for South Wigston drinkers.

It's in the surrounding residential areas that pub life continues unabated, particularly on the fringes bordering Wigston Magna where the two pubs featured here are found.

Nautical William

Throughout the 80's and 90's I would have driven past the Nautical William on many occasions, yet never felt inclined to pop in for a pint. At a time when 'locals' pubs like this were as common as 'local' supermarkets are today, it would have been just one more unremarkable boozer amongst many. It was also a far-flung outpost of Nottingham's Home Ales empire, offering the classic post-war beer range of Mild, Bitter, or an exotic 'mix' of Mild and Bitter. Even then, there was better available elsewhere!

The pub itself is a fairly typical 1950's building, of a type which I wouldn't have given a second glance at the time. Neither quaint nor 'historic' in the way some town and country pubs are, it's perhaps only because the pub sits on such a large plot that it stands out from the surrounding housing at all. But my view on pubs like this has changed over the years. To these eyes, pubs like the Nautical William are infinitely preferable to the new-build family dining venues which are replacing them, or the historic country pubs which promise much from the outside but have been stripped of all heritage and character within.

There's an honesty to these post-war community locals which makes them far closer to what I consider a proper pub to be than the glorified coffee houses and restaurants that so many have become of late. But it's exactly these kind of pubs, often standing on large attractive plots, that are being lost to housing and supermarket development at an alarming rate. This makes them all the more precious to pub enthusiasts like myself when they do survive largely intact and unspoilt, as is the case here.

Smartly refurbished in 2012, the Nautical William is now in private ownership, and still maintains its original multi-room layout. An entrance hall, which retains a now unused serving hatch (probably for off-sales originally, but possibly for corridor drinking), leads to a front dining room on the left, and smart public bar to the right (above). The games room to the rear of the pub is still well-used, and even the beer range has improved under the current owners.

Table Skittles, Darts and Pool are the mainstays of game play at the Nautical William, with skittles being played in division four of the Dunton Bassett Skittles League at the time I visited. There was also a skittle alley for the local game of Long Alley at one time, constructed by enthusiastic locals and opened in 1970. Whether this was in fact the current games room, which is about the right length for an alley, or another demolished building in the beer garden is not clear.

The skittles table is a W T Black & Son model. Most 'Blacks' tables are easily identifiable by the small oval plates on the front legs (though often broken or missing from the impact of a wayward 'cheese'), but they also carry information on construction stencilled on the woodwork underneath (below). This is table number 39, constructed in 1952 which is just two years before the Nautical William opened. Was this table bought from stock for the newly opened pub? If so it's quite possible that the skittles table is the only fixture at the pub contemporary with its original opening in the 50's.

Note also that this table was refurbished in 2013 by Colin Swinfen of Lutterworth, one of the few local craftsman skilled in the wood and leather work required for this job.

Chartwell Arms

I remember when the Chartwell Arms first opened its doors in the late 80's, a relatively rare occurrence even before the widespread closures of recent years. Known then as the Forryans Inn, the Chartwell is located on the edge of an industrial area, though it's essentially a residential estate pub. Bank's Brewery seemed to be one of the few who were actively building new pubs in those days, and a location like this would have suited their mixed food and drink offering, particularly back then when a lunchtime visit to the pub wasn't frowned on by employers in the way it is now.

The pub was given a fairly traditional layout which it retains to this day, with a lounge/eatery, bar area, and tile-floored games room which features Darts, Pool, and a slightly neglected Skittles Table tucked away in the corner. As can be seen in the advert for the opening (reproduced by kind permission of Midlands Vehicle Photographer), these were installed from opening, in stark contrast to newly opened pubs today, which rarely feature anything as social as a Darts Board, never mind the local game of skittles!

'Popular licensees Philip and Susan Hayes' are of course long gone from the Chartwell, and the current licensee is keen to establish games teams back at the pub following several years of instability behind the bar.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Newark, Nottinghamshire

Newark is a long-time favourite destination of mine from back in the day when rail fares were still reasonably affordable, and the time needed for a leisurely afternoon of drinking around its pubs seemed much easier to come by. Perhaps its the fact that Newark was once an important brewing town, but it's always seemed to me to have slightly more than its fair share of pubs. Needless to say, a few of these have been lost in the intervening years, but there's still a very good choice of pubs in the town, many of which are now tapping enthusiastically into the current vogue for all things beer and cider.

The modernised Organ Grinder (formerly the
Horse & Gears) has reintroduced a Darts Board
Perhaps inevitably, this rush to embrace the Craft & Cask trend has had an impact on some of the more traditional aspects of the towns pubs. On a recent visit I witnessed work in progress to convert a skittle alley to more profitable beer garden use, and multiple rooms continue to be knocked through, quirky or bland modern decor preferred to the genuine heritage which has served pubs so well for generations.

So Newark is undoubtedly a better destination for the beer drinker than it's ever been, but its pubs are changing at a rapid pace, and the kind of traditional community locals I love are giving way to a more upmarket, 'premium' offering.

Of course an open and thriving modernised pub is infinitely superior to a struggling or closed traditional boozer. It must also be said that a good deal of the change that Newarks pubs are undergoing has left room for locals to help shape the direction of 'their' pubs, and for the traditions of game play for example to either remain or be reintroduced should there be a demand. This is particularly important given that one of the three traditional pub games which are local to the area, Table Skittles, has already ceased as a league game, and the two which do remain are being pushed ever further out of town with every refurbishment.

Spring House

Long Alley Skittles is a case in point. Played throughout the East Midlands, the Newark & District Long Alley Skittles League is probably the most far-flung easterly outpost of the game, but alleys within the town are not as common as they once were. Maybe as many as half a dozen pub alleys are still in use, with the south of town being best represented.

A short walk out of the centre along Mill Gate takes you past the Watermill pub, and on the very edge of town the Spring House. I remember stopping in at this pub some 20 years ago on the way to Lincoln, though I can't honestly recall much about the place other than it (possibly?) served Mansfield Brewery beer. Back then it would certainly have had a league standard Skittles Table (Devil Amongst The Tailors) somewhere on the premises, a game which was played in a local league until quite recently. In fact the trophies from the final year of play are still held at the Spring House (above), and the table itself is still at the pub, though sadly no longer set up for play.

What is set up for play though is the Long Alley. It's no surprise that I don't recall this from my previous visit, the alley being located in an enclosed yard at the back of the pub, and far too short for play without opening a set of gates to the car park. As you can see, it's an outdoor alley, and play continues comes rain or shine, the surface having a tendency to hold a bit of water following a downpour. Perhaps that's why the 'Spring House Lads' now play out of the Malt Shovel on the other side of town, equipped as it is with a cosy indoor alley. Note the curved shape of the pins, and three large wooden balls, a feature of all Long Alley play in the Nottinghamshire (and Derbyshire) area. So too is the tin sheet positioned in front of the 'frame' which has to be cleared for a throw to score.

The Watermill

The Watermill plays host to the (locally) famous Flintstones Skittles Team, one of the few Long Alley teams in the Midlands to have any kind of online presence. The skittle alley is located outdoors to the rear of the pub, but covered against the worst of the English weather. The pub itself retains a fairly traditional multi-room layout, including a rear bar with a Skittles Table, and a second Darts throw on which the licensee had kindly set up the pubs Lincoln or Doubles Dart Board (below) for my visit.

Doubles Darts is one of the many regional variants of our most common traditional pub game, and is usually played in addition to, and not instead of the standard trebles board. This style of Doubles Board is local to the Lincolnshire area, though it only differs from the almost identical Yorkshire Doubles Board in its lack of green, red, and white colouring. Mens and Ladies Doubles Darts are played locally in the Newark & District Doubles Darts League.

The rear bar area with Doubles Dart Board set up. The pubs Skittles Table can be seen propped up against the wall, and is available for play on request.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Brewers Arms, Hereford

Despite the myriad changes affecting the pub trade, much of it to the detriment of long-standing tradition and heritage, the gaming element that has been a part of pub culture since the very beginning endures. All but the most bland, corporate managed houses seem to recognise the importance of a shared gaming pursuit, even if it's just finding space for a Darts throw or a set of Dominoes and Crib Board on the windowsill. I've even come across a few pubs which have had a major gaming element such as a skittle alley reinstated, often at the behest of local players.

A dwindling few seem to make such a feature of their traditional gaming that it would be hard to imagine the pub surviving without them. The Brewers Arms in Hereford falls into this latter category, boasting a wide range of traditional pub games, including the local specialities of Skittles, Quoits, and the card game Phat, all played in leagues at the pub.

The major pub game feature of the Brewers Arms may not be immediately apparent when entering, the pubs Skittle Alley being entirely hidden from view when not in use. The traditional wooden floored alley runs down the back of the pub, and is normally concealed by a hinged partition located at one end of the public bar. A Darts Board completes the subterfuge, and it's only when a game is in progress that you'd know it was there. Skittles is played in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League, with play currently on Friday nights in the Summer league.

The Hereford & District skittles league is unique in that the 'skittles' used are all ex-bowling alley pins, often stripped of the white plastic coating (below). The use of old tyres to absorb the impact of balls and pins at the back of the alley is not unique to Hereford, but seems to be quite a common feature of the alleys hereabouts.

Indoor Quoits represents a smaller, though no less important part of the pub games scene in Hereford. This gentle but highly competitive game has suffered a catastrophic decline in recent years, disappearing entirely from former strongholds such as the Evesham area and down to just a handful of pubs and club venues in Hereford itself.

The Brewers Arms is just the kind of locals pub where this increasingly rare game can still be found, and still sees regular use throughout the summer in the local league. The red and green concrete Quoits Board and the steel frame it sits on (above), was rescued from the closed Cotterall Arms, another classic backstreet local with a strong gaming tradition in its day.

The card game of Phat, though certainly not unique to Hereford, is unusual enough to be considered a local speciality. Phat is a trick-taking game played by two pairs of players, and the giveaway that you're in a 'Phat Friendly' pub like the Brewers is the presence of large-scale scoring boards like the ones shown here. Unlike the more common game of Cribbage which scores to 121, players aim to reach 181 in the game of Phat, which is either three times around a standard Cribbage Board, or a more sensible once on the expanded Phat scorers shown here.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Gate Inn, Awsworth, Nottinghamshire

The drinking corridor at the Gate Inn
Junction 26 of the M1 is probably best known to us 'Midlanders' as the (in)famous IKEA junction. The heavy industrial past of the area around the Erewash Valley may not be immediately obvious to visitors now, but it's still possible to get a taste of it in some of the areas largely unspoilt 'locals' pubs, of which there are thankfully still quite a few.

Pubs like the Gate Inn at Awsworth, a classic village local built to serve the needs of the local mining (and brewing!) community. A pub rich in heritage and a haven for local tradition, as well as being an award-winning outlet for local and national real ales. It's also yet another example of a pub rescued by enthusiastic licensees following years of neglect and under-investment by a large-scale brewer.

When local brewers Hardys & Hansons sold out to Suffolk super-regional Greene King, the historic Kimberley Brewery, and latterly much of its pub estate, became surplus to requirements. The Gate Inn closed for a time, and that might well have been that had it not been for the enthusiasm and drive of Kim Boldock and Stephen Fox, a couple who saw a future for the pub where the out-of-touch bean-counters at Bury St Edmunds clearly couldn't.

It's an all-too familiar tale, depressingly so given the number of well-loved and important community pubs that lumbering giants like Greene King still own. The sadness turns to anger when accountant-run businesses like this refuse to give people like Kim and Stephen a chance, preferring to sell their assets off to developers, ending any chance that their own failures might be turned around (as with the New White Bull at Giltbrook for example). It seems there's a limit to how many success stories like the Gate the big-boys can stomach.

And the Gate Inn is very much a success story. Since reopening in 2010, Kim and Stephen have made a special feature of their real ales, taking advantage of the large cellar at the pub and a growing demand for characterful craft-brewed ales. The total for different beers which have passed over the bar reached the 1,000 mark just three years after re-opening, the ever-changing beer range inspiring locals to brand the recently refurbished front bar (below) 'The Sweet Shop'!

It's not just about the beer though. The Gate Inn is the kind of traditional multi-room boozer that lends itself well to a wide range of social activities, ensuring the pub remains at the very heart of the community it serves. The patio beer garden has had an extensive makeover, with a rooftop terrace adding to the summer potential. Inside is a work in progress, but already many of the facilities have been brought up to modern standards, all the while with an eye to retaining the essential heritage of the building, no IKEA-inspired makeover here! A quiet snug exists to the left of the entrance, the hallway forming an increasingly rare example of a traditional drinking corridor. Plans for the future include opening up long-closed fireplaces, a 'new' room created where an old room once existed, and generally restoring the interior to how it would have been in its prime.

Prior to Kim and Stephen arriving at the pub, the Skittle Alley had been converted to a smoking shelter. Responding to requests by local Long Alley Skittles players, the alley has now been reinstated, and thanks to other alterations at the pub, is now effectively an indoor alley. This means that play can comfortably continue year-round, the local team playing in the Nottingham League, and Border Skittles League which is drawn from venues with covered alleys in both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Already there's a skittles cup at the pub, proudly displayed in the spacious trophy cabinet mounted above the heads of the lucky regulars in the 'Sweet Shop'.

Skittle alleys are, and certainly need to be, versatile spaces. The Gate Inn already has a well-appointed function room, but pub skittle alleys of all types often fulfil this purpose. The length of an alley also makes it an ideal venue for the little-known pub sport of shooting.

Competitive small-bore rifle shooting was actively encouraged as a sport toward the end of the 19th century, largely as a result of the poor standard of shooting observed during the Boer War, and continues in many leagues throughout the country to this day. Bell Target and paper target shooting even occurs within the public areas of some pubs, with special arrangements of steel pipes and automatic target changers to facilitate a match safely.

The Shooting Gate Airgun Club is a self-contained competitive shooting club which meets on Sunday evenings in the skittle alley of the Gate Inn.

Tradition of a different kind finds a home at the Gate Inn, being the meeting place for the local Black Pig Border Morris side.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Three Hinckley Pubs

The entries for Hinckley in my 1979 copy of CAMRA's Real Ale Guide to Leicestershire & Rutland give a clear indication of the stranglehold Burton brewers had on the towns many pubs. Most were owned by Marston's, with the mighty Bass conglomerate providing the only other choice in town. The later 80's edition of the guide reads much the same, and I recall with some fondness the (relative) excitement of finding a pint of M&B Mild at the now closed Castle Tavern when the Leicester CAMRA branch were in town.

Hinckley now has its own CAMRA branch, and thankfully things have moved on a bit since then pub-wise. Which is not to say there isn't still plenty of Marstons beer about the town (Bass now seems to have become a rarity), with the lower strength Marston's Bitter still a good drink in my view. The national Wetherspoon chain helped break the mould, and since then there has been a slight, but welcome relaxation of the Burton monopoly in the town.

The former Skittle Alley at the Railway Inn
The Railway Inn (above) has certainly benefited from this recent relaxation, and is now in the hands of the excellent Steamin' Billy Brewery Co. The Railway was a popular Marston's house in its day, but had fallen on hard times despite the obvious catchment of rail passengers from the station across the road. This decline in 'railway pubs' and 'station hotels' seems to be a feature of many towns, the pub closest to the station so often a terrible disappointment to travellers where it could, and certainly should be one of the best. Quite why this might be is a mystery to me, but in the right hands many of these unofficial station buffets have been very successfully revived by forward thinking owners, and such is the case with the Railway Inn.

If I'm honest, the decor of the Railway's lounge bar doesn't appeal to me, but the bar is a real delight, and it's great that the multi-room layout has been retained and even expanded under the current owners. The bar manages to achieve a thoroughly traditional feel whilst being light and airy, bright and inviting to all. It makes waiting for a train a real pleasure, which is exactly what a station pub should do. The bar features a Darts Board, and there are regular Poker Nights on Sunday. Sadly the skittle alley, possibly the last of its kind in Hinckley town, has now been converted to dining.

The wider Hinckley area has a number of pubs which are listed by CAMRA as having important heritage interiors. This includes two in the town itself, one of which is the excellent Greyhound (above & below), located at the top end of the town.

The Greyhound has always been a treat for lovers of good pubs, retaining its traditional multi-room layout of three rooms radiating from a central servery. But like the Railway, the Greyhound had been allowed to whither on the vine by owners Marston's. Quite why Marston's are still in the pub trade is beyond me, they seem to have little idea or interest in the future of their ever-shrinking pub estate. Thankfully, there are still a few in the licensed trade who take a keen interest in our pub heritage and the unique culture which surrounds it. People like local pub hero Louise Lavender who now runs the Greyhound free of Marston's disinterest and neglect, and has set about revitalising the pub as a true asset for Hinckley drinkers.

It's a quiet oasis from the busy high street, a pub for conversation or quiet contemplation over a pint and the newspapers. The front bar area has a Darts Board, but sadly the skittles are long gone from the Greyhound.

A short walk out of town brings you to the Holywell, a pleasant enough 1920's Marston's pub, but one which is currently 'between licensees' so perhaps not at its best. A large, busy, one-room pub with all the usual pub game staples, including Darts and Pool, and the relative rarity of a traditional Skittles Table.

The pub was until recently a stalwart of local league skittles play, but currently finds itself without a home team. The Skittles Table is available for casual play, but usually resides in the marquee at the rear of the pub and requires moving indoors by the staff. Not such a big job given that this old 'Peppers' table has been augmented with a sturdy set of wheels.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Hillmorton, Rugby, Warwickshire

Land-locked Warwickshire is almost unique as a county in boasting three very different pub-based skittles traditions. Only neighbouring Leicestershire can compete for overall skittling variety, with three of its own skittle games as outlined in a previous post on this blog.

To the south-west of Warwickshire the West-country tradition of Alley Skittles prevails, sharing league play with pubs and clubs in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire where the game is widespread. In the south-east of the county bordering Oxfordshire, the traditional pub game of Aunt Sally holds sway. Aunt Sally is a skittles game in all but name, albeit one where the wooden 'pins' are thrown at the 'ball'! The table skittles game known as Devil Amongst The Tailors, still played at league level in parts of Staffordshire, may well have featured to the north of the county at one time, but it's the more common Northamptonshire version of table skittles which brings the Warwickshire total to three.

The eastern edge of Warwickshire around the town of Rugby borders both Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, so it's perhaps no surprise that this part of the county shares a Table Skittles tradition with its near neighbours. Indeed many of the venues for the game in and around Rugby share league play with those just over the border near Lutterworth, and presumably the same can be said for venues in Northamptonshire's Daventry area. Rugby town centre has a handful of pubs and clubs where a skittles table can be found, but it's in the villages surrounding the town that the game is still relatively common. The nearby village of Hillmorton is a good example, a residential suburb of Rugby which could probably be considered a stronghold of the game, there being a table in virtually every pub and club.

Most of the pubs in Hillmorton are located on or near the busy High Street, the Stag & Pheasant takes a little more finding. A classic village pub of some age and character, located a short walk from the main road and now surrounded by modern housing to the north of the village. The pub is close enough to the Oxford Union Canal to attract visitors in the summer, but this is essentially a cosy two-room locals pub with a strong gaming element. Trophies for Darts are displayed around the bar, and there's an adjoining games area which features a Pool Table and vintage W T Black & Son Skittles Table.

The Skittles Table is shown here 'parked' out of the way to allow space for Pool play, but a clue to its normal playing position can be seen in the metal grills across the windows to the right. The netting 'hood' at the back of a Northamptonshire skittles table is designed to catch errant cheeses during a game, but despite this they often go astray. High-velocity plastic skittles and cheeses can do a lot of damage to a window, even occasionally to those toiling in the 'woodyard', hence the protective grill over the window. A steel Oche or Mott is used in these parts, with Mens and Ladies competition in the thriving Dunchurch & District League.

The Bell Inn (below) on the main road through Hillmorton is a pub that really impressed me. Though I'd have to say that first impressions were I'd maybe come to the wrong pub! Turn right from the front entrance as I did, and you'll find yourself in a smart refurbished lounge/restaurant, really not the kind of place you'd expect to find the rattle and thud of skittles play. The restaurant is clearly a major part of the business plan for the Bell, along with the excellent family-friendly garden to the rear, but what sets the Bell Inn apart from so many recently refurbished pubs is that it retains a thoroughly traditional bar and games area, for which you need to turn left at the entrance.

By retaining two distinctly different rooms rather than the increasingly common knocked through and blandly refurbished lounge-bar, there remains a space for everyone to enjoy the pub whatever their taste. There also remains space for Darts, a Pool Table, and another beautifully maintained Skittles Table.

The games area is located around a corner of the main bar, keeping the noise of play to a sensible level for drinkers. In this way, the locally important game of Table Skittles, as well as other popular  and sometimes noisy pub games have been accommodated rather than ousted as they are in so many modern refurbishments.