Saturday, 22 August 2015

White Lion, Bridgnorth, Shropshire

If like me, you choose to stay in Bridgnorth Low Town, you'll certainly want to explore the adjacent higher version, if only because there's a fair bit more up there than below. There are a number of different routes up the hill, some a good deal easier to traverse than others, but all interesting in their own way. I'd recommend the steep but attractive Cartway, resembling a vintage Hovis advert in places, which just happens to pass recently re-opened specialist beer pub the Black Boy, which I'd also recommend. Or the longer though no less attractive Bridgnorth Park route, which passes the famous Severn Valley Railway terminus with its own highly regarded beer emporium the Railwayman's Arms.

Of course no trip to Bridgnorth would be complete without a ride up the Cliff Railway, a fully working relic of a bygone age, and a very reasonably priced alternative to the many admittedly healthier alternatives.

In a sense, all routes lead to the excellent White Lion, located as it is at the southern end of the High Street, and a mere stones-throw from the Cliff Railway top 'station'. Over the course of a long weekend, I managed to poke my nose into almost all of Bridgnorth's pubs, and I can safely say this was one of the very best, if not 'the' best in the town. In fact I almost had an Orwellian 'Moon Under Water' moment when I walked into the bar, such was the friendly welcome and all-round excellence of the pub.

The White Lion is a traditional two-roomer, immaculately maintained throughout, and with the sweetest little beer garden at the rear for sunny Shropshire days and Summer evenings. A pub that just feels 'right' as soon as you step over the threshold. A well judged range of beers, including at least one from the pubs own Hop & Stagger Brewery, and bar snacks appropriate to the business of social drinking rather than a full sit-down meal. There are games too, the rear bar featuring a red-baize'd Bar Billiards Table which is free to play on Mondays.

Propped up on a window ledge you'll also find a good old Shove Ha'penny, on loan to the pub by a regular. In my view Shove Ha'penny is one of the finest accompaniment to social drinking there is, and the cause of many afternoons that got away from me! Not a problem at the White Lion though, there is after all the ever-reliable Cliff Railway to take you home.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Top House, Thurmaston, Leicester

Until the recent reopening of the Top House, pub-going in the north Leicestershire village of Thurmaston had appeared to be in freefall, such were the number of pub closures in recent years. From a choice of around half a dozen pubs in the 80's/90's, the village was down to just one survivor on the main street, former Shipstones Brewery pub the Harrow, with the Prince of Wales, Generous Britain, Manor, Lonsdale, and White Hart, all closed for good within the last two decades. Only the Everards owned Willow on the outskirts of the village offered a choice in the immediate area. The closure of the Top House was particularly sad given that it was such a busy community pub in its day, and a very fine example of a Victorian corner local.

The demise of so many of Thurmaston's pubs is perhaps hard to explain given its largely residential make-up, though being effectively isolated from much of the populace by the busy A607 probably doesn't help. One factor that will almost certainly have affected the viability of some of Thurmastons pubs is the number of thriving social clubs in the village. I've noticed on several occasions that when a community pub like the Top House closes, trade doesn't always gravitate, as you might expect, to the nearest alternative pub venue. It's often the local social, trades, and political clubs, with their cheaper drinks and strong social/gaming traditions which benefit most from the displaced custom.

The Top House has thankfully now reopened, and done so in very fine style. In fact it's a delight to the eye for pub enthusiasts like myself, as I hope you can see from the images reproduced here. I do hope it has a brighter future than many of its near neighbours, pubs like the Top House are precious survivors, and have features which when they've gone, they're gone forever.

This former Shipstones house was originally named the Unicorn & Star, but for many years was known locally as the Top House, presumably due to its location at the top of the main street through the village. It assumed this name officially in 2003 following a refurbishment.

Both the Harrow and the Top House were always firm favourites with local CAMRA members back in the day when folk seemed to appreciate traditional boozers like this a great deal more than its predominantly beer-obsessed membership do now! The pub was much as it is now, a two-room locals pub, albeit furnished in a more basic and functional style befitting the time.

CAMRA's late 70's pub guide to the county describes the Unicorn & Star as being a '...popular darting and dominoes pub', and the sizeable public bar to the left of the entrance certainly lends itself well to this kind of games play. I don't know whether the Domino players have returned yet, pub closures, however short, result in disruption to league play that can take a season or two to resolve, but Darts and Pool are played in local leagues.

To the rear of the pub is the Skittle Alley, where Long Alley and the unique Leicester version of Table Skittles is played. The Top House was an active participant in the Syston & District League right up until the recent temporary closure, and now field a team in the second division.

Cheeses for Long Alley, and a box of pins for Leicester Table Skittles below the scoreboard

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

It's been a good few years since I last visited Bridgnorth, once a regular destination in one of my favourite English counties. Returning to much-loved old haunts after a long absence carries the risk of crushing disappointment, but  I have to say that Bridgnorth and its many attractions didn't let me down.

The wholesale changes I've come to expect wherever I go these days seem curiously, and refreshingly absent in Bridgnorth. A few new restaurants to choose from, the inevitable Wetherspoon on the High Street, perhaps less independent retailers and a few more charity shops! But by and large everything seems much as I remember it, right down to a good number of very good pubs, and of course the two iconic heritage railways for which the town is best known to many visitors.

I stayed in Low Town, the smaller 'half' of Bridgnorth bisected by the wide expanse of the River Severn. There are several pubs down here, the pick of the bunch for me being the Fosters Arms, a traditional two bar boozer where the pub game staples of Darts and Dominoes rule. There's a cosy lounge to the rear, presumably the venue for league Domino action given the unusual clock behind the bar counter (below), but its the public bar at the front where you'll find the locals propping up the bar and chewing the fat.

Low Town is also home to the unique Bylet Bowls Club, located on a tree-lined island just downstream of the historic stone bridge over the Severn. Crown Green Bowls is the game here, played on two immaculately maintained greens throughout the Summer. Crown Green Bowls differs from Flat Green Bowls in that the green rises in height to a 'crown' in the centre, and play occurs from all angles rather the parallel 'rinks' of the flat game. You'll know there's a game on by the noise emanating from the club, enough to rival any Sunday League football match, and I'd highly recommend popping over to view the spectacle if time permits.

At a time when the high streets of so many towns are dominated by national and international chains and brands, it's always refreshing to find somewhere which has retained much of its individuality and local character. Pubs and bars have succumbed to this homogeneity as much as any retail sector, and even those that remain independently run have often lost much of their character through bland refurbishment.

The Golden Lion (above) remains steadfastly traditional, and full of the essential character that sets genuine pubs apart from the characterless chain bars and foodie managed houses of the high street. It's a remarkable survivor located as it is in the very centre of town, and one of the finest and friendliest pubs I've visited in a good long while. This is an historic multi-room inn, and a genuine inn at that as it also offers accommodation. But it's the public bar (above) at the front of the pub that offers the best chance to rub shoulders with and chat with the locals. This is also the venue for Dominoes, a popular game at the Golden Lion, and with a home team who have achieved some success in the Bridgnorth & District League. Just ask at the bar and you'll be furnished with all the necessary equipment, including a baize covered table-topper which features a crib board suitable for the Shropshire giants of the game (below)!

The other traditional gaming feature of the Golden Lion is Quoits, a game once popular throughout Shropshire and well into the West Midlands, but now very much a rarity this far from the Welsh border. The traditional red and green painted board folds up from the wall, with the unique home made scorer situated adjacent to it, but sadly the rubber Quoits are no more. Apparently they were stored on a high shelf of the bar and melted during a particularly hot summer! Consequently the game is rarely if ever played now, but thankfully the board remains, and is available for play should you have a set of Quoits available. Certainly I regretted not bringing my own set for a game.

Another game which seems to have all but disappeared from this part of Shropshire is Skittles. The existence of what would have been a very well-appointed alley at the Shakespeare Inn, the only one in the town to my knowledge, suggests the game may have been more widespread in the county at one time. Hardly surprising given that the counties adjoining the southern edge of Shropshire retain a strong skittling tradition. Sadly the alley, and the pins in particular, have seen better days. But new licensees at the pub seem keen to exploit this unique facility, so lets hope a refurbishment is on the cards in the near future.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

A Miscellany of Bar Billiards Pubs

A recent informal Poll on a well known social-media platform asked what kind of things people would like to see in their ideal pub. Needless to say the top answer was a wide range of high quality beers and/or ciders, in fact for some the beer seemed to be the only thing worthy of consideration! Perhaps not too surprising given that most respondents were either CAMRA members or other non-affiliated beer geeks.

I was pleased to see that pub games featured in some of the replies, with Bar Billiards more often than not the game of choice. I did find this slightly surprising given that a Bar Billiards Table is a rare sight in a pub now, though it wasn't so long ago that the game was relatively common. I certainly recall playing it throughout the 80's, and CAMRA pub guides of the time seem to indicate that the game was much more widespread than it is now.

Perhaps it's this fond memory of a pub game from our youth that explains why Bar Billiards featured so highly in the poll, or perhaps I'm simply underestimating the popularity of the game now. Certainly there are a few areas of the country where leagues exist for the game, and tables, though not exactly common, can be found relatively easily by those in the know. In other parts of the country a Bar Billards table is a rare sight indeed. The East Midlands counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire & Rutland have to my knowledge barely a dozen pub venues for the game between them.

Not all of the tables shown below are played in league competition, but wherever a Bar Billiards table does exist in a pub, it seems to attract a great deal of attention from both curious newcomers, and those of us who remember the game from our misspent youth.

The table shown above was recently restored to the Grainstore Brewery Tap in Rutland. Fully refurbished, and a welcome sight in the hop-strewn bar of a pub which is handily placed adjacent to Oakham rail station. This is one of only two tables I'm aware of in Rutland, the other being at the Old Pheasant, Glaston.


The Bar Billiards table shown above is in the lounge of the Rose Inn, Nuneaton, a town I've struggled to find really good pubs in on recent visits. The Rose is perhaps the pick of the bunch at the moment, a good honest two-room Marston's house on the edge of the town centre, and famously the venue for the first AGM of the nascent Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA). Games are a major feature of the Rose's success, with Darts and Pool available for play in the front bar (left), and league Dominoes a feature of the plusher lounge bar.

There are several venues in Norwich with Bar Billiards tables, and a thriving league has developed for the game in recent years. League play is one of the surest way to ensure the survival of traditional pub games like Bar Billiard, and a city the size of Norwich, endowed as it is with such a healthy number of well-supported pubs, lends itself well to the development of a small league like the Norwich Bar Billiards League.

A visit to the Golden Star in Norwich is recommended if only to admire the largely unspoilt front bar of the pub which retains many heritage features, details of which can be found on CAMRA's inventory of Heritage Pubs. Tucked into the corner of the adjoining back bar is the vintage Alfred Sam's & Sons Bar Billiards table, a fine piece of gaming heritage which is in regular use at the pub.

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.