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.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Bulls Head, East Leake, Nottinghamshire

Other than the tiny South Notts League and the larger Derby/Notts Border League, the Nottingham Skittles League covers the bulk of competitive Long Alley play in the Nottingham area. The Winter competition, which is drawing to a close as I write this, operates over two leagues with around a dozen teams in each. At first glance these might seem healthy numbers for a local skittles league, but when examined more closely the teams and alleys which make up the league are seen to be spread over quite a wide area.

This wide geographical spread has become quite common in traditional pub game leagues. As more and more pubs and clubs are refurbished or closed down, skittle alleys are inevitably lost. The teams and players which are the lifeblood of league play may still be willing, but can often struggle to find a home alley within reasonable distance of 'home'. Of course some players and teams throw in the towel at this point, but those which remain find they have to travel ever further to fulfil league commitments. This often marks the beginning of a steady decline for traditional games leagues, and has certainly led to a good few folding in recent years.

Often it's clubs rather than pubs that are the stronghold of league skittles play now. Not because clubs have fared any better than pubs as far as closures are concerned, more that they're less likely to convert their alleys to other use, games being such an important part of the social club offering. As far as I can tell, clubs make up around half of the venues in the Nottingham Skittles League, and those pubs which have retained their alleys and are still active in league play are now pretty thin on the ground.

The Bulls Head at East Leake represents a relatively far-flung outpost of the Nottingham league, located as it is almost in the neighbouring county of Leicestershire. This is definitely the Nottinghamshire game though. The distinctive shape of the pins, the large wooden balls, and the loose metal 'foul throw' sheet set in front of the frame mark this out as the more northerly of the two Long Alley Skittles traditions.

A former Home Ales pub, the Bulls Head remains a solidly traditional village boozer, and a relatively early addition to the local council register of Assets of Community Value. This register serves to recognise facilities and services within a community that deserve special protection from inappropriate development. The kind of rapacious development that has done for so many rural and urban community pubs in recent years, often aided and abetted by the pub and brewing companies which own them but have little or no interest in their estate other than the bottom-line of property management.

The lease on the Bulls Head has been on the market for some time now, a community asset waiting for the right people (at a sensible price!) to take it forward and secure its future for the community it serves.

The skittle alley is a small but important part of what makes the Bulls Head a true community asset. A purpose built affair to the rear of the pub, not particularly pretty on the outside it's true, but tidy and functional within. Nottingham's long-closed Home Ales brewery certainly recognised the value that the local game brought to their beer and pub business, including Long Alleys in the design of many of their new-build pubs of the post-war years. The Home Ales estate effectively passed out of local ownership in the 80's following its purchase by Scottish & Newcastle. The Bulls Head is now in the hands of the mighty Heineken empire, whose commitment to community locals, and the local games which are such an important part of pubs like this, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt. 24

The Tobacco trade of the post-war years had very strong connections with the licensed trade. Judging by the huge amount of tobacco and cigarette advertising which appears on items associated with the pub, a trip to the local seems to have been as much about smoking as it was drinking for many. The pub was certainly seen by the tobacco industry as the ideal place to push their brands to potential customers.

The various brands of Wills Tobacco seem to crop up more than most on the ephemera of the pub trade. A popular 'smoke' no doubt, but also very active advertisers of their wares. Cribbage Boards, Darts Scoreboards, Ash Trays, Match Strikers, Mirrors, and Domino sets like the one shown here, all carried advertising for their Capstan Full Strength, Woodbine"Star", and Pirate brands of cigarettes and rolling tobacco.

Even before the recent ban on smoking in public places, the paraphernalia of the tobacco trade had largely fallen out of favour with all but the most avid collectors. But some of these items are attractive (even useful) in their own right, particularly given the current vogue for all things 'vintage'. These early 20th century Bakelite Dominoes certainly fall into this category, redolent of an earlier, albeit more smoky age, and still eminently usable for a game of Fives & Threes down the pub. These Dominoes would have originally come in a similarly branded tin, and of course all manner of branded Cribbage Boards like the ones shown here would have been available for scoring a game, all designed to keep the Wills brand in the public eye.

Recently re-opened following a gap of over a hundred years, the Red Lion is a welcome addition to the beer scene of Evesham in Worcestershire. The Red Lion is located in the very centre of town, and has the look and feel of one of the larger micro-pubs. It's a quiet drinkers pub during the daytime, with most of the chat centred around the bar where beers from the local Cannon Royall Brewery and others provide much of the interest. Traditional games don't feature as prominently as they do in other Evesham pubs, but I did notice a good Shove Ha'penny tucked away at the rear of the bar. You'll have to bring your own coins for a game though, as there don't seem to be any available at the bar.

Collectors of Put & Take spinners are truly spoilt for choice, such is the vast array of different forms that this simple gambling game comes in. Brass, Bone, and Ivory examples are all reasonably common, though only brass ones seem to be manufactured now. Six or eight-sided, numbered or lettered in numerous different languages, and with many quirks and subtle variations adding to the seemingly endless variety. The example shown here is an 'Odds On' spinner, based on one of the pub-goers favourite sports, horse racing. It features the names of six famous winners, with a separate rotating section to generate the odds ('DISC' is for a disqualified horse).
The sheer quantity of these spinners which still exist suggests that they would have been found in the pockets of pretty-much everyone with a penchant for casual or career gambling at one time. They've now pretty-much disappeared from use, principally due to the lucrative trade in 'rigged' or 'loaded' Put & Take spinners which were advertised alongside the ordinary versions in certain specialist publications. A subtle difference in weighting, or a spinner that was slightly off-centre were all that was needed to shift the odds in favour of those in the know. Eventually, it got to the point where so many of these dodgy spinners were in circulation that confidence in the pukka items evaporated, and so Put & Take, and other similar games of chance, fell out of favour amongst gamblers. Licensed betting and gaming has now largely taken gambling out of the pub and into the bookies or casino, and it's doubtful you'd ever see a Put & Take or Odds On spinner in serious use now.

The bar-room game of Ringing The Bull is rarely seen these days, and even where a good example does exists, as here at the Duke of Wellington in Norwich, it's likely to be infrequently played.

The idea is to swing the tethered metal hoop, often a genuine old Bull Ring, in a wide arc so that it catches on the wall-mounted hook. It's a tricky feat, and perhaps the best opportunity to fully appreciate the skill involved is when the locals play, and makes it look easy as they invariably do.

The big problem with Ring The Bull as a pub game, and no doubt the reason so many have now disappeared, is the space it takes up in what may be a busy bar or dining space. I know of a few examples of Ring The Bull which now rarely get played, such is the demand for space in the smaller drinking and dining spaces which are a feature of the more traditional pubs where the game is still found. The Duke of Wellington was in the middle of an extensive refurbishment when I visited, but the pub has plenty of space within, and the future of this rare game seems assured.

A blackboard in the bar of backstreet local The Beehive in Norwich promises Darts, Crib, and Pool. The Pool Table is located upstairs, the thoroughly traditional public bar the ideal place for a game of Cards or Darts.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Kings Head, Norwich, Norfolk

Several English cities either lay claim to, or have been conferred with the status of 'Capital of Beer'. It's a subject that beer enthusiasts love to debate, often with strong views and partisan feeling directing the discussion. Derby, Sheffield, and York are certainly strong contenders, but it's perhaps Norwich that has the widest popular support, a claim enhanced by the pioneering and popular 'City of Ale' event which is now an annual fixture of the UK beer scene.

What perhaps gives Norwich the edge over other notable beery destinations is the sheer variety and number of excellent pubs within the city limits, albeit considerably down in numbers from the time when Norwich boasted 'A church for every week of the year and a pub for every day'. It's still possible to get an idea of just how many pubs Norwich would once have had by glancing down at the pavement as you preamble between those that remain. The site of many lost pubs has been recorded in bespoke paving slabs like the one shown here, a small but admirable record of Norwich's past.

The City of Ale website acts as a pretty good starting point for exploring the pubs and bars of Norwich, but don't attempt to visit them all in a day! Even a weekend would be a struggle, and besides, with pubs as good as the Kings Head which I've featured here, it would be wrong to rush the experience.

The Kings Head was probably my favourite of several pubs visited over the course of a long weekend recently. It's the kind of pub best appreciated over the course of a few hours, accompanied by a few pints of the excellent beers and cider available. That way you'll get the chance to settle in and allow yourself to be drawn into the ebb and flow of the place, the local chat, the essential pubbiness which is sadly lacking in so many pubs now.

The front bar (above) is wonderfully traditional, a quiet retreat from the bustle and commerce of Magdalen Street with its numerous antiques emporiums. A great place to read the papers, shuffle Dominoes, or simply perch on a bar stool and engage with the locals. The sun streams in through leaded and etched glass windows, illuminating a beer list fit for a long afternoon session. Of course afternoon drinking lends itself well to traditional pub games, and the Kings Head comes well equipped for play.

Norwich has become one of the minor hotbeds of Bar Billiards play in recent years, with a small but thriving league based around a half dozen pub venues in the city. The Norwich Bar Billiards League grew out of an informal inter-pub competition between two Norwich pubs less than ten years ago, one of which was the Kings Head. It's now expanded to ten teams playing over two leagues, with the Kings Head 'A' team the current Division 1 champions.

The Bar Billiards table is located in the larger back bar of the pub, and is a beautifully maintained and 'floodlit' four-pin table manufactured by Alfred Sams & Sons of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. Note the holes for storing cues under the slate bed, a distinctive feature of these highly regarded tables.

A clue to the presence of a Shove Ha'penny at the pub is this small table, positioned hard up against a wall in the back bar, and with a line worn on the paintwork from the wear and tear of regular use. Hanging on the wall behind the bar counter is the board itself, a set of coins and chalk attached ready for play. It's not that unusual to see a Shove Ha'penny in a pub these days, but perhaps more surprising is that this board is still in fairly regular use by the locals.

Norwich's credentials as one of the finest cities for beer and pubs is well founded. The modern beer revival and craft beer scene is well established, but so too is the very best of traditional beer and pub culture, embodied in truly great pubs like the Kings Head.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Pitch Penny

George Green displays the now lost Pitch Penny bench in the bar of the Plough, Little Downham, Cambridgeshire. This image is reproduced with the kind permission of John Clarke of the Little Downham Community Archive
Traditional pub games are found throughout the British Isles. Some such as Darts, Dominoes, and Pool could rightly be considered to be national pastimes, albeit played to a bewildering array of different rules and conventions. Others, such as Aunt Sally, Pushpenny, and the numerous variations on the theme of Skittles are more regional, sometimes even local to a particular town or county. The more local a game is, the more interesting it is in many ways.  The bar-room staple of a Darts Board is unlikely to stir much interest from visitors to a pub, whereas a Sussex Toad in the Hole or a game of Aunt Sally in progress certainly would!

A region or local area which can justifiably claim to have its own unique pub gaming tradition, is something the locals should be proud of in my view. Yet so few pub-goers seem to be even aware of these unique regional specialities these days. Often the more unusual local games are kept out of sight, only really known to the locals, and sometimes taken for granted to a degree bordering on neglect. Rarity like this can certainly be interesting to the enthusiast like myself, but sadly it can often contribute to the decline, even the eventual death of a pub game.

The Pitch Penny Settle at the Coach & Horses, Tilney St Lawrence near Kings Lynn
The Eastern counties of England, and particularly those which make up the Anglian region, can lay claim to some truly rare and local pub games. Sadly this includes many which have either disappeared from pubs, such as the Suffolk version of Indoor Quoits, Norfolk Table Skittles, and Four Pin Skittles; or cling on as rare curiosities such as Caves, the Norfolk Twister, and the game featured in this blog post, Pitch Penny.

Pitch Penny is such a simple, home-spun game that it has never been 'manufactured' to my knowledge, and has the feel of a genuine rural curiosity. A farming pastime from an age when a visit to the pub was a much-needed release from the day-to-day agricultural labour. A real piece of rural social history in fact.

It's perhaps hard for us to understand how important the local pub would have been in the days before cars became affordable, and popular entertainment was beamed directly into our homes. In the relatively isolated rural locations of the Eastern counties, gaming at the pub would have been one of the few affordable social pleasures available to a man, a trip to the town or city largely restricted to market days and the pursuit of rural commerce. It's within this context that a game which simply involved tossing coins or other discs into a hole bored out of a bench or settle became popular, perhaps even common in village pubs throughout the Eastern counties.

The Pitch Penny game as it's usually found at the Coach & Horses
Very few of these old games survive now, but a good example can be found at the Coach & Horses, Tilney St Lawrence in Norfolk. The pub stands isolated on what would once have been a busy road into nearby Kings Lynn, a farmers bar and latter-day roadhouse largely bypassed by both now. The interior features a pair of very old high-backed settles which help give the otherwise modernised bar a cosy and genuinely historic feel. It's on the now cushion-covered seat of one of these settles that the rare Pitch Penny game can be found. The game is sadly not in use at the present time owing to a lack of suitable coins and the upholstery on the bench, but dare I say if you brought your own coins (see below), the licensee might be persuaded to bring it back into use during quieter times!

When stripped of its seat cushions, the Pitch Penny game is revealed in all its play-worn simplicity. A semi-circular hole at the rear of the seat surrounded by a battered protective layer of lead sheeting. The seat itself has been altered or repaired at some point, incorporating a separate piece of timber, presumably following many years of aerial bombardment from heavy coinage. Below is a rudimentary drawer to catch the 'holed' coins during a game, a feature of all Pitch Penny benches it seems.

The game itself was not usually played on a points scoring basis, rather the aim was to be the first to 'hole' all of their coins either as a singles or team game. Coins used seems to vary, but the old (and increasingly expensive to obtain) 18th/19th century 'Cartwheel' pennies were often favoured, indeed discs of a similar size are still used in Sussex for the 'pitching' game of Toad in the Hole. The weight and size of these coins are ideal for games like this, landing with a solid 'thunk' on the surrounding lead rather than pinging off and disappearing in the nooks and crannies of the bar.

The Jackson Stops Inn at Stretton in Rutland represents one of the most westerly examples of a surviving Pitch Penny bench, and has already featured on this blog. Located in the cosy snug adjacent to the fire, and known locally as Nurdles, the game is still in occasional use including for an annual 'World Championship'.

The Pitch Penny Bench at the Golden Cross, Clee Hill, Shropshire. A game far from its original home, but a must-have part of the licensees extensive collection of traditional pub games 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Three Counties Skittles

A smart wall plaque on a village pub promising 'Cask Ales' and a 'Skittle Alley' is a reassuring sight to me in more ways than one. Not only does it raise my expectations that there might be something worth drinking on the bar (not always realised it must be said), but it also suggests the pub I'm about to enter may have retained at least some degree of authentic character and proper 'pubiness' where so many have taken the foodie path to its ultimate gastro-conclusion. Because a fully functioning skittle alley, and particularly one in regular league use, is rarely a feature of the fine dining and gastro-pub phenomena!

The pressure to attract passing trade as a destination dining venue has certainly done for a great number of traditional skittle alleys over the years, even in cases where the alley was still in regular active use. The temptation to squeeze a few more tables into the space taken up by a good indoor alley is just too great for many, and often forms a crucial part of the business plan for what may be a marginal or failing pub. Having said that, I've been to a good few pubs where the skittle alley successfully serves the dual function of games room and overspill dining area, but adaptability like this requires a commitment to run the place as a 'pub', and all too often this is the last thing that new owners with new ideas seem to want from their 'pub'!

The Ivy Inn at North Littleton in Worcestershire has sadly closed since I visited last year, though hopefully this will prove to be a temporary state given that it's the only pub in the village. It's a typically attractive Vale of Evesham pub, very much a village local, but in a prime village location to tap into any potential as a destination dining venue. Certainly when I visited on a quiet Autumn afternoon I was made very welcome by the licensees, but it was clear to see that although the bar was homely and comfortable, it would certainly have benefited from a bit of a spruce-up. Whether this is the eventual plan for the Ivy is not clear, and if it is, how far any forthcoming refurbishment will go, and how much genuine 'pubbiness' is retained remains to be seen, but it's clearly a case of yet another skittle alley in peril. In the mean time, the promise of Real Ales and a Skittle Alley at the Ivy Inn remains unfulfilled.

The alley would have seen a fair amount of league action throughout the week, accommodating home teams from within the village and further afield in the Evesham & District Skittles League. As nearby pubs close or skittle alleys are lost, play continues in those venues that remain, with maybe half the teams in the Evesham League essentially 'nomadic', their former venues no longer available for play.

It's a very well appointed alley, located within the main body of the pub but tucked away out of earshot of the main bar area. Because of the way the alley is set, viewing a game can be difficult for all but the players in action, so a camera has been installed at the frame end with progress visible on small monitor near the scoring board.

The Plough Inn was in the process of changing hands when I visited Hereford last summer, and whilst the new arrivals were certainly a hospitable couple, they were in no position to show me around their new pub, least of all pull a pint on the day of their move. So this is the best picture I could manage of the Skittle Alley, a separate pre-fabricated building located at the rear of the pub, and home to the Wranglers team in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League.

It was second time lucky for me at the Suffolk Arms in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The first time I stopped by for a look, the skittle alley was full to bursting with a large party of friends who book the skittle alley every year for a pre-Christmas game. Whilst it was great to see the alley being put to good use, photography was out of the question, so I finished my pint and went elsewhere for the afternoon, returning in the Spring for a chat with the licensee.

Competitive play at the Suffolk is in the Cheltenham Skittles League, with the full complement of eight ladies and mens teams playing out of this alley from Monday to Thursday. A very busy skittle alley indeed, and another example of the relative shortage of venues in comparison to the number of men and women who are keen to play the game.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Two Pubs for Northamptonshire Skittles

Skittles Tables like the one shown above are still relatively common throughout Northamptonshire, slightly less so in surrounding counties. It's in village pubs, clubs, suburban community locals, and occasionally town-centre boozers, that you'll most often find a table, and where there's a skittles table, chances are there will be a team playing in one or more of the many local leagues. So the spread of skittles throughout the county is still very wide, and yet some pub-goers may never have come across a table, much less a game in progress!

Why might this be so? Well, despite the game being relatively common throughout the county, the 'demographic' spread of Table Skittles is more patchy, much less inclusive. It's the more down-to-earth 'locals' pubs and members clubs where the game is popular, pubs where the focus is still very firmly on the social aspect of pub-going. Table Skittles (and pub games in general) are rarely found in the more gentrified rural gastro-pubs, and never in my experience in town-centre circuit bars. You certainly won't find one in a Wetherspoon! (though I'd love to be proved wrong).

Mikado Pheasant, Kettering

The Northamptonshire town of Kettering has a handful of town-centre pubs where the game is still played regularly. But travel out into the sprawl of housing which surrounds the town and practically every pub has a team active in local leagues.

The Mikado Pheasant is one such pub, located a good mile or two out from the town centre on the edge of a large expanse of modern housing. Built in 1980, and originally a far-flung outpost of the Shipstones Brewery empire, the Mikado Pheasant, in common with most estate pubs of this era, is really not much to look at from the outside. In truth it's the kind of pub that most of us rarely come into contact with. Very much a locals pub, which along with the clutch of adjacent shops was built to serve the needs of the immediate locale, and not a largely non-existent passing trade.

The interior of estate pubs like these can often be pretty functional too, but not in the case of the Mikado Pheasant (seen here decked-out for a childrens Halloween party) which has been refurbished to a high standard. Whilst not strictly multi-room, there are a number of distinct areas, including a wide lobby which seems to be popular with locals who like to prop the bar up, almost in the style of northern lobby drinking areas. I also found the pub very welcoming, the locals and licensee keen to chat and extol the virtues of a pub which has had a chequered past, but which now seems to be firmly back at the heart of the community.

Of course the true heart of a pub like the Mikado Pheasant is the games and entertainments, of which the Mikado Pheasant is well served. The Skittles table has been allocated its own seated alcove, all the better for those toiling in the 'woodyard'. The pub teams are usually up-there in the local Burton Latimer League, the 'A' team currently leading division one, and all comers are welcome to throw a few cheeses on Sunday afternoons, a tradition observed in many Northamptonshire pubs.

Melbourne Arms, Duston

The village of Duston has been largely swallowed up by the growth of near neighbour Northampton, yet still retains much of its essential village character. The Melbourne Arms in particular is still very much a village local, tucked away up a quiet side street of the busy main road through Duston, and well worth seeking out for a pint.

The Skittles Table is housed in its own dedicated skittles room in an outhouse at the rear of the pub. Said to have originally been a bottle store, it's likely the building had a more active role at some point in the past given the presence of a now disused fireplace. Skittles seems to have been a relatively recent addition (or reintroduction) to the pub, with the 1990 local CAMRA pub guide stating the 'possibility of Northants Skittles in future'. The skittles team at the Melbourne Arms in Duston ply their trade in the Northampton Wednesday Skittles League.