Sunday, 25 January 2015

Leicestershire - Capital of Skittles?

(L-R) Boxwood Northampton Table Skittles & Cheese, Fruitwood (?) and Lignum Vitae Leicester Table Skittles & Cheese, Plastic Leicester Table Skittles & Cheese, Mahogany 'Bayliss' Table Skittles & Leather/Rubber Cheese, and Lignum Vitae Devil Amongst The Tailors Skittles.
Skittles is undoubtedly one of the most widely played and fascinatingly varied traditional games in the world. Only Cards and Dominoes seem to match it for sheer variety, with different versions of what is essentially the same 'throwing things at sticks' game found throughout Europe and beyond. In Britain alone there are dozens of different skittle forms, and probably hundreds of subtly different rules and conventions of play.

It was whilst pondering this fact that a thought came to me! Perhaps the humble county of Leicestershire has (or certainly had until very recently!) more examples of the game of skittles as played at pubs and clubs than any other county in Britain, possibly even similarly sized areas worldwide! Quite a claim I know, and one I have little hope of confirming either way to be honest, but it's an interesting possibility nevertheless, and one worth illustrating with a few examples.

Long Alley Skittles
Long Alley is probably the skittles game with the longest history in the county. The version played in Leicestershire pubs and clubs is distinctly different to that found in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, but is probably a remnant of the kind of skittles played throughout the country before the smooth timber alleys of the West Country and Wales were developed. So the heavy Lignum Vitae barrel-shaped 'Cheeses', and tall, almost straight hardwood pins (right) are entirely unique to the Leicestershire game.

Although alleys are being lost on an all-too regular basis (the Gate Hangs Well, Syston seems to be the latest to lose its alley following a recent refurbishment!), the game can still be found in pubs and clubs throughout much of the county. Long Alley is particularly well supported in the Wreake Valley area bordering Nottinghamshire, and to the south-west of the county in the Soar Valley area.

Northampton Table Skittles
Table Skittles takes several forms, uniquely two of which can be found in Leicestershire. The Northampton version of the game as seen here at the Queens Arms in the village of Leire, is played in a very wide area encompassing Northamptonshire itself, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Warwickshire, and something like half of the county of Leicestershire, specifically to the south. Tables are standard throughout all of these areas, though subtly different depending on manufacture, with W T Black & Son and Peppers Bros tables being the most common.

Needless to say there is wide variation in rules between areas and leagues (and even competitions within a league). Towards the South-East of the county, and in leagues such as the Dunton Bassett shown on the trophy below, yellow plastic pins and cheeses are the norm. Around the Northamptonshire border, wooden pins and cheeses are standard for league play,  Boxwood for preference.

Leicester Table Skittles
Closer to the city of Leicester can be found the county's other version of Table Skittles. The Leicester game is played on a similar table to the Northamptonshire version shown above, but the pins are thinner, slightly taller and with a central 'King Pin'. The 'Cheeses' are quite small and made from the very dense wood Lignum Vitae. Plastic versions are also available, as shown in the image above, but not generally used for league play. This unique Leicester game may have developed independently of the Northants version, or of course it may have developed from it. In common with practically all skittle games, nobody seems to know its origin, only that it has been played in the county for over 100 years, maybe much longer. The table below is located in the long slim bar of the Fountain Inn, Leicester, and sees service in the Leicester City Mens Table Skittles League, though not to my knowledge under the name of the Sacred Heart Skittles Team.

Other Table Skittles
I've written before about the mystery set of skittles and cheeses I bought from a dealer in Grantham, Lincs (below). The pub where this skittle set is understood to have originated (or ended up!) is shown to the right, though sadly it's no longer a village pub. It was during a house clearance at the former Hunters Arms in Wymondham that this unusual skittle set came to light, and at least one person I've spoken to since can just about recall a table for the game in the bar of the pub.

I think this represents an example of the wide variety of Table Skittles games which were played at one time, many of which would have been very local indeed. Similar but locally or regionally different examples have been recorded from South East England, up the Eastern side of the country as far as Lincolnshire, and though to central England. Of these only the two versions shown above, and a handful of mostly new Kentish Daddlums tables still exist today.

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 rights to this image and have any issues with its reproduction on this blog.
A tantalising piece of information has recently come to light in the form of this old trade card, showing a Nottinghamshire-made skittles table equipped with skittle pins almost identical to the ones from the Hunters Arms. Although it's hard to tell from this image, the three Cheeses are a very similar size, and possibly even made from leather.

Manufactured by W C Bayliss, the table appears to be designed to sit atop a regular pub table. Perhaps the ideal alternative to a full size Northants table when space was at a premium in a small public bar or tap room.

Devil Amongst The Tailors
I've included a set of Devil Amongst The Tailors skittle pins in the image at the start of this post, not because the game is now played to any degree in Leicestershire, more that it clearly once was. I personally know of only a handful of Devils tables in the county, though I'm sure there are many more out of sight or gathering dust in store rooms and lofts, but in the 1979 CAMRA guide to the pubs of Leicestershire & Rutland it's notable just how many pubs in the city are listed as having this game. Unusually, the Leicester version of Table Skittles described above appears to entirely absent from the city! I think this is probably down to a combination of Leicester Table Skittles being predominantly a game of clubs, and the kind of basic locals where the nascent real ale revival had yet to make an impact and therefore not listed in the guide.

So, was Devil Amongst The Tailors played at league level in Leicester? I don't know, I've no evidence to suggest it was, and it seems unlikely given the existence of the larger table game. Nevertheless, it seems to have been popular enough to be a feature of a good many city-centre boozers, and adds weight to my belief that the county may have, or at least may have had in recent times, the widest variety of pub skittle games anywhere in the country.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Leicestershire Table Skittles - Stoney Stanton

Despite the overall decline of most pub games in recent years, South-West Leicestershire remains one of the hotbeds of traditional pub and club Skittles play. Not only are there a reasonable number of venues for Long Alley Skittles in the area, the game of Table Skittles is also remarkably well represented, particularly considering the loss of so many village locals which are the natural home for highly social games like these.

It's probably true to say that most of the more traditional village pubs, and practically all of the clubs in the area have a skittles table, with several Winter and Summer leagues managing the important business of competitive play. The Dunton Bassett League alone consists of up to five leagues, totalling 60 teams during the more popular winter season, such is the continued popularity of skittles hereabouts.

Which is not to say that the game is thriving to anywhere near the degree it once was, when practically every pub and club would have had a well-used table. I certainly recall playing on skittles tables at the Francis Arms in Stoney Stanton (closed), the White Horse, Desford (looks to be closed but no skittles for some time anyway), the Old Inn, Littlethorpe (table removed prior to re-opening recently), the Tavern Inn, Walcote (permanently closed), and the White Lion, Kilworth (recently re-opened as a Wine Bar/Restaurant, skittles table long gone). The Red Lion, Sapcote still advertises the presence of Table Skittles at the pub, but sadly the table was removed several years ago.

The external signage of the Bulls Head in Stoney Stanton (above) promises 'Traditional Pub Games', but in this case the promise holds true. Pride of place in the cosy Tap Room of this two-room traditional local are a Darts Board and this fine old W T Black & Son skittles table.

This is a classic Northampton-made table, but the game is played to Leicestershire rules which include the obligatory use of plastic pins and cheeses rather than the wooden sets still favoured throughout Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. Traditional Boxwood and other hardwood skittles are becoming ever more difficult to obtain, and given the excessive wear and tear of league play, an increasingly expensive part of the game.

It seems that at some point in the past, with more and more teams going over to the durable plastic alternatives, the Leicestershire and Warwickshire leagues must have made the decision to abandon wood entirely for league play. Certainly it's now rare to see a wooden skittle set in this part of the county, though the Northants tradition of Boxwood pins and cheeses persists in the nearby Market Harborough area of Leicestershire.

The Bulls Head really is the quintessential village pub. Lively and popular, noted for the quality of the beers and ciders, and run by enthusiastic supporters of rugby, and the Leicester Tigers in particular. These photos were taken in the summer of 2014 when the pub was decked-out for the football World Cup. Expect a similar showing for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup later this year.

The Star Inn (below) is one of three pubs which remain in the village of Stoney Stanton, and it too is a long-standing Table Skittles venue (the Social Club in the village has both a Skittles Table and Long Alley). The table at the Star is located in a separate games room off the main bar area which also featuring a Darts Board and Pool Table.

Interestingly, the Skittles Table at the Star is a somewhat rarer Leicester model, and an unusually old one at that. These tables are most commonly found in the suburbs and villages immediately surrounding the city of Leicester, though I've also seen examples as far out as Syston, Blaby, and Whetstone. These tables were originally built for use with the much thinner hardwood pins and cheeses of the Leicester game, but nowadays wherever you find them they tend fulfil a multiple role for the various leagues and different games played.

All in all, the Leicester Tables seem somehow less sturdily constructed than the more common Northants versions. This one has clearly seen many years of service, the metalwork screwed to the side cushions (below) seem to be part of the running repairs and refurbishment common to tables of this age.

The table is shown set for play with the stubby Northants style pins in these images, but I understand it's also used by at least one team for the distinctly different Leicester game which the table would have presumably been originally built for.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Pubs For Darts

An old advertising sign overlooks the Darts Board at the Three Crowns, Oakham, Rutland.
Ashby Road is one of the main routes out of Loughborough to the busy University site, and it happens to be blessed with two of Loughborough's finest traditional boozers, which presumably see some trade from the constant stream of students passing their doors. I say 'some', but the sad fact is that student trade is not what it was, spare cash for a night out rarely making it any further than the students union these days. Thankfully, these and other more traditional pubs in the town retain a good local following, though both have been under threat of closure, even demolition in recent times.

Like so many similar out-of-town boozers, the Generous Briton was under threat of permanent closure and redevelopment until re-opened by local 'White Knight' Ian Bogie in 2011. For this fantastic show of faith, the pub has received numerous awards from the local CAMRA branch. The separate bar and lounge have been retained, and are considered sufficiently unchanged and unspoilt that the pub appears on CAMRA's inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. The quarry tile floored bar (above), which features a well-used Darts Board, is a particularly pleasant place to enjoy the good range of real ales on offer.

Across the road and a little closer to town is the Old English Gentleman (left & below), probably my favourite drinking venue in Loughborough at the present time. This too has been under threat of permanent closure in recent years, in this case the threat extending to a complete demolition of the building to facilitate a proposed road widening scheme. Thankfully that has yet to materialise, and the pub remains an unspoilt haven on the edge of the town centre, and what must be one of the most friendly and sociable venues in Loughborough. The front bar is the real hub of the pub, the cosy seating area close enough to the bar counter to join in with the chat, which often revolves around sport, and 'the horses' in particular. Off to the left as you enter is a games room with Pool Table and Darts Board, with another Darts Board in the lounge to the rear of the pub. Darts is played at both of these pubs in the Loughborough & District Pubs & Clubs Darts League, the Old English Gentleman being the HQ for the league. The 'OEG' also hosts a team from the Loughborough Students Union!

Darts & Beer at Steamin' Billy pub The Paget, Loughborough, Leicestershire
Spot the difference! The smaller lounge bar of the Falstaff Freehouse in Derby is where you'll find the Darts Board, concealed when not in use behind a hinged panel mounted on the bar counter.

Competitive Darts is played at the Falstaff in the Derby Sunday Darts League.

The Falstaff is a beautifully refurbished Victorian alehouse, located a little way out of the city centre at New Normanton but well worth the effort to find. Another unspoilt heritage pub, the aforementioned lounge bar has been decked-out as a homage to the long-closed Offilers Brewery, the traditional public bar similarly adorned with breweriana and other curios. As if this wasn't enough, the pub sells a range of beers from its own onsite brewery, one of several which go towards making Derby one of the finest destinations in the country for beer lovers.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Volunteer, Hereford

Of all the pubs I visited in Hereford over the course of a hot weekend in summer 2014, it's perhaps the Volunteer that I'd most heartily recommend to fellow visitors to the town. Whilst all of the pubs I spent time in had something to recommend them, some being very good pubs indeed, few were quite so all-round attractive to me, such the complete pub package as the Volunteer.

Tucked away on a quiet back-street a short stroll from the town centre, the pub sits unobtrusively amid tightly packed housing. The multi-room interior is bright, attractive, tastefully modernised, and yet still retains all of its essential pub character. There's a tidy beer garden to the rear, as well as a couple of tables to the front, ideal for watching the world go by over a pint. The kind of pub most people would regard as warm, welcoming, beautifully maintained, difficult to leave!

The Volunteer is also popular for the food, Sunday lunches in particular. The beer was good too when I visited, and it's easy to see why the bar areas and cosy snug can get very busy at times, and great to see a pub where the locals still appreciate having a proper community pub on their doorstep.

This bright and attractive aspect of the bar extends to the excellent skittle alley at the rear of the Volunteer. The pub host two teams for winter play in the thriving Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League, the Rustlers, and Evans Social Club which still bears the name of a long-since closed cider works in the town. A Summer League is slightly less popular, as is often the case with pub games when holidays and other pursuits hold sway over peoples time. A Ladies league also play through the winter season, though details are harder to find than the mens league, and it has been reported as struggling for players a little in recent years.

Hereford is perhaps unique in pub and club skittles in that whilst the alleys are entirely traditional, the nine pins used in the game are the same as those found in ten-pin bowling alleys. As you can see above, the pins are often stripped of their plastic coating, but how much the different shape impacts on the game is hard to tell. The balls shown below are the rubber-coated variety favoured by many skittlers now. These may not have the traditional look of a set of Lignum Vitae balls, but the big advantage of the softer coating is that the timber slats of the alley tend to last longer, and presumably so too do the pins. The expense of repairing and replacing an alley floor is surely just one of many reasons that skittle alleys have been removed from pubs in recent times.

In common with most skittle alleys which are still in regular use, the one at the Volunteer serves the dual purpose of a function room. Note the tables which fold down from the wall on the left of the alley. The old pub sign hanging in the alley bears the badge of the Herefordshire Light Infantry (formerly the Herefordshire Rifle Volunteers, hence the pubs name), and is dated 1964, just three years prior to the regiment being disbanded. The Herefordshire Light Infantry Museum is located across the road at Suvla Barracks, available to view by appointment only.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Plough, Prestbury, Gloucestershire

First impressions of The Plough are that this is surely the quintessential village pub. Located on a quiet backstreet opposite St Mary's Church, neatly thatched and beautifully maintained, this is certainly every tourists dream of a traditional English village pub.

Of course all too often the idyllic setting and chocolate box exterior gives way to just another thoroughly bland interior, stripped of character and opened out to squeeze a few more tables in for the diners. Thankfully the same can not be said for the interior of The Plough, being every bit as traditional, attractive, and unspoilt as you'd hope. In fact so much so that it is regarded by CAMRA as having an interior of regional importance on their inventory of Real Heritage Pubs.

A quarry tiled corridor turns right to a small hatch servery, and onwards to a very attractive orchard garden at the rear of the pub which is very popular in the summer months. A lounge to the right also has a servery, the beer drawn straight from stillaged casks, with cider from Westons a feature too.

The flagstone floored room to the left is where the locals congregate when they're not enjoying an outdoor drink, and yes, this is still very much a locals pub even though it also attracts visitors from near and far. It was in this room that the local game of Quoits was played until quite recently, though sadly the board has now been retired. Only the unusual scoreboard for the game remains, a metal version here where most are made of wood, screwed to the wall on the right hand side of the fireplace.

In this version of the game, players aim to score as many of the numbers from 1-10 as possible, claiming each number as they achieve it, and in so doing preventing the opposition from scoring that particular score by closing the appropriate flap. Other examples of this kind of scoreboard can number as high as 15.

It's not obvious at first glance where the Quoits Board would have sat, but a careful examination reveals the remnants of a line on the floor at the end of the long table on the right-hand side of the room. Presumably this would have been moved sidewards out of the way for a match. The Quoits Board is still resident at the pub, perhaps the licensees could be persuaded to bring it out for a group wanting an afternoon game.

Meanwhile, Dominoes and Cards can be found on the windowsill, as is a Shut The Box, which seems to be a very popular game in the Cheltenham area for some reason! Outdoors at the far end of the garden is a good Boules Piste which sees action throughout the summer months.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Long Alley Skittles

New Inn, Enderby, Leicestershire
Long Alley Skittles is a game of the East Midlands, specifically the counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire. The game differs from many skittle games found in the UK (and similarly many of those found throughout Europe), in that the balls (or Cheeses) are not 'bowled' along the smooth surface of an alley, but thrown full-toss, or to land just before the front pin. This is perhaps the most ancient form of skittles still played at pubs and clubs today, harking back to the game's humble origins where it would have been played over rough ground not suitable for the accurate rolling of finely turned wooden balls.

An interesting feature of Long Alley is that the term encompasses not one but two quite distinct forms of the game. At first glance they may appear identical, but there are a number of subtle yet significant differences between the game as played in Leicestershire, and the version found in the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire area.

Black Bulls Head, Openwoodgate, Derbyshire
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the location of the alley itself. In the Notts/Derby area almost all alleys are located outdoors and exposed to the elements (left), perhaps in a yard as shown here, garden, or even the pub car park. In Leicestershire the alleys are predominantly indoor affairs (above), in buildings which may have been purpose built for the game. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, particularly with those alleys located in the areas bordering the two skittling traditions such as pubs in the Wreake Valley and Vale of Belvoir. Thrussington for example is a Leicestershire village, yet the twin alleys here are located outdoors on the village green, and a good few alleys further north have been covered in recent years to permit Winter play, or relocated to a suitable outbuilding such as the one at the New White Bull, Giltbrook (the original outdoor alley still remains).

Outdoor alleys usually come equipped with an iron frame sunk into the aggregate, whereas in Leicestershire there is usually no permanent frame. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but it may be that the dense Lignum Vitae 'Cheeses' thrown in the Leicestershire game are more likely to loosen or damage a frame from the surrounding aggregate of the alley, the softer 'Balls' used in the more northerly game impacting with less damaging force. A permanent frame may also be desirable for an alley exposed to the elements as they usually are to the north.

So the Leicestershire game usually has no frame, the pins either sitting on metal discs sunk into the floor or as in the case shown above at the New Inn, Enderby, no permanent markers exist at all. Hence the home-made wooden template seen hanging on the wall of the alley, used to mark the pitted surface with yellow paint at regular intervals throughout the season.

A major difference between the two regions comes in the shape of the Balls, or Cheeses as they are generally known in Leicestershire. The ones shown above, and in the alley below, are the barrel shaped Leicestershire variety, turned from the extremely dense wood Lignum Vitae and therefore a heavy proposition in play. This set originally saw service at the now defunct Coleman Social Club in Leicester. The shape of these Cheeses have a dramatic effect on how they bounce at the business end of the alley, and in skilled hands can achieve angles which might be otherwise impossible with a regular ball. However, the lighter wooden Balls of the Notts/Derby game (right) can also be made to 'turn' in skilled hands through the application of spin when throwing.

The Skittle Alley shown above is located at the rear of the Royal Oak in Great Glen, Leicestershire, and is still in regular use for functions and casual games, though not as far as I'm aware for league play. The Royal Oak was my own local for a few years, a cosy drinkers pub tucked away down a side street, and a rare survivor in a village which had five pubs when I lived there (four now), most of which were food oriented and benefited from a good passing trade before the village was bypassed in 2003.

Compare the almost straight-sided skittle pins of the Leicestershire game at the Royal Oak to the more curved examples shown below. The pins shown below are used at the Black Bulls Head, Openwoodgate near Belper in Derbyshire, an award-winning alehouse which has been revitalised since Greene King relinquished ownership in 2012 to the current freeholders.

The alley, a traditional outdoor one, is floodlit and benefits from the shelter of an enclosed courtyard to the rear of the pub. When not in use for Skittles this makes a pleasant sun-trap beer garden during the summer months. Note the embellishment to the head of the King Pin, an unusual (dare I say phallic??) flourish by the wood turner. Whether the more curvy pins of the Notts/Derby game affect play to any degree seems unlikely. The steel brackets which share this crate with the pins hold the removable return pipe which can be set up in the yard during play.

A feature of the more northerly game which you won't generally see in Leicestershire is the steel sheet located a few feet ahead of the front pin (right). In the Leicestershire game the Cheese must bounce once before hitting the pins, and this must be past a point on the alley which is usually marked by a line or change of surface. In the Notts/Derby version the ball needs to clear a point some 42 inches ahead of the front pin, and this is marked with a loose steel sheet. A ball pitching too short will rattle the sheet making it easy to determine a foul throw.

The alley shown here is also in Belper. Arkwrights Real Ale Bar is a modern speciality beer bar associated with the members only Strutt Club above. The club field a team in the local Long Alley league, and the alley itself doubles as a covered patio drinking area for the bar when not in use. Note also the permanent Frame set into the surface of the alley.

Rules of the game of Long Alley Skittles, as displayed at the Royal Oak, Great Glen, Leics. Note that the image used actually shows a game of Old English or London Skittles, a very different game, though also one where the 'cheeses' are thrown down the alley rather than bowled.
Variation like these in what is essentially the same game are certainly not uncommon outside of Long Alley. The West Country skittling tradition for example is characterised by numerous different sizes and styles of skittle pin, alley length, and subtle variations in the rules. My view is that this is probably evidence of a time when each town or cluster of villages would have played the game to their own local rules, and where the equipment would have been made locally to no particular standard or pattern. Indeed I've seen photographs of Long Alley teams from the early 20th century where the pins are different again to those seen now. Some measure of standardisation would have come later as travel became easier, and local or regional leagues became established.

So it seems most likely to me that what we see now with the two distinct versions of the game is likely to be the result of two separate 'local' traditions meeting as the game became standardised throughout the counties, rather than a single traditional game which has somehow split into two distinct regional forms.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Golden Cross - Clee Hill, Shropshire

Should you ever find yourself in the lovely Teme Valley area in search of a pint with a view, the Golden Cross at Clee Hill should fit the bill perfectly. I wouldn't particularly recommend the trip when snow is forecast though. The roads are steep and winding, particularly the one from Tenbury Wells that I chose to drive up, and I'd imagine the village can become somewhat isolated when the weather turns nasty.

The view from Clee Hill is certainly impressive, but if you like a good game with your pint, you may find it difficult to drag yourself away from the bar and take it all in. That's because the Golden Cross is home to one of the most impressive collections of traditional games your likely to find in a pub. Acquired by licensee and pub games enthusiast Aaron Jeffs over the course of several years, there's hardly a category of game which isn't represented at the pub.

The first item to meet your gaze on entering is a fine old Bar Billiards Table, covered when not in use and therefore in excellent playing condition. It's a John Bennett & Co table, a Billiard table manufacture which held a Royal and War Office warrant at one time, this table dating from around the 1950's judging by the London address on the name plate.

From my perspective, the most important gaming item at the Golden Cross is also one of the most humble in form. A simple, unpainted concrete Quoits Board sits solidly below one of several Darts Boards at the pub, again covered when not in use to prevent stray Darts Arrows damaging the surface. Quoits is of course the local game for the Shropshire/Herefordshire area, and league matches can be seen at the pub throughout the summer months, Darts and Pool taking precedence in the winter. Rubber Quoits and all the other paraphernalia of pub game play are available from the bar on request.

Note the unique handmade scoreboard to the left of the Darts Board. Outside of the Hereford Town League, where Quoits is a straightforward scoring game along similar lines to Darts, most leagues play a game where each team or player aims to accumulate specific scores, maybe from 1-12 or 1-15. Four Quoits are thrown and if for example 8 is scored, that panel on the board is claimed and becomes closed to your opponent. The board here goes up to 20, but given that this would require a full house of 'Pegs' (which score 5 points), perhaps the full board is reserved for 'expert' matches rather than regular weekly league play. Or maybe players in the Clee Hill League are far better than I give them credit!

Rare and unusual games are represented at the pub in the form of a fine Pitch Penny bench (left), possibly the only example in use outside of the East of England. This is a genuine and original bench acquired for the pub by a family member, the leaded backing added by the licensee to help preserve the wood from damage.

Other games available for play include Ring The Bull (below), Shove Ha'penny, Devil Amongst The Tailors, and Shut The Box, as well as the usual selection of Card games, Dominoes, Pool and of course Darts which is very popular at the pub.