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.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Heritage and Traditional Games in Nottinghamshire Pubs

Anyone who takes an interest in pubs will be aware that very little of the heritage and traditions that make the British pub so special remains entirely intact and unspoilt by progress. They may also be aware that much of what does remain has little or no real protection from the kind over-zealous or inappropriate development which has blighted the pub trade for decades. This is particularly sad given that the supposed custodians of so many of the historic gems which do survive seem hell-bent on closing them at an ever increasing rate, cashing-in the most important assets they have in a desperate bid to shore-up their chronically mismanaged businesses. Some buildings are of course statutorily listed, but often this amounts to little more than protection for the attractive chocolate-box exterior, and not the equally important layout, fixtures, and fittings which are the real historic heart of a pub. Those things which contribute to the irreplaceable 'social' history of the building.

Activists including those associated with CAMRA's Pubs Heritage group have had some success in this area, including upgrading the existing listed status of some pubs to include interiors of rare national importance. But that still leaves literally thousands of pubs with little or no protection from inappropriate development. Pubs which if they haven't already had the guts ripped out of them as part of someone's crass idea of modernisation, are certainly at risk of this kind of vandalism in the future.

In common with most of the larger brewers and pub owning companies (and some of the smaller ones it must be said!), Greene King of Bury St Edmunds have a very mixed track record with regard to the management of their pub estate. Closures such as the New White Bull at Giltbrook in Nottinghamshire have incurred the wrath of locals and campaigners alike, and the recent furore over the removal of historic pub signs throughout the Greene King estate, and the corporate branded alternatives chosen to replace them, give a good indication of just how little regard the management and bean-counters of company's like this have for heritage and tradition. Greene King, in common with most other pub companies of this size, are now moving away from traditional tenanted pubs, preferring the bland uniformity of managed and branded dining and family venues. These new-build pseudo-pubs and off-the-peg refurbishments leave little room for the kind of individuality and character that make pubs at their best such wonderful places to spend time in. But thankfully, in amongst the branded blandness, a good few traditional gems remain, but for how long!

Greene King have a very large pub estate now, largely the result of brewery acquisitions over the last few decades. Amongst this widely spread estate are the tied pubs of Hardys & Hansons, a Nottinghamshire brewery which was acquired and summarily closed by Greene King in 2006. The former Hardys & Hansons estate includes many community locals dating from the early 20th century and post-war years. Certainly most of the 'Kimberley' pubs I remember drinking in at the time were basic, unfussy urban boozers, not at all like the flagship Test Match Hotel in the affluent Nottingham suburb of West Bridgeford, which is featured here.

The Grade II* listed Test Match really is one of those 'must-visit' pubs. Extensively refurbished to a very high standard in 2001, everywhere you look there are beautiful Art Deco features, original artworks, and quality fixtures and fittings. The pub features several distinctly different rooms, including an upstairs cocktail bar, tea-room, lounge, and a relatively small public bar which doubles as the games room with Darts and Pool Table (above & below). The listed status of the Test Match has clearly played a key part in its survival as one of the most opulently furnished pubs in the Midlands. It's a successful pub too, and maybe a pointer to the those that should know better that it's well-maintained heritage like this that helps make pubs unique and special social places, and not merely bland corporate retail units for food and drink.

A humbler, yet no less important pub survivor is the Gladstone Arms (left), a classic two-room Victorian terrace locals pub located on a backstreet of the busy Mansfield Road, to the north of the city centre. Busy and bustling on a Friday night when I visited, it's location off the beaten track has probably saved the Gladstone from the usual fate of relatively small, multi-room pubs like this, many of which have been knocked through to create one large room managed from a central servery. Retaining two rooms as it does means that the pub can offer different environments for differing tastes. The left-hand lounge is cosy and comfortable, a great place for a read or a chat during quieter opening hours. The bar is slightly more basic, a place where beer and conversation flow freely, and of course it features the pub's Darts Board. Thursday nights are Quiz Nights, and a slightly neglected Domino set and Crib Board are available from behind the bar if like me you like a rattle on a Sunday afternoon.

Out in the sticks, and even in villages of a reasonable size, pubs and the licensees who run them usually have to adapt to survive. The traditional local trade which has served them well for generations is now rarely enough for a village pub to survive, and small wet-led pubs with a limited trading area can be a real struggle to make work. This is why so many rural and village pubs have been so extensively knocked about and expanded in recent years, the attractive and often historic exterior concealing a single large space with few clues as to where the walls would have been, the separate rooms located.

The Royal Oak at East Bridgford has certainly seen some alterations in recent years, but with more success than most I'd have to say. Though essentially one large room, the public bar/games area still retains much of its former identity, and although the pub clearly relies heavily on its food trade, the Royal Oak still happily accommodates the needs of its loyal locals, with all the pub game staples of Darts, Pool, and Dominoes played, the latter evidenced by the large number of trophies about the place.

But perhaps best of all, and to the great credit of the current licensees, is the retention of the pubs traditional Skittle Alley, an increasingly rare feature of pubs in this area, and one which could all too easily have been lost during the refurbishments.

The original alley was located in the low building to the right in the photo above, but this has now been incorporated into the main pub. Across from what is now the main entrance to the pub can be found the 'new' alley, converted from a former garage/outbuilding, and extended by several yards to the rear to accommodate the alleys full length. As such it's pretty smart for a Long Alley, and eminently suitable for other uses when not hosting a game. Long Alley Skittles Nottingham/Derby style is the game here, played in the tiny East Notts Skittles League. Often a well-used practice set of skittles and balls will be available in a Long Alley, but not so here. The matchday set are kept safely locked away by the home team.

The 'new' Skittle Alley. Note the change of colour in the bricks where the building was extended into the beer garden at the rear.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.23

Bonzoline is without a doubt better than Ivory, though it's unlikely the unpalatable nature of the Ivory trade was foremost in the minds of the Bonzoline Manufacturing Company when this advert appeared in the early 20th century book 'The Game of Billiards and How To Play It' (J.Roberts).

The fact is that Ivory, being a natural material, would have exhibited slight imperfections of density and uniformity throughout the ball, such that some balls may have even had significantly different weights. Composite Bonzoline balls, as developed by John Wesley Hyatt of New York, would have been more uniform and stable than the natural materials used previously, and of course would have been a much cheaper alternative to Ivory, which eventually found favour throughout all cue sports. Various manufacturers came up with their own composites, including these from Atlas Co of London Billiard Balls, which bear the label British Made Ronite.

Some recently acquired Cribbage Boards. The large dark Mahogany 'three-way' board underneath is for the slightly unusual occurrence of a three person game. Unusual in that most Card and Domino games scored on a crib board are either for two players, or four playing as doubles. This board is stamped HWR, almost certainly the initials of the person who lovingly crafted it in their shed from an off-cut or 'up-cycled' piece of timber.

The scorer at the top is in a common form for cribbage boards which would have been hung on the wall in a pub or club, and is stamped with the letters T*S, possibly the owner/maker or maybe the name of the pub. The board below that is also a homemade example, this one made from Bakelite or similar. Below that is a Mahogany crib board with brass feet, the wood extremely dark from the patina of many years of use.

The only board shown here that was manufactured is the one bearing the long closed (though recently revived) Truman's Brewery name. A simple moulded Bakelite or early plastic board, perfect for scoring with used matches. Breweries and Cigarette/Tobacco brands are the most common sponsors of these old cribbage boards, though not nowadays of course.

The beer and brewing world of the early to mid 20th century was a battleground of regional and national branding and advertising. You only have to search for Breweriana on eBay to get an idea of the sheer number of beers and breweries fighting for brand awareness in the pubs and clubs of Britain up until the widespread mergers and brewery closures of the 1970's and 80's. Practically every item used in the licensed trade was fair game to carry advertising for a beer brand, from mirrors and all manner of signage, to ashtrays, glasses, and of course the numerous accoutrement's and accessories of pub gaming.

These Shove Ha'penny tokens are quite rare examples of beer and brewery branding. Although I'm sure hundreds, if not thousands of these would have been produced at the time, their diminutive and frivolous nature means that most seem to have been lost or thrown away over time. Probably dating from the late 1970's when Tap Bitter was introduced by the London brewer on the back of the nascent real ale revival. They're a classic example of a simple everyday item being co-opted to keep a beer brand at the forefront of a drinkers mind, even when engaged in the serious business of shoving coins up the smooth surface of a slate such as this.

The slate shown here is one of the more common examples of its type. 'The Imp Shove-Ha'penny Slate', a relatively inexpensive and lightweight model compared to the hefty slabs still occasionally found in West Country pubs.

The Bar Billiards Table shown to the left is a real rarity, located as it is in the very heart of the city of Birmingham.

The Post Office Vaults is a subterranean cellar bar with a great reputation for beer and cider, and a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping area of the city.

The Chandlers Arms at Shearsby in Leicestershire has been a firm favourite of mine since the 80's, a regular destination, particularly in the summer when the tidy garden comes into its own. Like the attractive village itself, the pub seems to have changed little over the years, though in truth it's been well maintained, and the beer range has improved greatly under the current licensee.

Pub games have never seemed to feature prominently at the Chandlers. Dominoes and Cards are available, but food has always been an important part of the pubs trade, and there's little room in the cosy bars for a Darts Board. Recently though, room has been found for the landlords favourite game of Bar Billiards, tucked into the less-used left-hand bar area.