Friday, 15 April 2016

Hathern, Leicestershire

The trouble with visiting so many good pubs in pursuit of Britains unique games heritage (and good beer of course), is that I now have a list as long as a Yard of Ale of places I absolutely, definitely, must return to... one day! The sad fact is, I may never find the time to return to some of them, and the way things have been going in the licensed trade of late, who's to say how many will still be there when I do find time to revisit the very best of them.

Great pubs like the Dew Drop in Hathern are right up there at the top of my 'must return' list, in fact I'm definitely planning a return visit the next time I'm in nearby Loughborough with friends and a set of Dominoes. It's that kind of pub.

Unpretentious, well-run and welcoming, and possessing an indefinable 'rightness' that sets you at ease the moment you walk through the door. Even on a sleepy midweek lunchtime I found it a pretty hard pub to leave, the dark, moreish Greene King XX Mild going down all-too easily, the conversation flowing just as freely at the bar.

The Dew Drop is a fabulously unspoilt locals pub, largely unchanged since alterations in the 1930's, and as such it features on CAMRA's list of Heritage Pub Interiors. A Hardy's & Hansons brewery pub up until the Kimberley Brewery was acquired and summarily closed in 2006 by Greene King, hence the Kimberley Ales livery on the doors concealing the pubs Dartboard. Hence also the presence of a dark mild on the bar, albeit Greene King's version rather than the discontinued Kimberley Mild that would have been a firm favourite with the locals.

Hardy's & Hansons had a pub estate which stretched well into neighbouring Leicestershire, and like it's near competitor Shipstones, their pubs were predominantly traditional multi-room drinkers pubs like the Dew Drop. Many of these have now either closed for good, or changed beyond recognition, so the Dew Drop is a rare and important survivor. The tradition of bar-room games play also continues at the pub, with Dominoes and Darts played in local leagues. The licensee was also looking forward to welcoming a locally displaced Cribbage team to the pub when I visited, presumably victims of a nearby pub closure or crass refurbishment. Or maybe they just prefer the beer in the Dew Drop!

Of the four pubs in Hathern, the Dew Drop is certainly the most traditional and unchanged, but the Three Crowns (below), tucked away off the main road in the heart of the village, retains much of it's multi-room layout. It also retains a very good Skittle Alley, equipped for playing the local Leicestershire version of Long Alley Skittles. Note the murals painted at the business end of the alley featuring scenes from the village, including the nearby church and cross.

Sadly there are no teams playing out of the Three Crowns skittle alley at this time, but it is available to book for social functions. The main gaming activity at the pub is Pétanque (there is also a piste at the Anchor in the village), a very popular summer activity in this part of the county.

The Three Crowns fields three teams in the local 1990 Pétanque League, the floodlit piste at the rear of the pub (below) being large enough to accommodate all but the most poorly planned fixture clashes. Fixtures for the 2016 season get under way in May.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

White Hart, South Kilworth, Leicestershire

The road from Market Harborough to Lutterworth winds its way through five attractive south Leicestershire villages. Under its original designation as the A427 it was quite a busy route onwards to Coventry, but is now largely bypassed by the A14 and hence a minor A-road these days. As recently as the early 90's there were eight pubs dotted along its length, some of which were very popular destinations indeed. Driving the route in recent years it had come as something of a shock to me that this figure had fallen to just two open pubs, such has been the impact of diverted traffic, and of course the more general decline in pub-going.

The Coach & Horses in Lubbenham and The Bell at Husbands Bosworth were for a time the only pubs still offering refreshment to villagers and travellers, following the permanent closure of four of these eight pubs, and what would prove to be the temporary closure of two more. The good news today is that the White Lion at South Kilworth has reopened, albeit as a wine bar/restaurant, and the Black Horse at Walcote is due to open again shortly in the safe hands of community ownership. The latter is keenly anticipated by both villagers and visitors alike, the Black Horse having had a great reputation for its beer and Thai food back in the day.

Thankfully for those travellers with a thirst and a desire to explore the lesser known byways of rural Leicestershire, there have always been a number of good village pubs located just off the main drag, some of which have already featured on this blog. The White Hart at South Kilworth is one example, a village local just south of the main road and well worth the short detour. It's also one of only a handful of village pubs in this part of the county that opens at lunchtime with any degree of regularity (though not on Wednesdays).

I visited the White Hart on one of those bright winter lunchtimes just made for walking across fields and exploring village churchyards (the pub lies opposite the parish church of St Nicholas'). The fire was lit, and the Sunday lunchtime locals were just starting to drift in, all the talk on the weekends international rugby. Warm, welcoming, exactly the kind of pub that generations of locals, and a fair few travellers have been retreating to on a cold winter days like this for years. It's a pub I hardly knew about if I'm honest, but one that I've added to my list of occasional visits when in the area.

This area of south Leicestershire is one of the hotbeds of Leicestershire Table Skittles play. At least four of the pubs on the main road from Lutterworth to Market Harborough were equipped with a skittles table (only the Coach & Horses at Lubbenham has one now), indeed I recall playing a game at the White Horse in the days when it was a traditional and popular Marston's pub. Most of the village pubs hereabouts have a table, and I believe all of these compete in one or more of the local leagues. There's even a chance that the community running the Black Horse could reinstate a table to the village of Walcote, the Tavern Inn being the home of skittles in the village until its recent , and untimely closure and conversion to housing.

The White Hart's skittles table sits at the far end of the pubs games area along with the Dartboard and Pool Table. It's a W T Black & Son table, the turned wooden legs marking it out as an earlier model than most. The pins and cheeses are yellow plastic, which is the standard for play in many of the Leicestershire and Warwickshire leagues. The White Hart fields teams in the Dunton Bassett Skittles League, as well as a team in the Ladies League, with play on Monday and Wednesday evenings.

Trophies for Pool and Skittles are displayed next to the wood-burning stove. Keen-eyed gamers will also notice the Ruddles Brewery branded Shove Ha'penny at the back.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.26

Given that so much of the heritage of central Leicester continues to be casually brushed aside by developers and the council, and so many of its old pubs closed or modernised beyond recognition (the architecturally important Black Boy being the latest undervalued gem under threat of demolition), it's a wonder that a pub as honest and relatively unspoilt as The Salmon has managed to survive. Particularly given the pubs close proximity to the grim Highcross shopping centre, and the chronically congested roads that service it.

The Salmon is a pub I've been frequenting on and off for most of my adult life. Initially as a two-room Banks's Brewery pub, a basic tile-floored public bar to the right, a plusher carpeted lounge to the left. Around the late 1990's the partition between bar and lounge was knocked through, creating a single room wrapped around the central servery. At this point the brewery gave the pub a full, and it has to be said, very attractive 'Unspoilt By Progress' makeover. That the polished dark wood and brewery branded brass fittings remain to this day is testament to the quality of the work. The pub was eventually released from the Banks's (now Marston's) empire, and a period as a freehouse specialising in real ales followed.

Ownership of the pub has now returned to the West Midlands under the stewardship of Black Country Ales, a traditional family brewer with a strong commitment to running largely 'wet-led' pubs like The Salmon. The pub remains one of the most traditional and largely unspoilt drinkers venues in the city centre, popular with both beer enthusiasts and rugby fans (the pub can be very busy on match days).

It's also the perfect venue for an afternoon game of Dominoes, or maybe even Shove Ha'penny, though we had to take our own board for the game shown above. Following the transition to Black Country Ales ownership, the Dartboard has also returned to what was the original quarry tile floored bar area, and in common with its equally traditional sister pub the Kings Head, the licensee is keen to field teams in local leagues.

There can be few more iconic images of early 20th century pub-going than that of a group of men, settled at a table with pints at hand, playing Dominoes or Cards, and smoking roll-ups. Smoking and social activities such as game play, were until relatively recently as much a part of the pub experience as the beer, and it's for this reason that so much of the old advertising paraphernalia that once adorned pubs is for cigarette and tobacco brands. In fact the bewildering array of tobacco products available at the time, including those for the almost extinct habits of chewing and snuff-taking, feature far more frequently on advertising than any drinks brands. This is probably because most pubs were wholly tied to a brewery in those days, and whilst every pub would have had a reasonable choice of tobacco brands, there would have been little choice when it came to the beer. Little point then in advertising what people were compelled to drink anyway by virtue of the tie.

Dominoes, Cards, and Cribbage Boards, were the ideal vehicle for advertising tobacco products. The Franklyn's branded Dominoes shown above are unusual hollow tinplate examples, the spots formed by holes in the metal. Not at all nice to play with actually. The Bakelite Park Drive set (left) are much more comfortable in the hand, and far and away the most common type of advertising Dominoes I've come across. Indeed these are the kind I prefer to use myself, being slightly smaller in the hand than the 'club' sets commonly used in league play these days.

The snug front bar of the Man of Ross (above) is for me one of the most pleasant venues for a pint in the centre of Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire. Cosy and comfortable, with a good mix of locals and visitors like myself. It has the feel of a vintage hotel bar, but this is definitely a pub. There's a Dartboard, and a regular Wednesday night Quiz. There's also a number of trophies for the local Skittles League, slightly incongruous given that the pub does not, and probably never has had a skittle alley. The trophies belong to a local team who prefer to use the Man of Ross as their home base, which I suppose only goes to confirm my own feelings about the pub.

The Digbeth area of Birmingham is little more than ten minutes walk from New Street station, and has a number of truly outstanding heritage pubs that should be on every pub-goers list of 'must-visits'.

Pick of the bunch for me is the White Swan, one of several classic Victorian 'terracotta and tile' pubs in the area, built at a time when the local brewery Ansells seemed to be vying with their competitors over who could offer customers the most opulent drinking environment. Unspoilt and beautifully maintained, the White Swan is as fine an example of a Victorian urban boozer as you'll find anywhere in the country, and with a welcome to match I might add.

To the right of the servery, which stretches almost the full length of the public bar, is the pubs Dartboard (above), behind which is the original off-sales, intact though currently not in use. A table-topper with attached cribbage board is stored in the off-sales room, and available for games of Dominoes or Cards on request.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Cross Keys, Barwell, Leicestershire

A village the size of Barwell might be expected to support around half a dozen pubs, indeed this is exactly the number listed in a local CAMRA pub guide of 1979. What's perhaps surprising is that even with the loss of the historic Three Crowns, and modern estate pub the Red Hall (latterly the Boot & Shoe), the figure remains at six today. There can't be too many villages which can boast the same number of pubs they had 30-odd years ago, although it has to be said that at least one club has closed in the village, so the overall number of licensed premises is in fact down. Nevertheless, Barwell folk seem to appreciate their pubs in a way that many villagers sadly no longer do.

These six pubs, along with the Constitutional Club, continue to offer something for all the residents of Barwell. There's a sports dominated pub for younger drinkers, most offer food of some description, and there's at least one traditional wet-led community local where traditional pub games and sport are just about as important to the customers as the beer.

The Cross Keys is the kind of friendly village boozer where just about every competitive pub pastime is represented in one form or another, and there's rarely a night when something sporty or games oriented isn't going on. Televised sport is of course the lifeblood of pubs like the Cross Keys, football in particular, including enthusiastic support for the local Barwell FC. League Dominoes and Darts are staples of the Cross Keys bar room, as well as Pool, played in the Hinckley District Pool League. There's also a popular Quiz Night on the first Wednesday of the month, and games even make a showing as part of the Christmas celebrations. The Cross Keys Christmas Knockouts event was established as an annual fixture in 2014. An open competition featuring almost all of the games played at the pub, rifle shooting being one notable, though entirely understandable exception!

Not too many traditional Skittle Alleys remain in the Hinckley area of Leicestershire now, in fact Barwell may represent the very edge of Long Alley Skittles play on this side of the county. It's perhaps just as well that the alley is in such regular use then. Not only does the Cross Keys skittle alley play host to a team in the Tom Bishop Long Alley Skittles League, but it's also the venue for Darts tournaments and competitive Air Rifle Shooting.

Barwell may be on the very edge of the Leicestershire Long Alley Skittles tradition, but Bell Target Shooting has been popular in this part of the East Midlands for a very long time, perhaps even as far back as the sport's Victorian origins.

The fascinating history of competitive small bore rifle shooting can be found on the Bell Target Shooting website, but essentially the sport was established and encouraged nationally as a result of the poor standard of rifle shooting observed during the Boer War. The Smallshaws Air Rifle Club shoot at both Bell and Paper targets in the Cross Keys skittle alley, and compete in the Hinckley & District Air Rifle League.

The Hinckley & Bosworth Licensed Victuallers Association no longer exist under that name as far as I'm aware, yet the Domino league still carries the LVA title. Such are traditions maintained, and unnecessary change resisted in the world of 'Fives & Threes' Domino play. The back room at the pub (below) houses yet another Dartboard, and the Pool Table.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Compendium of Quoits Images

The game of Indoor Quoits is a good example of a once popular outdoor game, miniaturised and adapted for play in the relative comfort of the public bar. The game's origins lie in the outdoor 'sport' of Quoits (also known as Steel Quoits), an early 20th century national obsession, once played in practically every corner of the British Isles (and successfully exported elsewhere). It's perhaps hard to imagine just how popular the outdoor sport of Quoits was in its heyday, but most villages would have had at least one Quoiting Field, many of which were located at pubs and clubs. The more successful practitioners of the sport were regarded in much the same way that professional athletes and sportsman are now. The outdoor game has declined to the point where most people will probably never have heard of it, and play is now confined to a handful of leagues in northern England, Scotland, Wales, and Anglia.

The indoor version was probably developed for play during the cold winter months, a more comfortable alternative to handling heavy steel in freezing conditions, but is now played all-year round, and is for the most part no longer associated with the original outdoor sport. It's possible that versions of Indoor Quoits would have existed wherever the outdoor game was played, which is to say just about everywhere. The game of Rings for example, itself a widespread and popular pub game which is now confined almost exclusively to Ireland and the Isle of White, may originally have developed from Quoits play. As it stands though, only two examples of Indoor Quoits proper are known. One of which, Suffolk Quoits (above), is no longer played to my knowledge, though a later variant called Caves survives at The Crown, Bedfield in Suffolk. The small painted wooden boards of this Anglian game survive only as curiosities now, occasionally emerging in the antiques and collectables trade.

Only the version of Indoor Quoits played in the West Midlands and Welsh Borders exists today as a pub game. Known locally as Step Quoits, Table Quoits, Dobbers, or more often than not just simply Quoits, this is quite close in style to the original game of Steel Quoits, with a number of features which seem specifically designed to replicate the outdoor game:

  • In the outdoor game the goal is to land your steel Quoit as close to the projecting 'Hob' as possible. The indoor game replicates this by having two concentric scoring zones, 1 point for the outer, 2 for the inner, plus a projecting bolt or 'Spike', the ringing of which scores a maximum 5 points.

  • Steel Quoits have a distinctive convex profile, and I've come across older rubber quoits for the indoor game, still in use, which are similarly shaped. To score, these rubber quoits have to land convex side uppermost. The majority of quoits used now for the indoor game are manufactured flat, and replicate the original convex profile by having a white and black side. Only those quoits which land white side up score.

  • In Steel Quoits, a major aspect of tactical play is to throw and position your own quoits in such a way that they might block your opponent from getting theirs close to the Hob. A similar blocking strategy to that used in Lawn Bowls in fact. The unique scoreboards used in many indoor quoits leagues (right) introduce a similar level of strategic play by allowing each player to 'block' their opponent from claiming particular scores during the course of a game.

In common with almost all traditional pub games, Quoits has declined markedly in recent years. In Arthur Taylor's book Played at the Pub, the Forest of Dean League is noted as having 25 teams in the 1980's, but this is now down to just 9 teams playing from 7 venues in the current 2015/16 Winter League.

Rural and community pub closures have undoubtedly contributed to this decline. The kind of pubs where traditional games like Quoits are popular and still played at league level, are also the ones which have suffered most from the general decline in pub-going. Many of those which remain open have understandably taken the option of developing their food trade, often at the expense of more traditional pub pursuits such as games.

Forest of Dean pub the Miners Arms at Whitecroft was until quite recently renowned not only for it's huge range of ciders and perries, but also a very fine Skittle Alley and a bar where the local game of Quoits took centre stage. Whilst the fine traditional bar area remains at the pub, the Miners Arms is probably better known now as a quality food destination. The Skittle Alley has also survived, though not currently in use for league play, but sadly the Quoits Board is long gone. Only a white line on the flagstone floor (above) and a team photograph (below) indicate that the game was once popular at the pub. Quoits is still played in the village at the nearby Royal Oak which has already featured on this blog.

Still in the Forest of Dean, the photograph below shows the winning team from the Rising Sun pub at Bream, taken sometime in the mid 1970's. This photograph was supplied to the Old Photos of the Forest of Dean website by Roger Clutterbuck, shown seated on the left, and is reproduced here with their kind permission. Quoits is still played at the Rising Sun, with 'A' and 'B' teams competing in the Forest of Dean league.

As a league game Quoits may have declined markedly from its heyday, but interest in the game continues, and the distinctive wooden or concrete boards can still be found in rural and village pubs throughout the games traditional area. James & Lisa Aubrey (above) have recently taken on and reopened the Pandy Inn in the village of Dorstone, Herefordshire, with the intention of re-establishing the pub at the centre of village life. The Dartboard has already been rehung, but sadly the pubs old Quoits Board was given away by the previous licensees. Two sets of rubber quoits remained at the pub though, and the couple were keen to track down a replacement board, with enthusiastic support from regulars who presumably miss the game. By chance I happened to have a 'spare' board and was planning a trip to Herefordshire. James and Lisa are shown here with their 'new' Evesham board in the bar of the Barrels pub in Hereford, and I look forward to a game at the Pandy Inn on a future visit to the county.

Quoits is still played in the city of Hereford, though as elsewhere the number of venues for the game is greatly diminished from even a few years ago. The Cotterell Arms for example, features in the Quoits section of Arthur Taylor's definitive work on pub games, but this back-street locals pub has been closed for a few years now. Another former hotbed of Quoits play in Hereford, Broadleys, has a dedicated Quoits Corner in the lounge bar, but sadly the board was recently removed. The very future of this pub has been in doubt for some time now, Broadleys being just one of many that brewers Marston's offloaded to a property developer, keen to convert the pub to retail use against the wishes of locals. Hopefully, once the long-term future of the pub has been secured, the local game may return to Broadleys Quoits Corner.

Despite the fact that many traditional pub games enjoy wide support, and are played by literally tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis, very few other than Darts and Cue sports seem to make it into the pages of literature. The gentle regional pursuit of Quoits is certainly no exception, and I was surprised to find any mention of it at all given the paucity of references that even games as widespread and popular as skittles get, such is the everyday invisibility of so many of our pub traditions. There is however a brief mention of Quoits in a slim novel set in 1970's Hereford.

The Last Great Pub Crawl by John Shane (1976), is the tale of a bunch of old-timers out for one last booze-up before retirement and the expectations of their peers get the better of them. Arriving at the Wellington in Hereford (above), the party, by now several pints up and swelled in numbers, spy the pubs traditional Quoits board. Could this be the only written account of the game in fiction?

'... "Good shot!" the Smallholding shouted, as Victoria scored a quick twenty points. A large, smartly dressed, silver haired man, in a business suit, stood close by at the bar.

"Funny things we get up to eh?" he said, slowly and deliberately, in a broad Yorkshire accent. "Tossing little rubber rings at a nail stuck in a bit of board, and scoring points for it! Pretty odd sort of a thing for grown men and women to be doing, though, ain't it?"

In recent years the Wellington has traded under several different names as a lively edge of town circuit venue, before finally reverting to its original name. Needless to say the pub no longer has a Quoits board....

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Royal Oak, Cossington, Leicestershire

Leicestershire's unique contribution to Britains skittles tradition is Long Alley Skittles, or more specifically a version of the game subtly different to that played in neighbouring Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Several leagues manage Long Alley play in the county, but the majority of competition is covered by just two. Roughly speaking, the Tom Bishop Memorial Skittles League deals with an area to the south of Leicestershire, and the Syston & District Skittles League covers pubs and clubs to the north of the city. Both leagues are currently made up of around two dozen teams each which might seem a reasonably healthy number, but the fact is that the number of teams in play disguises a steady decline in the number of alleys available and in use.

In common with many other venues in both the Tom Bishop and Syston leagues, the Royal Oak at Cossington plays host to both a home team and one recently displaced from the Blue Bell Inn at Rothley. The skittle alley at the Blue Bell was lost to a restaurant conversion in 2014 following a major refurbishment of the pub. Sadly a similar fate has also befallen alleys at the nearby Gate Hangs Well on the outskirts of Syston, and the Coach & Horses at Markfield, both recently refurbished by local Leicestershire brewery Everards.

It's not all bad news for skittles in the area though. New licensees at the Horse & Groom in Rearsby village aim to bring the pubs traditional skittle alley back into use, and are currently looking for teams or individuals interested in playing from the pub. This is a great example of how it only takes one or two enthusiastic individuals to turn things around in pub gaming.

The Royal Oak has certainly seen a few changes over the years. The pubs layout is basically open-plan where it would undoubtedly have had separate rooms in the past. Distinct and separate areas have been included in the layout though, including a pleasant 'Snug' with Dartboard to the right-hand side of the bar servery.

Now if there's one thing that I would like to see retained, or even created as part of the refurbishment of a pub (other than skittle alleys of course!), it's a traditional snug. Thankfully many pubs do still include a cosy, slightly separate space where the more traditional aspects of pub going can continue. In fact it's often this 'snug' space alone that differentiates a pub from being little more than a licensed restaurant.

The licensee of the Royal Oak maintains the skittle alley at the rear of the pub in such good order that it earns its keep not only during league play, but also for private skittles evenings and other functions. A skittle alley can contribute substantially to a pub's 'rateable' footprint, and therefore needs to be used as much as possible.

To this end the hard floor of the Royal Oak's skittle alley has been covered with a laminate flooring at the throwing end, and curtains can be drawn across at various points to create smaller spaces. A small removable section of this flooring conceals the 'tripping hazard' of the 'Mott', the foot-sized depression which a players rear foot must remain in for a 'chuck' to count (above).

Leicestershire's (and Rutland's) other, perhaps surprisingly popular pub game, is Pétanque. There is a Piste to the rear of the pub, and the Royal Oak field two teams in the 1990 Pétanque League.