Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Vaga Tavern, Hereford

Alongside the extensive free-trade supplied throughout the West Midlands and beyond, Herefordshire's Wye Valley Brewery has a small but growing estate of excellent traditional pubs. Good news for anyone who, like me, greatly appreciate their pale, hoppy, and wonderfully refreshing Hereford Pale Ale (HPA) on a hot summers day, or the superb rich Dorothy Goodbody's Wholesome Stout when it's not so warm. I've been great a fan of Wye Valley ales since the brewery's early days when based in a stable block at the rear of the then Lamb Inn in Hereford. Subsequently re-named The Barrels, this is still essentially the brewery tap even though the brewery has re-located, and a must-visit ale house for beer fans and pub enthusiasts alike.

The Vaga Tavern is one of several recent additions to the Wye Valley estate, and another which is well worth seeking out for a pint in the city. Located a short walk from the centre of town, and perhaps best approached via a pleasant walk alongside the river Wye rather than attempting to negotiate the labyrinthine streets of the Hunderton Estate which the pub serves. It's a terrific community local, an ideal fit for the brewery who's mission statement includes a desire to champion '... pubs as important parts of local communities'. An excellent sentiment, and one worthy of raising a pint of HPA to when next you visit Hereford.

Local pub games are very well represented at the Vaga in the shape of a very tidy Skittle Alley projecting off the public bar. A Quoits Board is also in use, though currently only in the Wednesday night Womens League due to a mix-up with scheduling the mens game. League fixtures for Darts and Pool are also firm favourites with the locals at the Vaga Tavern.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Some Western Skittles Images

This fine old alley is located on the upper floor of an extension at the rear of the Black Lion in Hereford. The pub itself is a venerable 16th century inn, strategically placed near the older crossing of the River Wye, and despite having a strong focus on dining these days retains much of its character and charm as a drinking venue.

A slightly unusual feature of the nine-pin game in Hereford is the use of 10-pin bowling pins as opposed to the usual stubby skittles found throughout the West Midlands and West Country. Traditionalists may frown on this but they do the job perfectly well, and even look the part when stripped of their white plastic coating.

Why is it that the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League went over to this style of pin? On a day when I visited several pubs with alleys in the area, no-one I spoke to seemed to know the reason, and the league website gives no clues which suggests it's been this way for quite a good few years. Perhaps they were easier or cheaper to source than the expensive traditional pins, and it may be that modestly priced cast-offs from the ten-pin game are effectively 're-cycled' for skittle play in the area.

Thomas Fattorini (1864-1934) was the head of a Birmingham silversmiths which has a long association with producing medals, trophies and plaques, including many for league and cup pub game competition such as the one shown here. This sterling silver and gilded medal dates from 1930, and was originally attached to a short watch chain by the same maker. The game is of course nine-pin skittles of the type played predominantly in the South West of the country. Who it was originally presented to, and for what is not known as the back has not been engraved in this case. The company of Fattorini continues to this day, and still produces a range of trophies and medals for games and sport.

The alley shown above, carpeted for use as a function room when not in use for skittles, is located at the rear of the Somerset Arms in Cheltenhams Leckhampton area. The Somerset is one of the more traditional drinking pubs in Cheltenham, located on a backstreet near the Bath Road, and as such needs a little searching out. You'll be rewarded with a very welcoming locals pub and a decent pint of ale, as well as the now rare sight of a working Pinball Table at the rear of the bar area.

The eight lockable doors at the rear of alley (right) hold the skittle sets used by the various teams which play from the pub, currently numbering over half a dozen in the Cheltenham Skittles League. The alley record of 69 (below), held by Wayne Hyde, is recorded on a beam over the alley.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Sir Frank Whittle, Lutterworth (closed!)

In the current climate of rapid change and decline in the pub market, it's inevitable that I'll occasionally feature pubs on this blog which have subsequently gone on to close, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for good. It's not often I feature a pub which has already closed though. I always try to accentuate the positive in a pub whenever possible so what would be the point of that!

By posting about the Sir Frank Whittle, a pub sold to the Midlands Cooperative Society by brewers Marston's, and subsequently closed despite strong local opposition, it's perhaps hard to find the positives in yet another example of market forces riding roughshod of local feeling. But I feel it's important to accentuate the positives of what is essentially a sad, if all too common tale. That way people might have a better understanding of just what it is we're losing when community locals like the Sir Frank Whittle close forever.

Because sadly there are still far too many people who consider themselves 'campaigners' for the traditions of beer and pub-going who just don't see the value of pubs like the Sir Frank Whittle. Pubs which don't offer a bewildering array of rare micro-brewery beers, or the latest novelty craft keg specialities, but simply deliver the goods for the locals who use them in an unfussy and unpretentious way. A pub like the Sir Frank Whittle may not be the most exciting proposition for drinkers who view pubs as just mini-beer festivals, but in my view it's pubs like this which represent the very best of our traditional drinking culture. A culture where the beer is the tasty alcoholic lubricant of a good social experience, an accompaniment to a good night out, not the whole point of it.

The Sir Frank Whittle was a two-room 1970's new-build estate pub of a type which was once so common in England as to be utterly unremarkable, even (or particularly) to those who called themselves 'locals'. Originally named The Balloon, the interior was typically clean, modern, and functional. No-frills, a pub very much of its time but certainly none the worse for it. Built for a purpose, and that purpose was as an important social hub for the extensive new-build housing which surrounds it, and which even now continues to be built on the north side of Lutterworth.

The Sir Frank Whittle would have been a true drinking, socialising, and gaming pub. The 'public' equivalent of the many private members social and political clubs which were once also at the heart of working class communities. It's pubs like this which brewery owners Marston's built their Midlands empire on, but sadly Marston's have fallen out of love with community drinking pubs. For many years now they, and many other large-scale brewers and pub owning companies like them, have abjectly failed to invest in the fabric of pubs like this, and in so doing failed to look after the trade which would maintain them as viable businesses. Marston's quite obviously see little future in pubs like this, instead preferring to milk their ever declining trade whilst building new family dining venues to replace them. These soulless pseudo-pubs are springing up everywhere now, often on the side of retail parks, and at the expense of hundreds of historic locals and community pubs like the Sir Frank Whittle. It's the total-shopping/leisure future apparently, but not one I have any great appetite for.

As an aside, it's hard to imagine where a traditional brewery like the one Marston's run fits into this bland new pub future, where the family dining experience is the primary focus, and parents are increasingly frowned upon for having an alcoholic drink in the presence of their children!

The interior of the Sir Frank Whittle was extensively refurbished by the last licensees just a few years ago, and whilst obviously lacking the olde-worlde charm of pre-war buildings, the result was an attractive and comfortable pub which most people would enjoy drinking or dining in. Sadly, Marston's refused to do a similar job on the exterior of the pub, a necessity which would have gone a long way to attracting new or lapsed trade, and possibly even securing the future of the pub. But that was clearly not Marston's intention. As I've already said, this once proud and highly regarded brewer has fallen out of love with pubs.

When I visited, the beer was in excellent condition and the pub beautifully maintained. This was of course a skittles pub, the table equally well-maintained and only recently retired from league play. The licensee was sad but resigned to the closure of the pub, and had already made plans for the future. It was particularly sad to enjoy such a good pint in an attractive pub knowing the builders would be along within days to rip it all out, another good pub lost.


Not the last time it will see service, plans were already in hand to relocate the skittles table elsewhere, but certainly one of the last 9's at the Sir Frank Whittle before the pub closed forever.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Quoits in Herefordshire

In common with other pub and club games such as the various indoor skittle variants, and the now extinct Suffolk version of Quoits, it's likely that Indoor Quoits developed directly from, and was probably played alongside the hugely popular outdoor version of the game/sport. Quoits was once played throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, and can still be found to this day in a few areas of northern and eastern England, and parts of Wales. A strenuous outdoor pursuit which involves the hurling of heavy iron rings over varying distances to land as close to, or ideally over a short spike projecting from a 'bed' of clay. Not a game that lends itself to the chill of Winter then.

Hence the development of a number of indoor versions, a way to keep your hand in and satisfy the urge for competition when the outdoor game held no appeal. The only version of the indoor game which can still be found in pubs and clubs to this day is the one played in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and the Welsh Borders. Known variously as Step Quoits, Table Quoits, Dobbers, or just plain Quoits, this game can still be found in the more traditional pubs and clubs of the region. Quoits is still played at league level throughout this area, but with most players tending to be in the upper age-range, and ever more of the traditional locals where the game finds a natural home closing for good, the game's future is far from secure.

The Quoits 'board' shown above is resident at the Rose & Crown in the leafy suburbs of Hereford city. This pub is now one of Greene King's 'Meet & Eat' venues, and could quite easily have lost its games area entirely during the recent refurbishment. This concrete 'board' is entirely typical of those found throughout Hereford and further afield, although wooden boards like the one featured here are also common. The colour scheme is traditional, though not every board follows this pattern, indeed the board I have is made from plainly varnished ply wood. The welded steel frame which the board sits on is also a standard feature of the game in Hereford, the netting designed to prevent too many errant Quoits landing on the floor.

The basis of the game is very simple, and lends itself well to both mens and womens leagues. Four rubber Quoits (above) are thrown from a distance similar to a Darts throw, the aim being to land the Quoits either directly over the Peg or Hob (5 points), fall squarely in the sunken inner ring (2 points), or outer ring (1 point). The Quoits have a black side and a white side, and they must land white-side up to score. In play, men seem to go for the risky peg shot (more likely to flip onto the non-scoring black side, or bounce off the board entirely if missed), whilst women prefer a more steady accumulation of points by landing their quoits in the rings. A major part of the skill in this game is using subsequent throws to nudge previously thrown quoits out of the outer ring and into the higher scoring inner zone.

Scoring indoor quoits takes many forms, but in the Hereford league it is similar to the game of Darts, ie. run down from a starting score of 101. Singles and Doubles games are played as part of a league match, with the usual array of cup knock-out matches and competitions for individuals running alongside the league.

The Hereford City Mens League runs through the Summer months, and is now down to just six participating teams. The Brewers Arms (which will feature in a future post on this blog) is the most recent addition, the Quiots Boards and team originally resident of the now closed, and much loved Cotterell Arms in the city.

These images show a Wednesday night Quoits match in the Hereford Womens League. The frosted glass window (above) looks in on the unspoilt Golden Lion pub on Grandstand Road. This pub is a friendly two bar local on the edge of the city, and comes complete with Aviary, Fishpool, and a fine old Skittle Alley at the rear. It's the kind of pub that's hard to see staying unspoilt forever, so I recommend a visit sooner rather than later, though there is no real ale, just cider.

Scoring the game whilst a baseball hatted Golden Lion (one of many in the bar) looks on from the Pool Table. With the match finished (the home team won), and a supper delivered to the ladies, the licensee has a few throws to keep her hand in (below). World Cup Football takes second place on the television tonight.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Bulls Head, Blaby, Leicestershire

Way back in the early 90's I visited the Bulls Head in Blaby for the first, and if memory serves me well, only time. Writing the experience up as part of a short real ale round-up of neighbouring villages Blaby and Whetstone, I described the Bulls as being '...a comfortable Allied (brewery) pub with Ansells Bitter, Tetley Bitter, and Burton Ale. Has a good Skittle Alley'. Not much to go on there then, but in my defence it was the kind of stock description common to CAMRA publications in those days. It was the early days of the beer and brewing revival, and most village pubs were still relatively unspoilt and therefore unremarkable. They were also reasonably well supported by a good local trade, the carnage of 21st century pub closures had yet to be seen in villages like this. Truly we were spoilt in those days, pubs and pub-going were a given, it was the beer that mattered.

How things have changed. Real ale, micro-breweries, craft beer, and even traditional ciders of a sort are now relatively commonplace, and it could be argued that CAMRA's original campaigning goals, the revitalisation of real ale, have been largely achieved. It's now unpretentious backstreet and village 'locals' like the Bulls Head which are the story now. Remarkable for their scarcity, and by far the biggest casualty of the 'fire sale' decimating pubs of all types in recent years.

The Bulls Head is an increasingly rare survivor, and exactly the kind of traditional village local which CAMRA and its members should be actively supporting and championing. Not just for the greatly improved beer range, but for the fact that this pub retains its traditional layout, and still functions as a highly sociable drinking venue rather than bland and impersonal theme bar or upmarket eatery. I'm pleased to say that the local CAMRA branch have recognised this, awarding their pub of the month for October 2013 to the Bulls Head, with the pub also finishing a very respectable 7th in the 2014 Pub of the Year competition for the Leicester branch area.

I hope this short post helps to expand on my original description of the Bulls Head. The Bulls is not only a 'comfortable' pub to drink in now,  it's also a positive pleasure to spend time in. It also retains a good Skittle Alley, a feature of all the very best South Leicestershire pubs in my view. Oh! and it sells a very good pint too.

The Skittle Alley at the Bulls Head has recently come back into use for the Leicestershire game of Long Alley, with a team from nearby Whetstone settling in for league play as well as regular social skittles evenings at the pub. The cheeses (left) are some of the most pristine examples I've seen, almost too good to chuck! In common with most alleys hereabouts, the Long Alley also doubles as a function room, though of course the two could just as easily be combined for groups and parties.

Sadly the traditional Leicester Skittles Table has fallen into disuse in recent years, standing on its end in a corner of the alley awaiting a team to bring it back into use. This table is the slightly longer, lower walled version of the game which is unique to Leicester and surrounding villages, though whether it was played with the slimline Leicester pins and cheeses or a more common Northamptonshire set is not clear.

Table Skittles is still played in the Blaby area, indeed the nearby Fox & Tiger sports bar in the centre of the village has a good old Northants table which sees regular use in local league play. There's every chance this table could come back into use in the near future, it's that kind of pub.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt. 21

The Bagatelle Table shown here has been squeezed into a room adjoining the main bar of the Royal Oak at Hoole in Chester. Hoole is a small village suburb of Chester, around 15 minutes walk out from the town centre, and very convenient for arrivals at the nearby rail station.

The Royal Oak is a friendly multi-room locals pub, a venue for conversation, good beer, and playing the local speciality of Bagatelle. The pub fields a team in the Chester & District Bagatelle League.

It's perhaps hard for us to appreciate just how widely played and popular the game of Quoits was in the pre and post-war years. Despite being played on Quoits Fields at pubs, clubs, and public recreation grounds the length and breadth of the country, little now remains to remind us of its importance as a game to the mostly working class men who played it. The Quoits Beds themselves are mostly all gone, and the trophies and records of the game have not endured in the same way that other pub and club games such as skittles have. Which is not to say that the game has entirely died out, indeed there are still several active, albeit much smaller leagues operating in parts of Anglia, Scotland, Wales, and the north of England.

A good indication of how widespread and popular the game of Quoits once was can be seen in the images above and below. This magnificent silver Boss, illustrating a Quoits game in progress, sits at the centre of a substantial trophy shield which acknowledges national Quoiting success in the small Rutland village of Ketton. Quoits was a very popular game in Rutland, no less so in Ketton which was home to at least four quoiting beds, and most impressive of all, a three times All England Champion in local cement works foreman Arthur Knox. The full shield, presented by the Peterborough & District Quoiting League, can be seen on the right of the team photograph below, and is now proudly displayed at the Ketton Sports & Social Club.

The last remaining Quoits Bed in the village was within the grounds of the club but is now tarmac'd over as part of the car park. The club is still very active within the village, with most modern games represented, including Bowls, Cribbage, Darts, Dominoes, and Rutlands current favourite throwing game, Pétanque.

The 'Skittle Room' at Leicesters Durham Ox is in truth more of a covered courtyard which serves the double function of a very well appointed smoking shelter. The kind of skittles played here is the thoroughly local Leicester version of Table Skittles, with its thinner pins, smaller cheeses, and slightly different table geometry to the better known Northamptonshire game. I'm not sure how often the table gets used these days, certainly the pub no longer fields a team in any of the Leicester Leagues, but it's good to see such a relative rarity of pub gaming survive in such good shape.

The pub itself is located in an area of the town which has been hit hard by changing demographics, and is one of the last of its type on this side of the city centre (see also the nearby Bridle Lane Tavern). The interior of the pub is very well maintained, and attracts a good local crowd for televised sport, Pool and Darts.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Northamptonshire Table Skittles Images

Pub games enthusiast and keen Yeovil & District skittler John Penny shows that he'll turn his hand to any form of the game given half a chance. This photo was taken a few years ago at the White Hart in Hackleton, Northamptonshire, and features John in the 'woodyard', counterbalancing the three wooden cheeses from the game with a pint of ale. The tell-tale orange label on the left-hand turned leg, as well as the upright 'hood' at the back marks this down as being a 'Pepper' table in all likelihood. This table is still in situ at the pub.

This wonderfully evocative footage of a Skittles game at the Rose & Crown is c/o the Cine Film Memories YouTube Channel. Clearly not a league match, this is the kind of afternoon skittles play that has been a feature of Northamptonshire pubs for generations. CFM suggest a date of the 50's or 60's for the footage, but the location of this particular Rose & Crown is not known.

The 'Pinckard' table shown here is located at the Cardigan Arms in Moulton, Northamptonshire. Described in the 1990 edition of the local CAMRA pub guide as being a '...very sporting pub, (with) two Northants Skittles Teams...', the pub seems to be more a venue for live music these days with no league skittles play. Though the table is in good condition, the skittles set is currently missing a pin. I've seen a good few Skittles Tables bearing the name of A R Pinckard, some of which indicating that the table was refurbished rather than constructed at Kislingbury. Whether this or other tables were actually made by A R Pinckard is not clear.

The skittles table shown below and left also carries a small brass plaque, this one recording that Pat Holt of Rushden had a hand in refurbishing the table. From the appearance of the base and legs it seems likely that these required replacing

Resident at the Old Three Cocks in the Northamptonshire village of Brigstock, this table sees regular action in the Islip & District Skittles League. Sadly there are no pins or cheeses available for a casual game on the table, the match day set kept safe from harm by the home team. I suppose you could bring your own!

This is the skittles room at the Royal Oak, Walgrave, Northamptonshire. The table, along with Pool and Darts, was originally located within the pub, but the Royal Oak is now heavily reliant on food trade, and presumably the rattle of skittles play was deemed unsuitable as an accompaniment to dining. It is to the credit of the licensees that skittles remains at the pub, and that league play is still supported when so many tables have been removed altogether from village pubs such as this.

Watney Mann Skittles League 'C' Section Runner-Up 1969
Trophies and prizes are a long standing and integral part of league pub gaming. These days individual success in league or knockout competition is usually rewarded with a cup, shield, or small monetary prize. The larger trophies and shields are held for a year, usually at the home pub. In the past it seems to have been common to award medals, occasionally hallmarked silver, some of which can be seen on this blog. The prize shown above, a folding travel clock, would presumably have been a highly regarded item in its time. The brewing empire of Watney Mann was created by the merger of Watney Combe Reid, and Mann, Crossman & Paulin, and became heavily involved in the Northampton area following the takeover of local brewers Phipps NBC in 1960. Phipps beers and branding were axed towards the end of the 60's, and to help the new brands along Watney Mann became sponsors of the local Northampton Skittles League.

Phipps NBC beers were revived in the 2008, with the beers brewed under contract at the Grainstore Brewery in Rutland. Brewing has now returned to Northampton following the acquisition of the old Albion Brewery in the town centre. A traditional skittles table has been acquired for the proposed onsite bar at the brewery site, and perhaps Phipps NBC may one day sponsor a local league.

These plaques are just two from a box full of similar trophies which may well have been consigned to landfill by now. The Hillmorton Club of the Royal British Legion in Rugby closed for good a year or two ago, the membership presumably now amalgamated into the larger Rugby branch in the town centre. Skittles seems to have been popular at the club from its inception, the Skittles Table dating from 1956 which is probably when it was installed as new. Teams competed in the local Dunchurch & District Skittles League, with the mens game popular enough at the time to have had at least five league divisions (now down to four). The Dunchurch Mens and Ladies leagues are still very active in the Rugby and South Leicestershire area, with several pubs and clubs in and around Hillmorton still venues for the game.