Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Skittles In Dorset

The Chapelhay Tavern, Weymouth
What little I know of the Dorset skittles tradition can be attributed to my fellow pub games enthusiast, and enthusiastic Dorset skittler John Penny. John plays out of the historic skittle alley at the Rose and Crown in the village of Bradford Abbas, competing in summer and winter leagues in the Yeovil area. Earlier this year I was honoured to make up the numbers in the final game of the 2015/16 season at the Rose and Crown, a grand night in good company, and a great opportunity to see how the game is played locally. But is there in fact a Dorset skittles tradition?

A very similar game of alley skittles is played throughout most of the West Country, as well as much of the West Midlands, South Wales, and central southern England. Even Scotland has a historic pub skittle alley (a twin one in fact), though sadly no surviving leagues to my knowledge. Skittles is essentially the same game throughout all of these areas, and yet subtly different almost everywhere you find it, which is of course a large part of the fascination I have for this most traditional of pub games.

So I don't believe we can say there is a specific Dorset skittles tradition, because most of the traditions associated with skittles play are either universal (nine pins, three balls, wooden floored alley), or uniquely local, and therefore can't really be pinned down to a county. Just about every aspect of the game varies depending on where you play it, including the size of the pins and balls, alley dimensions, rules, regulations, customs and conventions, and perhaps inevitably in an area with such a rich and diverse dialect, the terminology of the game. Perhaps one day, someone will write a book that helps explain these myriad differences...

This team photograph hangs in the bar of the White Hart in Sherborne. The pub has been extensively modernised in recent times, and needless to say no longer has a skittle alley, but this and several other sport and games photos associated with the pub have been preserved.

In practice, Dorset skittles is much the same game as the one played in Devon and Somerset, that is to say the pins and balls used are of a similar design and size, including a slightly taller kingpin, or 'Landlord' which is not found in other areas such as Bristol and the Three Counties. There is however one aspect of the game which seems to have originated in the county. The clue is in the name!

The classic single-handed delivery has been used to deliver balls down alleys for as long as the game of skittles has been played. It's a tried and tested method that's clearly stood the test of time. Admittedly some use the right-hand for preference, others favour the left, but the basic technique is the same the world over. Or at least it was until some bright spark developed the 'new-fangled' delivery known as the Dorset Flop!

One of the quirks of skittles as it's played in Britain, and one which enthusiasts of the 10-pin 'Bowling' game probably find frustrating, is that skittle balls have no holes for the fingers to grip. Skittle balls vary in size, but one thing they all have in common is that they weigh a fair bit, all the better to do the damage at the business end of the alley. Traditionally the dense, hard-as-nails wood Lignum Vitae has been used for the West Country game, though many now use resin or rubber coated equivalents. The size and weight of these balls can make them quite difficult to handle, particularly if your hands are small. The colourfully named Dorset Flop gets round this by being a two-handed delivery, one in which the player launches themselves forward, 'flopping' down onto the alley once their hands are free of the ball. It's a very accurate method, and one that's become very popular throughout much of the West Country, particularly with younger players.

Goldies, Dorchester

The Dorchester & District Skittles League has around 60 mens teams playing in 4 divisions, and a further 16 ladies teams. Clubs appear to make up most of the venues, with around four pub alleys in the county town itself and several more further afield. Goldies, (also known as the Borough Arms), has a very good alley at the rear of the building, as does the nearby Tom Browns pub.

One feature of just about all league skittles play is 'home advantage'. In theory a player will always derive some advantage from playing on their home alley, if only because it's the one they play and practice on most of the time, but sometimes other factors come into play. The alley at Goldies is located in a stone walled outbuilding which may or may not have been built for the purpose. If it was, they didn't do a particularly good job of it as the alley slopes significantly uphill giving a very tangible advantage to the teams that call Goldies their home!

The Mermaid, Sherborne

The town of Sherborne lies at the very heart of the Dorset skittles tradition, only a few miles from it's most famous pub alley in Bradford Abbas, and yet finding a pub with a functioning alley proved to be a difficult task on my recent visit. Perhaps no great surprise given the attractive, somewhat touristy nature of a town like Sherborne.

Vestiges of the towns former skittles tradition do remain however, including an alley at the Plume of Feathers in the very centre of town, though nobody was quite sure whether it was still in use, which tends to suggest it's not! The locals at the White Hart, and the George Hotel opposite, proved useful for my search, pointing out several former skittling pubs in the town which no longer had alleys! On a more positive note, everywhere I went the consensus seemed to be that the best, possibly only chance of finding a pub with an active skittle alley in Sherborne was at the enticingly named Mermaid a little way out of the town centre.

Of all the pubs I visited in Sherborne that day, and I think I may well have visited all of them, The Mermaid was in many ways my favourite. Sometimes you just know when you walk into a pub whether it's 'right' or not, and the Mermaid was just that. A proper community locals pub, I found that I was immediately drawn into conversation with the friendly locals at the bar. A crowd which included a keen, and very successful skittles player of old, and all with a tale to tell about the pub in its heyday.

The Mermaid is quite a sizeable, classic early 20th century boozer, built as The Mermaid Hotel by the Dorsetshire Brewery Company probably around the 1920's. Located on the edge of a large area of housing, the population of which once packed into the pub at a time when the beer was served straight from the barrel on a long stillage behind the bar.

Nowadays the Mermaid is a single bar pub occupying the right-hand side of the building, with an adjacent games area for Pool and Darts (below). The left-hand side houses a Chinese takeaway. Certainly not the most traditional aspect of the pub, but I'm pleased to say that a good few customers make use of the bar for a drink whilst waiting for their food order, which can only be a good thing for the survival of a pub like this given that so many like it have closed in recent years.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Drillmans Arms, Stratton, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

The Cirencester District Men's Skittles League is currently made up of around 60 teams playing in 5 divisions. A healthy enough figure and fairly typical of leagues throughout the West Country. In fact the secretary of the Cirencester league reckons around 10% of the male population in the area play skittles at one time or another, a remarkable figure if true. Yet on a recent trip to the town itself, tracking down a pub with a skittle alley proved more difficult than these figures might suggest.

A CAMRA pub guide to Gloucestershire from 1996 lists eight pubs with functioning skittle alleys in the town. Just 20 years later only two appear to remain, one at the Wheatsheaf on Cricklade Street, and a very fine alley at the Bees Knees (formerly the Plume of Feathers). The rest of the eight were in pubs that have either closed for good or had their alleys removed as part of a major refurbishment. The Golden Cross for example was listed as having a skittle alley and described as being a proper locals pub in the 90's guide. It's now a modern, stylish town-centre pub/bar majoring on food, the skittle alley having been converted to alternate use as recently as 2014.

That most of Cirencester's town centre pubs have moved upmarket, concentrating almost exclusively on food and the Cotswold tourist trade, is perhaps no great surprise. The loss of so many of the towns more 'suburban' community locals is saddening though, particularly given that these often prove to be the stronghold for skittles and other pub games when they are effectively pushed out of the town centre.

So I was forced to look a little further afield, and I'm glad that I did because I found myself at one of the areas very best pubs, the Drillmans Arms in the village/suburb of Stratton. An attractive Georgian pub on the old Gloucester road, and yet another of those truly great locals boozers that I wish was my own local.

The Drillmans Arms is a great favourite with beer drinkers locally, and a regular entry in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. It's also that rarest of things, a pub that's been in the same hands for over 25 years. Licensees Richard and Denise Selby made the Drillmans their home in 1990, and have run the pub along reassuringly traditional lines ever since. It's this rare continuity of ownership, and by people who so obviously care about the traditions of pub-going, that goes a long way to explaining the pubs popularity with both locals and visitors alike.

The front bar (above) is clearly the hub of the pub, buzzing with a good crowd of after-work drinkers when I popped in on a warm summer afternoon. To the rear is a smaller lounge bar with an adjacent area for the pubs Pool Table, and it's this bar which serves the pubs very fine Skittle Alley.

With so many pubs and alleys closing in recent years, it's no surprise that those few which remain can be very busy with league play throughout the week. The Drillmans hosts something in the region of ten teams, some of which appear to be quite good at the game given the number of trophies on show. The alley also doubles as a function room, with Dartboards for both mens and ladies teams who play out of the pub. To complete the traditional gaming at this most traditional of pubs, two teams call the Drillmans home in the Cirencester & District Cribbage League.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

Some Cribbage Boards

I don't play Cribbage, and yet I seem to have acquired one or two Cribbage Boards in recent years. Cribbage is a game that takes slightly more time to learn than most traditional pub games. The basics of games like Dominoes, Skittles, or Darts can be grasped in no more time than it takes to explain them, even if some measure of expertise in the game may take much longer to achieve. But mastery of Cribbage comes through experience, and even then the game seems to involve frequent, and to the uninitiated, baffling debate over the scoring!

To be taught the game of Cribbage is a great thing though because like Fives & Threes Dominoes, once you know how to play to a reasonable level, there are usually plenty of opportunities to find a casual afternoon game. In my limited experience of observing Cribbage around the country, there are a great many players who are more than happy to peg a board with a stranger, such is the appeal of the game to those who appreciate its intricacies. Like Dominoes, it's also a very sociable game, which perhaps goes some way to explaining its decline in recent times! For more about Cribbage, I'd recommend a look at Siv Sears Cribbage in the Counties blog, a travelogue and labour of love based around the six (occasionally five) card game.

A classic old polished Brass & Mahogany Cribbage Board. Whether it was made by a tradesman, or homemade from recycled pieces that were to hand I'll never know, but it's nice examples like this that help explain the attraction of Cribbage Boards to collectors. Note the large hole at the end for hanging on a wall.
Three Player parquetry inlaid Crib Board
Cribbage Boards seem to have been designed principally for scoring Cribbage. A statement so obvious it's hardly worth stating, but Crib boards have been co-opted to score many other games since then. In fact the scoring of some pub games seem to have been designed specifically around the standard Crib Board. Devil amongst the Tailors sets often come with a cribbage style scoring board built into them, with 121 the target score. Similarly Fives & Threes Dominoes scores to 121, and this is what I tend to use my small collection of boards for.

This of course doesn't explain why I've got far more Cribbage Boards than I'll ever need for an afternoon game of Dominoes. Just one would do the job adequately, and of course many pubs have their own boards available for use. The fact is, there's something wonderfully 'collectable' about Crib Boards. This is principally down to the endless variation in design, but also because some are such beautiful works of craftsmanship. I certainly don't aim to acquire every board I see, indeed some are offered at such ridiculous prices it could become a very expensive collecting interest, but when I see one I like, well it's hard not to...

I resisted the urge to buy these two, which are typical brewery branded Crib Boards from the late 20th century. Pretty much every sizeable brewery offered these advertising items to licensees, and Bass Worthington were a very sizeable concern indeed, with a truly national presence through their bottled and draught beers. These are cheaply made commercial examples, of more interest to the Breweriana collector than those of us who appreciate a nice bit of old polished wood.

Brewery branding on Crib Boards is common, but so too are more personalised examples. Some carry the name of the maker or owner, whilst others like the one shown here at the Bakers Arms in Mickleton, Gloucestershire are marked with the name of the pub. These are nice items to find, particularly if you can track down which pub they originally came from, often a lot more difficult than it sounds.

This monster size Crib Board is practically a piece of furniture! At around 15 inches long it could best be described as 'oversized' for the job, and the mahogany door knobs for feet don't help the size issue. In common with most of these earlier Crib Boards, this one features some nice parquetry in boxwood and a darker 'ebonised' wood, and there's a sliding cover underneath concealing a small compartment for the all-important Crib Pegs.

Strangely enough, the Crib Boards I'm most attracted to are tatty old examples like the one shown here. Definitely a homemade or 'shed built' board, there's something so appealing to me about old wood that's obviously seen many years of hard service. A basic, utilitarian board, probably fabricated from an offcut of wood. Stained dark brown from years of smoke, beer, and handling, items like this reflect an aspect of social history that rarely makes it into the history books. A working mans Crib Board, rescued from oblivion (and in due course the fire!) to score a game once again.

The Ushers Brewery of Trowbridge in Wiltshire was closed over 15 years ago. This Crib Board dates from a good deal before then probably the mid-20th century, given that few breweries advertised Stouts as part of their portfolio due to the ubiquity of Guinness toward the end of the century. The Mahogany and Brass circular Crib Board below is a somewhat impractical beauty, which given the similarly unfeasible price I resisted the urge to add to my collection.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cricketers Rest, Kimberley, Nottinghamshire

Pub closures are down to just 21 a week according to industry figures, a statistic that's being trumpeted as some kind of good news story in certain quarters! It's still a thoroughly depressing figure though, particularly given that the vast majority of these closures are the kind of village and suburban locals that communities can ill-afford to lose. What's most depressing about this figure is that a great many of these closures are entirely unnecessary, and of course almost always against the wishes of the locals affected.

The reason that's so often given when a pub closes for the final time is that the custom is simply not there anymore, but this often hides the role that some pub-owners have played in driving custom away. 'Use it or lose it' is certainly true up to a point, but the fact is that many of our most traditional pubs have been so badly neglected in recent years, and become so run down that they're simply not fit for purpose. A tatty boozer selling a limited range of drinks, and at the artificially inflated prices many pubcos inflict on their licensee 'partners', will always struggle to attract and retain customers. The myth that people don't like pubs anymore is just that, and the smokescreen it creates continues to be readily accepted by all too many observers of the trade and repeated ad-nauseam by the media, which of course helps pave the way for the asset-stripping that follows.

Needless to say there are many villains in this destruction of our pub heritage, from the cash-strapped pubcos that own so many of our best community boozers, to the developers and supermarket chains who prey on these easy targets. And of course the lax planning laws that makes it so easy to convert important community assets like the pub to other use. Thankfully, it's not all bad news though, and there are still plenty of local heroes in the pub trade. People who are that little bit closer to the shop-floor, and therefore still able to appreciate the value of pubs to the individuals and communities they serve. People that have the flair and passion to manage pubs both profitably, and for the good of everyone.

Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham are pub heroes, and have been instrumental in rescuing numerous pubs from neglect or threat of closure. Born out of the pioneering Tynemill pub chain, itself an early entry in the burgeoning real ale scene of the 90's, their small pub chain was quick to establish itself as a firm favourite with beer drinkers in the East Midlands. This at a time when the beer and pub scene was still largely dominated by the old established regional and national breweries.

My first encounter with the Tynemill chain was on our frequent trips to Loughborough for what seemed at the time a remarkable range of real ales at the classic Swan in the Rushes pub. Tynemill, and latterly Castle Rock Brewery pubs have always majored on good beer, but they also tend to be the kind of traditional multi-room locals that have fallen out of favour with the bigger breweries and pubcos, which makes Castle Rock an important custodians of our vanishing pub heritage.

Castle Rock's latest acquisition is the Cricketers Rest in Kimberley, a north Nottinghamshire village with a proud brewing heritage. The pub stands almost in the shadow of the now defunct Hardys & Hansons brewery, to which many of the pubs locally, the Cricketers included, were formerly tied. Sadly the brewery and its pub estate fell into the hands of Greene King following a management sellout in 2006. The brewery was closed in short order, and almost from day one there has been a steady disposal of the more traditional wet-led locals in the former Hardys & Hansons pub estate.

Sadly, pubs like the Cricketers simply don't fit in with the food and family dining concept which large pubcos lke Greene King see as the future of pubs. A strong local campaign wasn't enough to keep the New White Bull at nearby Giltbrook from being permanently closed by Greene King, and it's easy to see how the Cricketers could have become yet another of the 21-a-week statistic.

The Cricketers Rest is set back from and above the main road through Kimberley, close to the old GNR rail station which served the village before it too was closed in the 60's. The original multi-room interior has been opened out over the years, but there are still three distinct areas. Needless to say the beer range has improved under Castle Rock ownership, and the Cricketers now forms a link in a chain of nearby good beer destinations which include the recently opened Miners Return micropub, and the Stag Inn, both in Kimberley village.
Long Alley Skittles is the local game, and I'm delighted that Castle Rock have retained this traditional East Midlands game at the pub. The Cricketers Rest has a very good quality alley located in the garden to the rear of the pub. The 'frame' (right) is covered, and doubles as a smoking shelter for pub regulars, but the 'Chock Hole' and throw are open to the elements, as indeed they usually are in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Long Alley.

I was lucky enough to chat with a couple of locals when I visited recently, and there are plans to get a team up for competition in the local Border Skittles League. With the recent loss of alleys at the Miners Welfare and New White Bull, the alley at the Cricketers Rest is now one of the last of its kind in the immediate area, so it's great that it will hopefully come back into regular use in the near future at yet another Castle Rock rescue job.

Friday, 30 September 2016

One Eyed Jacks, Gloucester

The Eastgate side of Gloucester has probably seen more than its fair share of pub closures in recent years, and taking a walk along Barton Street it's easy to see why. Most large towns have at least one area where immigrants have tended to gravitate towards and settle, and for Gloucester the high density Victorian terraced housing of the Barton Street area is certainly one such area. Successive arrivals since the war years have contributed to a wide, and for most of us welcome cultural mix in these areas, but it's perhaps inevitable when many of those who have settled are non-drinkers, or simply not accustomed to Britain's unique traditional pub culture, that the local pub trade is going to suffer as a result.

The Barton Street area has two well-known examples of pubs which have found themselves surplus to requirements largely as a result of local demographic change. The Vauxhall Inn (left) and nearby Robin Hood Inn (right) remain truly great examples of Victorian opulent pub design and decor, yet both have sadly been closed for decades now. Both have been turned to alternate use, undoubtedly never to serve as pubs again, and only the impressive glazed tile exteriors and signage remind us that these buildings would once have been flagship pubs for their respective brewery owners, and great traditional boozers for their locals.

The first time I visited this part of Gloucester some 20 or so years ago, both of these classic urban locals were already long since closed, but the nearby India House pub was still very much open. This too has now closed, so the only notable survivors in the area are the Plough Inn, a backstreet boozer which has already featured on this blog, and One Eyed Jacks on Barton Street itself.

One Eyed Jacks is the kind of pub that many, myself included, may well have walked past without actually considering stepping over the threshold for a drink. A pub with something of the look of an Irish sports themed bar from the front, a style probably not to everyone's taste it must be said. The interior is similarly themed, decorated with items of faux Victoriana and the odd neon advertising sign. But if you do decide to step inside for a pint as I did, you'll also find that this is a well-run, beautifully maintained, and popular locals pub. A pub where I was made very welcome by both the licensee and the chatty lunchtime locals.

On entering the pub, it's immediately apparent just how important sports and traditional pub games are to the appeal of One Eyed Jacks. A Pool Table dominates the front bar area, and there's a well-used Dartboard tucked around the corner. Bench seating and tables run along the right-hand side of the front bar, which is perhaps the most 'pubby' part of the two main drinking areas, and where the locals like to sit and chat. Darts and Pool are still probably the most popular games played at league level in the pubs of Gloucester, but Skittles must come a very close third.

I don't know whether One Eyed Jacks would have had a skittle alley in its former incarnations as the Victoria or Molly Malone's, but it's clear from the assorted certificates and alley records on show that skittles has been hugely important to the success of the pub for at least the last few decades, and at a time when many similar locals have struggled.

Teams compete at One Eyed Jacks in the Gloucester City Skittles League, and every Sunday there's also an informal knockout tournament, a tradition which I've noticed is common to skittles pubs throughout the country.

I can only imagine that the game of Shove Ha'penny must have been popular enough in Gloucester at some point to have warranted a league. Whilst there are still a good few Shove Ha'penny boards about in pubs throughout England and Wales, it's quite unusual to find a match quality board set up in the bar, polished and ready for play. In Gloucester there are good slate Shove Ha'penny boards at the nearby Plough, and a similar board tucked away at the rear of One Eyed Jacks. Both these boards are set up permanently for play, and come complete with their own anglepoise 'floodlighting' for when the game gets serious.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Chapelhay Tavern, Weymouth, Dorset

The old harbour area of Weymouth is probably most peoples idea of holiday heaven. A lively, foodie, spill out on the pavement kind of place, and an ideal evening hang-out after a long day crackling in the sun on the towns endless sandy beach. Unfortunately I was only in Weymouth for a day which is not nearly enough time to try everything the town has to offer, so the pubs and eateries of the Quay would have to wait for another day. On this occasion I was just passing through, on my way from the undoubted pleasures of the beach to a 'higher place' overlooking the harbour.

An off the beaten track backstreet boozer is more my idea of heaven anyway, and the Chapelhay Tavern falls firmly into this category. The pub is easiest to find by walking up past Holy Trinity Church from North Quay on a steep footpath which leads directly to the pubs front door. Mid-afternoon on a weekday is never going to be the time to see a pub at its full swinging best, but a handful of locals made me very welcome, and a cool pint of Thatchers Traditional Cider sealed the deal for an hour or two away from the sun, sea, and ice cream.

Shuffle Zone - the pubs Domino Table
One reason I was particularly keen to visit the Chapelhay was in the hope of seeing a rare and unique pub game only found in this area of south Dorset. The local version of Shove Halfpenny is confined almost exclusively to the Swanage/Purbeck area, and is very different to the game of the same name found in the rest of the country. Sometimes known as the Dorset Long Board, these highly polished planks of wood resemble nothing less than a miniature version of the cruise liner favourite, Deck Shuffleboard. Instead of the familiar nine scoring-beds of the more common game, in Dorset Shove Halfpenny wafer-thin coins are launched up a very long board, the aim being to land them in a close arrangement of numbered scoring zones at the far end.

These long boards are rare and treasured items. The wooden surface is very smooth, giving a true precision playing surface. So much so that the boards are never left out on show for fear of accidental damage. Hence you'll rarely see one in use other than on a match or practice night, and sadly this was the case at the Chapelhay Tavern. The bar staff and locals confirmed that a board was indeed kept at the pub, probably the only one in this neck of the woods, but unfortunately the licensee was not on hand to bring it down from safe keeping upstairs. Oh well! Maybe you'll have better luck when you visit.

Weymouth is a little outside what might be considered the traditional area for this unique version of Shove Ha'penny, and whilst I believe there is a small league for the game locally, I've no idea how much use the Chapelhays board gets these days. What does get a great deal of use though is the pubs Skittle Alley (below).

A prominent blue painted sign for the skittle alley is the first thing you notice when approaching the pub from the Quay. The well-appointed alley adjoins the main bar area, concealed behind a set of doors when not in use, and appears to have been a later addition to the original building. Skittles is popular throughout the county of Dorset, no less so at the Chapelhay Tavern where eight teams currently play from the pub in the 2016/17 Weymouth & Portland Skittles League, including the mighty Atoms Skittles Team (below).