Tuesday, 22 April 2014

George & Dragon, Broughton Astley, Leicestershire

When I was asked by the licensee of the George & Dragon why I was so interested in photographing her pub and its traditional games, I explained to her that given the rapid changes in the trade and with it the loss of so much heritage and tradition, I was keen to capture this aspect of pubs and pub going before it had all gone. I was firmly put in my place. "This pub isn't changing..." she said, which I found very reassuring.

Of course the George & Dragon will change, everything changes in time, and who's to say what state the pub trade will be in next year or the years ahead. With less people using pubs, and the inexorable pressures on the drinks trade from the health lobby, punitive taxation, and increasingly desperate pubcos managing the decline of their business, more and more pubs like the George & Dragon will be under pressure to change. Perhaps change to something a little less pub-like. Perhaps eventually closure and conversion to other use, which is as un-pub-like as it's possible to get!

Meanwhile, the George & Dragon is not for changing, and remains a popular pub at the very heart of village life. A pub for drinking, socialising, and gaming of a type which is becoming increasingly rare now, and a pub which is cherished by its locals because of it.

Darts, and the Leicestershire version of Table Skittles are the games which contribute to the success of the George & Dragon. The skittles table is a beautifully maintained W T Black & Sons model of 70's vintage, dedicated to a former landlord of the pub by locals and friends (right). A little of the history of a skittles table can often be learnt through an examination of its underside (below). This one shows the individual number of the table, which all Black & Sons tables carry, as well as the date of manufacture.

Pins and cheeses are the regulation yellow plastic of the Dunton Bassett Skittles League, and the pub field teams in both the mens and Ladies Leagues.

The deep grooves on this piece of stone (or brake disc?) have been created by many years of sharpening the tips of 'Arrows' ahead of play.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

King William IV, Kingsthorpe, Northamptonshire

The King William IV is an attractive ironstone pub of a type found throughout Northamptonshire. It's a village pub through and through, opposite the village green in fact, yet located on the edge of Northampton town's urban sprawl. The village of Kingsthorpe is blessed with at least one other welcoming locals pub in the Queen Adelaide, a pub which has already featured on this blog owing to the presence of a traditional Northamptonshire Skittles Table. The King Billy is also home to the local game, and you're welcome to have a 'chuck' whenever the table is free from the important business of league play.

League play is obviously an important part of what makes the King Billy tick, as evidenced by the windowsill full of assorted trophies for Darts, Pool, and Skittles. These include a winners salver for the 2003/4 season in the Coors Brewery sponsored Ladies League (right), and a little more surprisingly, this odd looking horn (?) trophy (below) from the Daventry & District Skittles League. The Daventry League is still very much an active one, but did play really extend this far to the north of the county at one time, or was the trophy brought to the pub by a former player from the Daventry area?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Plough Inn, Stathern, Leicestershire

Nestled in the heart of the beautiful Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire is the village of Stathern, a typically attractive vale settlement blessed with a range of amenities sadly lacking in so many similar villages. These include an award winning butchers, as well as two very good pubs in which to try their fabulous meaty Lincolnshire sausages. The Red Lion, part of the Olive Inns group, has built a reputation as a foodie destination pub, nothing wrong with that but not what this blog is about. The Plough Inn is much more a traditional 'locals' pub. Welcoming, dog-friendly (and famous as the home of resident Otterhound, Max), and strong on traditional pub games as all good locals tend to be in my experience.

League Cribbage, Darts, and Pool are all played at the pub to varying degrees of success. The quarry tile floored bar is particularly well equipped, with two Darts Boards, a Pool Table, and a notice board covered with fixture lists and league tables for the various games represented at the pub. It's here you'll find pinned a fixture list for the East Notts Winter Skittles League, a clue to the Plough's other main pub game attraction, Long Alley Skittles.

The well appointed Skittle Alley at the Plough is located through a door at the rear of the pub signed as the Dining room. It's a fact of modern pub life that very few alleys in the East Midlands are entirely dedicated to the game of skittles, most serving as function rooms or overspill dining areas when not in use. Even the traditional outdoor alleys of the more northerly game are often essentially car parks by another name.

A traditional skittle alley takes up a good deal of useful space at a pub, and may well have a rateable value far in excess of fortnightly league or occasional social play. It's essential that this space has another use, and can therefore contribute income to the business outside of the welcome custom derived from the game itself.

When I visited the Plough Inn, the alley was still set for the previous day's Mothering Sunday trade. With the carpet down, tables spaced for dining, and the rear of the alley closed up and tidied away, you really wouldn't have known that this was a venue for Long Alley Skittles. I must thank the team at the Plough for taking the time to set the alley up for these photographs.

Regular readers of this blog, and of course those who play the game, will already know that Long Alley Skittles comes in two similar but quite distinct forms. The more northerly version played throughout Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire features three large wooden balls thrown full-toss at a set of pins, as shown in the images above. The Leicestershire game is played in a very similar way, but the pins are straighter, and perhaps more importantly the 'balls' are in fact barrel shaped, as seen in the image left.

It's unusual to find both variants of the game being played regularly at a single pub, but Stathern, and the wider Vale of Belvoir area, straddles the divide between the two Long Alley traditions, located as it is close to the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border. It's not a case of mix and match though. In the East Notts mens league you'll naturally find the Derby/Notts version in play, whilst the ladies game, which is based around the Melton area, prefer the slightly easier hand-grip of the barrel shaped 'cheeses' used in the Leicestershire game.

As can be seen on the fixture list for The East Notts Winter Skittles League (above), participating teams have now shrunk to just five (the sixth being a Bye), a parlous state for any games league. Licensee David Wilson informed me that there is certainly no shortage of alleys in the area, but sadly enthusiasm appears to be lacking from drinkers and/or publicans to field a team and support the local game.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Pub Games Compendium

The classic Pub Games Compendium (above), which includes numerous dice games housed in a Shut The Box, can still occasionally be found in pubs, though sadly it's much rarer to see them in use these days. The presence of a compendium like this in a pub is perhaps a little odd given that most of the games included, and this one lists 20 in the rules booklet, are traditionally associated with gambling. The Gambling Act of 2005 prohibits gambling in pubs.

In practice there are a number of exemptions to this prohibition on gambling in pubs, including the increasingly popular card game Poker, and what are termed 'Equal Chance Games' including Dominoes and Cribbage, so long as the stakes are small. The position with regard to other games of chance, such as the dice games included in this compendium, is not entirely clear, but given that the purpose of the current law is to protect the public from the potential for crime in environments where gambling is unregulated, it's perhaps unlikely that a pound or two on the roll of a dice or the draw of a Domino would draw much attention from law enforcement. Having said that, it's perhaps best to ask the licensee when money is involved in gaming, as it's likely to be their neck on the line should the law inadvertently be broken on their premises. The Poker Dice shown here is a set from games manufacturer K&C, and this game is now presumably included in the 'small stakes' exemption that Poker players enjoy.

The 'Imperial' Dominoes shown above are one of the most commonly found of all vintage sets, and can sometimes still be seen in use where the game is played in pubs. The set advertising Banks's Brewery is yet another example of the strong connection which once existed between beer and tobacco brands, and their prospective customers predilection for gaming at the pub.

Spoof is a classic game of concealment and strategic guesswork, played for small stakes, or more usually a round of drinks, and ideally suited to group play in the pub. The rules are simple. Players conceal from 0 - 3 coins in their closed fists before each player then takes it in turn to guess the total number of coins in play. No player can guess the same number as another, and the player who guesses the correct number each round drops out. The eventual loser is the one who survives the game longest without guessing the correct number, and therefore pays out the stake or buys the round!

Any three coins will do for a game of Spoof, but these Theakston Brewery branded examples add an element of the 'official' to a game which is essentially equipment-free. This set was kindly given to me by games enthusiast and keen skittler John Penny of Dorset. The pinnacle of Spoofing is the United Kingdom Spoof Open Championships, which will be held at the Sutton Staithe Hotel in Norfolk on the 19th of December this year.

The two small brass items shown here represent just two of the hundreds, possibly thousands of different designs of Put & Take spinners to be found. The variety in form of Put & Take's is almost limitless, and needless to say represents fertile ground for the collector. See here for an idea of the huge diversity which exists in such a simple game. Put & Take is yet another example of an easily concealed gambling game which would have been a popular pursuit in pubs at one time. It's also a game which I can't say that I've ever seen being played, which is kind of the point I guess!

More pub games designed to keep a particular drinks brand at the forefront of players minds. This Olde English Cyder 'Inne Games Compendium' includes three sets of branded Darts flights, Poker Dice, and the classic pub game staples of Cards, Dominoes, and a Cribbage Board.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ye Olde Cottage Inn, Chester

I've stated on several occasions here on this blog that in the rush to devote space to dining, or simply cramming more vertical drinkers in, town centre pubs are rapidly becoming Pub Game free zones. For example, venues for most forms of the game of skittles are now almost entirely located in suburban, or rural village locations, often making it hard to track down a game when visiting larger towns and cities. Even the humble Darts Board has become a rarity on the town centre circuit.

There are of course exceptions. Venues with Bagatelle Tables in the Chester area are refreshingly easy to find, in what is still a fairly compact city blessed with a good number of pubs. Most of the venues are located little more than a 15 minute walk from the town centre, and many are particularly handy for the rail station. There's even a solitary club venue located within the old town walls. A map giving the location of venues for Bagatelle is not particularly well sign-posted on the otherwise excellent Chester & District Bagatelle League website, but can be found here, and is I believe reliably up to date.

Ye Olde Cottage Inn is one such venue, located on the eastern side of Chester on the way out to the leafy suburbs of the 'Hotel Quarter' at Hoole. It is also very handy for arrivals at the nearby rail station. It's a terrific corner local, cosy and welcoming, with an open fire which pumps out more than enough heat to warm the whole pub through the Winter months. The pub is well supplied with, and has a very strong emphasis on traditional pub games. Darts, Dominoes, and Pool are all played in local leagues, as of course is the much rarer game of Bagatelle.

League Bagatelle play seems to have returned (?) to the Cottage in 2011. Since then the pub team have steadily crept up the league table, and at the time of writing are sitting fourth at the tail end of the 2013/14 Winter Season. Various cup competitions are also a feature of the league, including a recently introduced 351 Cup. In this competition, teams of four players play alternate 'sticks' against the opposing team, aiming to finish on exactly 351 points in the fewest number of balls. The Cottage were the winners of the current Winter season 351 Cup.

The sunken 'Cups' on a Bagatelle Table number '1-9', with the highest scoring located across the centre, and the central cup scoring '9'. A maximum score for a 'Stick' (a single players turn at the table) is 54, and requires all of the balls to be potted, with the Black (which scores double) in the central '9' pocket as shown above. I'm not sure how often maximum scores occur during a typical season. All I can say is that I've certainly never managed to get close to achieving the feat myself. I believe that scores in the 30's or 40's are more usual for a competent player.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


Wall of Bagetelles at House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey, Devon. This image has kindly been made available under a Creative Commons License by Glamhag.

I would hazard a guess that most people, if they recognised it at all, would be most likely associate the game of Bagatelle with a vintage 'parlour' game, many examples of which can be seen in the image above. This Bagatelle game was a kind of early pinball which came in innumerable different designs, and was principally a game of chance, and not especially associated with pub gaming.

It's perhaps only in the Cheshire city of Chester that a very different interpretation of the game of Bagatelle is more widely known. The game known as Bagatelle, which is still played at league level in Chester, is a much more skillful 'cue-sport' game than the colourful amusements shown above, and was once widespread and popular in pubs and clubs throughout the country.

This version of Bagatelle (right and below), sometimes known as Old English or Victorian Bagatelle, is believed to date back to the early 19th century. A game which seems to have developed alongside Billiards, and one which may have suffered the decline which makes it such a rarity today upon the introduction of Bar Billiards, which the game of Bagatelle superficially resembles. A comprehensive resume of the development of Bagatelle from its early days to the present can be found here, and I don't propose to repeat it on this blog. Sufficient to say that at one time Bagatelle was very widely played in Britain, and presumably much further afield throughout Europe and the wider British Empire. Indeed tables can still be found in North America where the game was also very popular.

Given that Bagatelle has now almost entirely disappeared from pubs and clubs in Britain, it's not surprising that so few people will have come across or even know of the games existence. A handful of antique tables can still be found in the Coventry area, and some form of competition is believed to take place in North Wales, but the current hotbed of Bagatelle play is Chester, where remarkably the game has seen some measure of growth in recent years.

The table shown here for example, which still bears its original J Ashcroft & Co label, was only recently installed at the Bawn Lodge bar following extensive refurbishment (detailed here). The table is now in regular use for league play alongside around a dozen more such tables in pubs and clubs, found mainly on the outskirts of the town centre. Outside of league play, all these tables are available for free play, and the friendly and enthusiastic members of the local league will often be on hand to offer advice on rules and technique.

The Chester & District Bagatelle League may well be the very last of its kind still operating in the UK. Eleven teams are currently listed on the excellent website, and the league also hosts an 'Open' competition in October.

Despite the apparent huge popularity of the game at one time, tables of the standard shown above are now relatively rare, and the league are always on the look out for examples which can be refurbished and brought back into use. Antique tables, often in need of extensive repair and renovation, occasionally surface at auctions or through the antiques trade, and it's also likely that other tables remain in clubs throughout the country, perhaps dismantled and lying unused like the one at the Nottingham Oddfellows Club in Leicester shown below. This table was refurbished and had its surface re-covered only recently, but was rarely used at the club and has now been taken out of service. The Mahogany frame is in storage, and the slate currently lies safely below one of the clubs two Billiard Tables, perhaps awaiting a revival of interest in the game by club members.

Numerous games can be played on a Bagatelle table, with league play a fairly straightforward scoring game for two players. The basic idea being to pocket as many of the nine balls in the numbered cups as possible to build a score. The black ball scores double, and therefore this would ideally be potted in the central '9' cup for maximum scoring potential. A good video detailing the rules of play can be seen here.

The Bagatelle Table shown above and below is my own 'Baby Bagatelle', a 6 foot long fold-out version for home use. These were also once very popular as 'parlour' games, and a good many still exist and appear regularly in the antiques and online auction trade in varying states of repair. This one is fairly typical of these smaller tables which were available in a number of sizes up to 8 foot long. Constructed within a polished Mahogany case, often furnished with a small lock, and with a lighter wooden bed rather than the smooth slate of full-size Bagatelle tables. The only significant difference in design is the provision of boxwood 'Cribbage' style scoring holes down each side of the table. This one plays well enough, though in common with practically all these old examples, the cushions have hardened with time, and the baize is showing signs of wear.

The wooden arched construction shown below was often included as standard with these tables. Many different games would have originally been played on a standard Bagatelle Table, including one called Mississippi which involved cueing balls off the side cushions and into these numbered arches to build a score.

I will be featuring a few of the Chester venues for Bagatelle in future posts on this blog.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Wharf Inn, Hinckley, Leicestershire

Over the years I must have had a pint at the very least in almost every pub in Hinckley. In the late 80's and early 90's, a pint in Hinckley invariably meant a pint of Marston's Pedigree (or perhaps a Mild from the same stable if you were lucky), such was the hegemony of the Burton-on-Trent brewer in these parts. Their presence in the town is now not quite as strong as it was, though there's still plenty of distinctive Marston's livery to be seen, including on the Mock Tudor exterior of the Wharf Inn featured here.

The Wharf is a notable exception to my previous drinking experiences in Hinckley. Located a good 20 minute walk out from the town centre, it was just never on the circuit, and of course the ubiquity of Marston's ales in Hinckley at the time would have made the journey slightly less desirable. Given that Marston's stranglehold on the Hinkley beer scene has now been relaxed somewhat, the town offers much greater variety in the beer stakes, and it's certainly a town that I'd recommend for a day of pub exploring. I'd also strongly recommend not leaving it as late as I did and taking a stroll out to The Wharf Inn, which is one of the best of several very good pubs in Hinckley.

It's the unspoilt, and beautifully maintained 1930's interior which most rewards a visit to the Wharf. The original layout is largely intact, and retains several separate rooms around the original central servery. Light Oak panelling predominates, and the wide central corridor with its warming open fire (probably a separate room originally) is the heart of the pub for locals and visitors alike.

A small games room is located to the left as you enter, served from a small hatch, once a common feature in pubs but now much rarer. This snug little games room features a very fine old Skittles Table, which is in as original a condition as you're likely to find anywhere. The brown leather playing surface and brass fixings appear to be original, as is the upholstery and battered woodwork to the sides. The pin-head circles which indicate where the skittles should stand are noticeably sunken in the leather surface from many years of play. This table has clearly seen plenty of action over the years (and I understand that the Wharf is not the tables first home), yet it's clearly been very well looked after.

The custard yellow plastic pins and cheeses used in the Leicestershire game look even more incongruous on a table of this vintage, particularly against the deep brown of the leather surface. But rules is rules, and you'll rarely find wooden skittles and cheeses this far outside of the game's Northamptonshire heartland. The 'oche' for the skittles table shares a space with one of the pubs Darts throws, so if you fancy a game it's probably best not to go on league Darts night.

Dominoes and Darts are played at the Wharf in local leagues, with plenty of silverware on display from both games. Teams playing in the Hinckley & District Domino League are well catered for at the Wharf, with half a dozen of the smartest looking new table toppers supplied for use during match nights.