Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Three Horseshoes, Ecton, Northamptonshire

Thirsty travellers on the old Wellingborough to Northampton road might reasonably assume that the village of Ecton has just the one pub, the Worlds End on the busy main road. Indeed rural villages the size of Ecton are often lucky to have a pub at all, so the Worlds End is certainly a welcome local amenity as well as a useful venue for business travellers or a family looking for a meal. I've not been inside the Worlds End but the website gives all the clues I need to determine that this is probably not my kind of pub.

Take a turn off the main road and into the village itself, negotiating the narrow High Street for a pub more to my own tastes. The Three Horseshoes has been extended over the years, but the original pub dates to 1757 and is believed to have been the location of a blacksmiths business run by Benjamin Franklin's grandfather! The Franklin family connection means that Ecton receives a good few American tourists throughout the year, and I'm sure that many of these visitors must be delighted to find such an authentic and relatively unspoilt hostelry in the very heart of the historic village.

The pub recently became free of brewery or pubco tie, and the current owners have taken this opportunity to invest in the business with a sensitive refurbishment of the historic interior. The traditional multi-room layout has been retained, a separate bar and games area meaning the pub can continue to serves the needs of a diverse range of locals, visitors, and of course the resident games teams which include Northamptonshire Table SkittlesDarts, and Cribbage. I wonder what the tourists make of the unique local skittles game!

Skittles at the Three Horseshoes is played in the Dave White Skittles League, which follows the same format as that played in my own neck of the woods. Two teams of seven, playing man-on-man over seven legs. The winning team is the one with the highest total number of legs over the course of the match. A memorial trophy is also played for at the pub, the roll of honour having pride of place in the smart games room.

Monday, 6 October 2014

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt 22

A vintage Billiards medal by Pinches of London. A game and dress-code from another era, although Billiards has not yet been completely overtaken by Snooker.

The continued loss of traditional drinking pubs and community locals is creating a vacuum for pub enthusiasts like myself which no amount of off-the-peg chain bars and new-build family dining 'pubs' are likely to fill. The reasons for this decline are manifold, but certainly includes the serial neglect and sometimes deliberate running-down of otherwise viable pubs by some of the larger brewers and pub owning companies. But whatever the underlying reasons, the fact is that some of the older traditional boozers are now just too big to succeed in the current market without major investment from people who genuinely care about our pub tradition. Some of the smaller brewers have shown this commitment, the Project William partnership with Everards Brewery being an excellent example. Another example where people with a genuine enthusiasm for pubs are filling the gaps left by the larger cash-strapped operators, is the relatively new concept of the Micropub.

Micropubs have been around for a few years now, but it's within the last year or two that the concept has really taken off, probably a direct result of this spiralling decline of traditional wet-led pubs. Small, bespoke licensed premises specialising in quality beer and cider, and the very best traditions of social pub-going without the distractions of a busy kitchen or a multitude of televisions. It's proving to be a winning combination for many, though one which is always likely to be 'niche' given the diminutive nature of the premises, and the fact that not everyone seems to like the social side of pubs and drinking! Micropubs are springing up at an ever-increasing rate, and I hope to feature a few of them on here in the near future.

Traditional pub games fit nicely with the micropub concept, though given the space restrictions, some games such as Darts and Skittles are not really appropriate. Dominoes and Cards are of course perfect for such small and intimate spaces, as shown in the image above at the recently opened Abdication micropub at Daybrook in Nottingham.

This Bar Billiards table can be found at the Sandford Park Alehouse in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Owner Grant Cook obviously has a keen interest in the game, having previously installed what still remains the only such table in Leicester at the Swan & Rushes. The Sandford Park Alehouse is a bright and modern homage to the brewers arts, but it's nice to see that space for a traditional game has also been found in the bar.

The front bar of the multi-roomed Red Lion in Earl Shilton, Leicestershire. Wear and tear on this table is a clear sign of enthusiastic Domino play at this friendly and still relatively unspoilt boozer. A former Bass Brewery house which has always had a good reputation for its ales, Draught Bass in particular which was in excellent form when I visited. Sadly, current owners Punch Taverns have neglected the pub to the point where it's now desperately in need of refurbishment for the pub to realise its full potential. Unfortunately the chances of this happening seem slim given Punch's massive debts, and their track record of chronic underinvestment in their estate.

The White Lion is a classic 'Brewers Tudor' style pub on the edge of Alcester town centre. The interior is somewhat spoilt by the modern office-style false ceiling, but the wood panelling, stained windows, and original Bell Pushes in the lounge bar are still evident, as is this fabulous record of gaming and sporting success at the pub.

Another mystery scoring board, this pair spotted at an antiques fair in Cambridgeshire. The protruding knobs at the end are pegs safely stored in drilled holes. If anyone knows what they were designed to score I'd be delighted to know.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Cranmer Arms, Aslockton, Nottinghamshire

The south Nottinghamshire village of Aslockton had until very recently two very fine pubs, both of which featured skittle alleys in the Nottinghamshire style, which is to say Long Alleys. The grade II listed Old Greyhound (right) was closed in 2007, and has sadly remained boarded-up and subject to redevelopment to this day. I never visited the Greyhound, but it sounds as if it was a cracking ultra-traditional village local. Multi-roomed and featuring a small 'snug', which was predominantly used by the local Dominoes players and served through a small hatch from the main bar servery. It's a sad fact that there are more great pubs like this that have closed forever than I'll ever get a chance to visit in my lifetime!

It's scant consolation for locals and enthusiasts of good pubs like myself that the remaining village pub, the Cranmer Arms, will have benefited somewhat from the ousted trade of the Greyhound. But if it means the last pub in the village has a better chance of survival, one good thing may have come from its closure.

The classy pastel paint job and florid sign-writing on the pubs exterior gives the Cranmer something of the appearance of a gastro-pub. In fact the pub is merely a tidy and well-run village local, featuring two bars either side of a central servery, the rear of which houses a Dartboard and Pool Table. Numerous cribbage board appended table-toppers are stacked in the rear vestibule of the pub, the Domino players having moved across the road from the closed Greyhound, and a friendly local rivalry now exists between the two 'home' teams.

The skittle alley at the rear of the pub is a genuine vintage one of great character, housed as it is in an old war-era Nissen Hut which is now engulfed and encroached by a mass of white flowered vines. The interior of the alley is decked out in the pubs original Home Ales signage, adding to what is already a truly atmospheric space for a game of skittles. In truth the alley is barely an indoor one, and though there's a well-used stove planted at the halfway point, I was told by a regular that you really wouldn't want to be playing out there in the depths of Winter.

Long Alley Skittles is played in the East Notts (Summer) Skittles League, a competition in a parlous state given that only five teams currently play in the league, with one of those being the Old Greyhound team playing out of the Cranmer!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Great Western, Gloucester

In recent years I've made special efforts to seek out back-street pubs like the Great Western. It's these classic community locals which seem to have suffered the most from the wave of closures and redevelopment affecting the pub trade in recent years. Some of those which I've visited have been quite clearly on their last legs. Shabby, unloved, and sparsely populated by customers. Victims of both changing tastes and a radically changed local population who may have no tradition of pub-going. But also often victims of the rapacious pubco and brewery greed which has all-but priced local drinkers out of their local pubs, and is killing community locals everywhere.

One thing I've noticed when visiting pubs like the Great Western, is that the very best establishments are often run by older, sometimes even elderly licensees who may have been a fixture of the pub for decades. This continuity of ownership is now quite rare in the pub trade, and yet the value of it is clear to see in the ever-decreasing number of well run, often beautifully maintained pubs which result, and the loyal band of customers who appreciate it. Such is the case with the Great Western, where licensee Lynn Mann has been in the trade for most of her working life, and has run this pub in particular for nearly 30 years.

This certainly shows when you walk through the door. Railway memorabilia and potted plants adorn the pub, and the front bar in particular has a warmth and welcome which you only ever seem to get in pubs like these. Pubs where the licensee and locals treat the place like a second home, and the 'locals' actually come from far and wide, such is the appeal of this, one of the last pubs of its kind in town.

The sad dichotomy of such well run and popular pubs like the Great Western, is that many of them are likely to be only a few short years away from changing forever. In the case of some this will inevitably mean closing forever. Because even licensees with such a strong and abiding attachment to their pub as Lynn Mann, have to retire sometime, and so it is with the Great Western.

It was only as I was writing this blog post, and only a few weeks after visiting the pub, that news filtered through of Lynn's imminent retirement, and consequently the Great Western's possible closure. Sadly a pub like the Great Western can only ever be as good as the person running it (and the people who use it of course), and with much of the trade travelling from across the city for the unique qualities that Lynn brings, it's hard to see how a pub like this could survive the massive changes that will inevitably come when Lynn calls it a day.

The Great Western is a lovely pub. The labyrinthine and award-winning beer garden probably the best in Gloucester, the welcome in the bar genuinely warm. A proper, well-run pub of a type which is becoming increasingly rare, so do pay a visit soon while you still have the chance.

Hidden away at the far end of the beautiful garden is the pubs very fine old skittle alley. A purpose built affair, featuring an alcove of fixed seating, and its own small bar servery, adorned with what appears to be West Country Breweries livery.

The alley is apparently home to four teams in the local Gloucester City Skittles League, and is therefore in use on most weekday evenings.

The rear, or left-hand bar has a Pool Table and Darts, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Cards and Dominoes are a feature of the pub too.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

More Northamptonshire Table Skittles Images

Fetes and Galas in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire villages rarely come without a skittles game of some description, and more often than not this takes the form of a traditional pub Skittles Table. A Northants or Leicester Skittles Table is often the best choice for events like theses as it requires less space than Long Alley, is an easy game for players of all ages, and the rough ground of a village green presents no obstacle to play. A table can even be moved indoors on the rare occasions when the British weather might otherwise stop play! The skittles table shown above and below is earning its keep in the grounds of St Mary the Virgin church in the village of Weston-By-Welland, Northamptonshire. The table is similar in build to a W T Black & Sons model, though not marked as such, and like so many of these old tables, is now in private ownership. The current owners told me that it was originally located at the former White Lion pub in nearby Market Harborough, a former hotbed of skittles play which is now down to only five venues for the game at the last count.

Another village fete, another skittles table raising funds for local causes. This one is my own W T Black & Son table, installed for the day at Cottingham & Middleton Village Fete, no great distance from home but some effort and helping hands are required to move these heavy tables around (right). The table is a 1956 model rescued from a long-closed Royal British Legion club in Rugby, though given that the table was reconditioned at a later date by A R Pinckard of Kislingbury, it may well have had a previous life closer to home.

The venerable old Skittles Table shown above and left was earning a charitable 'shilling' at the Harringworth Village Fete in the hot Summer of 2014. This ex-pub table is missing its 'hood' of netting, and apparently came from a long-closed pub in the village of Deene near Corby in Northamptonshire. The only reference I've found to a pub in Deene is the Sea Horse (below), a rather grand looking stone building and a good example of how almost every pub in the area, no matter how upmarket, would have had a skittles table at one time. The Sea Horse closed for good some time in the 1970's and is now a private residence. The village, like so many in this part of rural Northamptonshire, is now entirely pub-free.

Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery
The slightly home-made looking and, extensively renovated, but undoubtedly old Skittles Table shown below, has been in use at the Benefield Church Fete in Northamptonshire for a good few years. These vintage, sometimes antique tables are kept in playable condition by enthusiasts, usually men of a certain age, and it's great to see them still in use at events like this.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Robin Hood and Little John - Arnold, Nottingham

In the current climate of serial pub closures, and the chronic mis-management of many that do survive, it's always a relief when a passionate micro-brewer takes on a previously struggling pub and helps turn it around for the local community. Where the giant pubcos and larger regional brewers see pubs as just another retail outlet to be squeezed, or property investment to redevelop or sell to the highest bidder, the newer entrants such as micro-brewers are that much closer to pubs and the pub-going tradition. They still see the value of pubs to their local communities, because invariably they visit these same pubs frequently, and are of course discerning customers themselves.

Lincoln Green Brewing Co of Hucknall joined the vibrant Nottinghamshire beer and brewing scene in May 2012. The development of a small local pub estate seems to have been part of the business plan from the outset, which is of course entirely sensible for smaller breweries given the long-standing difficulties of selling into the tied pub market. The first of these pubs, a business partnership with Everards Brewery under their innovative and award-winning 'Project William' concept, has now opened in the Nottingham suburb of Arnold.

The people at Lincoln Green were quite clear from outset what they wanted from their pub, but also took the seemingly obvious, yet highly novel step of asking potential customers for their opinions too. Much of the feedback from this exercise, along with their own well-formed ideas on pubs, have been included in the refurbishment of the Robin Hood and Little John.

The separate bar (above) and lounge areas have thankfully been maintained (have we finally moved on from the knock-it-all-through 90's? I do hope so!), with a smaller 'Snug' off the bar (left). There's even an Off-Sales at the front of the pub, a much more civilised alternative to the supermarket take-home. The interior is fabulously traditional, decked out with memorabilia from the long-closed local Home Brewery, yet bright, welcoming, and thoroughly inclusive to the community it serves in a way that some speciality ale houses fail to achieve.

Traditional pub games are part of the appeal of the Robin Hood and Little John, and it's in the snug that you'll find a Dominoes table topper and Shove Ha'penny board. The Dominoes available in the bar could be a bit better quality to be honest, but the Shove Ha'penny is a good one, though be warned, the beds are quite tight, it's not an easy board to play! A set of nicely polished Ha'pennies are available from the behind the bar.

To the rear of the pub is a small patio garden area, a sun-trap enclosed on all sides, one side of which constitutes the pub's original Skittle Alley. Arnold is one of the last bastions of Long Alley Skittles play in Nottinghamshire, though now exclusively played in local clubs. The town also gives its name to the local Domino & Table Skittles league, again, now mostly played in the clubs of the area.

The alley at the Robin Hood and Little John was until recently carpeted and unused for the game, but this has helped maintain the building and iron skittles 'frame' in very good condition. There are plans to bring the alley back into use in the near future, with a couple of teams expressing interest in playing from the pub.

Pub skittle alleys like the one at the Robin Hood and Little John are becoming increasingly rare in the Nottingham area, and it would be to the credit of all concerned if this one could be preserved and rejuvenated through through regular play. One of the final phases in returning this excellent traditional local back to it's community.

Oh, and by the way, the pub serves a fabulous range of traditional ales and ciders too. But then you'd probably guessed that already!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Oadby Owl, Oadby, Leicestershire

I made brief mention of the Oadby Owl in a previous post on this much-expanded Leicestershire village, and wrongly suggested that the original Skittle Alley may not have survived recent changes at the pub. In fact the alley remains, is in very good condition, and still in regular league use, though you'd be hard-pressed to know it without asking, as it's existence is not advertised even in the pub!

The Oadby Owl is described in the 1979 edition of CAMRA's Real Ale Guide to Leicestershire & Rutland as being an 'Impressive 1930's 'International Style' building...' '...with no fewer than four bars and a skittle alley'. Built alongside the then newly opened bypass, it served the needs of travellers on the busy A6, and residents of the extensive housing which continues to grow along this stretch of road. A classic Deco-ish roadhouse, it's still an impressive looking pub from the outside, though now entirely knocked through from the original four rooms, and with a strong emphasis on dining under Greene King's Hungry Horse concept. Nevertheless, the front bar area features a games area, and still attracts a local crowd for televised sport and the like.

Alterations to a pub, like those which have occurred at the Oadby Owl, often spell the death-knell for a Skittle Alley, but a couple of factors may have worked in its favour. Firstly the alley is entirely separate to the main body of the pub (the single story red brick building seen to the right of the frontage in the top image). Given the size of the pub and extensive car parking available, there would have been little pressure to create more usable space by converting such a small outbuilding.

Regular weekly Long Alley Skittles play in the Tom Bishop Memorial Skittles League seems to have continued for many years at the Owl, essential for the survival of alleys like this. Local team the Oadby Owls play in summer, winter and knockout competitions, and presumably the alley is available for casual games and functions at other times.

From the sunken 'mott' to the cast iron 'frame' and heavy rubber sheets at the business end of the alley, it's clear that this has always been a skittle alley and not a conversion of an already existing outhouse. Many breweries in the East Midlands included a skittle alley in their new-build pubs as standard, such was the popularity of game throughout most of the 20th century. The practice 'cheeses' (below) seem to be marked for the Black Dog, a recently refurbished Oadby pub with its own alley, though currently not in use for league play.