Friday, 14 November 2014

Golden Cross - Clee Hill, Shropshire

Should you ever find yourself in the lovely Teme Valley area in search of a pint with a view, the Golden Cross at Clee Hill should fit the bill perfectly. I wouldn't particularly recommend the trip when snow is forecast though. The roads are steep and winding, particularly the one from Tenbury Wells that I chose to drive up, and I'd imagine the village can become somewhat isolated when the weather turns nasty.

The view from Clee Hill is certainly impressive, but if you like a good game with your pint, you may find it difficult to drag yourself away from the bar and take it all in. That's because the Golden Cross is home to one of the most impressive collections of traditional games your likely to find in a pub. Acquired by licensee and pub games enthusiast Aaron Jeffs over the course of several years, there's hardly a category of game which isn't represented at the pub.

The first item to meet your gaze on entering is a fine old Bar Billiards Table, covered when not in use and therefore in excellent playing condition. It's a John Bennett & Co table, a Billiard table manufacture which held a Royal and War Office warrant at one time, this table dating from around the 1950's judging by the London address on the name plate.

From my perspective, the most important gaming item at the Golden Cross is also one of the most humble in form. A simple, unpainted concrete Quoits Board sits solidly below one of several Darts Boards at the pub, again covered when not in use to prevent stray Darts Arrows damaging the surface. Quoits is of course the local game for the Shropshire/Herefordshire area, and league matches can be seen at the pub throughout the summer months, Darts and Pool taking precedence in the winter. Rubber Quoits and all the other paraphernalia of pub game play are available from the bar on request.

Note the unique handmade scoreboard to the left of the Darts Board. Outside of the Hereford Town League, where Quoits is a straightforward scoring game along similar lines to Darts, most leagues play a game where each team or player aims to accumulate specific scores, maybe from 1-12 or 1-15. Four Quoits are thrown and if for example 8 is scored, that panel on the board is claimed and becomes closed to your opponent. The board here goes up to 20, but given that this would require a full house of 'Pegs' (which score 5 points), perhaps the full board is reserved for 'expert' matches rather than regular weekly league play. Or maybe players in the Clee Hill League are far better than I give them credit!

Rare and unusual games are represented at the pub in the form of a fine Pitch Penny bench (left), possibly the only example in use outside of the East of England. This is a genuine and original bench acquired for the pub by a family member, the leaded backing added by the licensee to help preserve the wood from damage.

Other games available for play include Ring The Bull (below), Shove Ha'penny, Devil Amongst The Tailors, and Shut The Box, as well as the usual selection of Card games, Dominoes, Pool and of course Darts which is very popular at the pub.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Orange Tree, Baldock, Hertfordshire

The main bar area of the Orange Tree, Baldock, a traditional multi-room pub with a great reputation for its Beer and Cider.
The world of the pub games enthusiast is, it has to be said, quite a small one. Which is not to say that the many thousands of enthusiastic 'gamers', shoving, chucking, or indeed tossing on a regular basis in leagues and more casually, lack enthusiasm for their chosen game. Simply that these players take their gameplay largely in their stride. A game of Dominoes or a midweek Skittles match is to them just a part of day to day life. Nothing to get too excited about, and certainly nothing to warrant writing about!

The more finely tuned interests of enthusiasts like myself, often reflect a deeper cultural fascination with the subject, in my own case it's a wider interest in pub culture in general. This is often underpinned by a strong sense that if the very best of our traditions are to survive, someone needs to champion them in a way that simply wouldn't occur to those of us who merely participate, enjoy, and thereby help preserve our traditional pastimes.

One of the original pub games champions of recent times was Timothy Finn. A writer and keen Northants skittler, Finn was probably the first to treat the subject of pub games as a distinct subject in itself, rather than a sub-set of the much wider childrens and 'parlour' game tradition. His 1970's book, Pub Games of England, was at that time the most complete work on the subject, and is still a useful reference, particularly the listings of pubs where the games featured might be found. It's also an interesting book in the context of this blog post in that he caught the last vestiges of a game which has now almost entirely disappeared from pubs.

The game of Daddlums might be considered a slightly smaller regional version of Northamptonshire Skittles, and was once as common in the south-east of England as the Northants game still is in the East Midlands. The game has some similarities with the even rarer game of Old English (or London) Skittles, which by contrast is the most weighty example of the skittles tradition surviving to this day, and may represent yet another example of a game miniaturised and brought indoors for play during the colder winter months.

In Daddlums three small hardwood cheeses are thrown at a formation of nine stubby, somewhat top-heavy pins (above), which sit toward the rear of quite a long table. The technique for toppling the pins seems to be to land the cheese some way ahead of the diamond formation and slide into them, unlike the Northants game where the cheese generally hits the front pin full-toss. Whilst the game which is known as Daddlums seems to have been confined primarily to the South East of England, small table skittles games like this are understood to have been played much further afield, and certainly up the eastern seaboard through Anglia and into parts of the East Midlands where several examples have been recorded.

The decline of Daddlums and other small table skittle games can best be illustrated by the fact that only one original table is now known to exist. The Daddlums table at the Vigo Inn, Fairseat in Kent, is therefore an important survivor, and has provided the template for at least two newly built tables which help keep the tradition alive in the area. The Vigo Inn table has also provided the inspiration for the most recent revival of the game in the town of Baldock, Hertfordshire.

The Darts Room at the Orange Tree features this ingenious space-saving board which swings out from the wall for play, folding back flat against the wall when the room is required for other less competitive uses.
A Shove Ha'penny set up in the old Inglenook fireplace, now a cosy seating area. The licensee has more than one board available at the pub, as well as a Devil Amongst The Tailors, Shut The Box, Cards and Dominoes.

Licensee Rob Scahill is surely a pub games enthusiast himself, or at the very least a real champion of the pub gaming tradition. Why else would he have chosen to install the little known and rare as hens teeth game of Daddlums at the Orange Tree in Baldock, alongside a host of more common pub games.

The Daddlums table itself has been crafted in the style of the rare Vigo Inn example, and is the first of what will eventually be a pair of tables in the town, the other being installed at The Cock. In this way it is hoped to establish inter-pub competition, essential for this small but important revival to take hold and maybe one day thrive in Baldock. The pins and cheeses came c/o James Masters of Masters Traditional Games, who also tipped me off about the Orange Tree and it's many attractions.

More pub gaming ingenuity. The Daddlums Table, which is located in the opulent covered patio/smoking shelter to the rear of the pub, swings up and away to reveal a recently refurbished Bar Billiards table.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Four Pubs for a game of Shove Ha'penny

Considering how few people there are that actually play Shove Ha'penny now, or even know what the game is for that matter, there are still an awful lot of boards out there, some of which can even be found in their natural home of the pub.

Like almost all traditional pub games, Shove Ha'penny is a game you have to make time for, but most people these days seem to have already accounted for their time before they walk through the door of a pub. Dining, watching sport on the telly, focusing fully on the beers, or just catching up with and chatting with friends that we see less often now. All good reasons to visit the pub of course, but it's perhaps rare now for a group of drinkers to arrive at the pub without the day planned out in fine detail, which leaves little free time for the pleasures of a casual afternoon or evening game.

This of course is a large part of the reason pub games have declined so much in recent years. Few have the time, or are prepared to make the time for them. It's also why those games which have survived, and in some cases continue to thrive, are usually played by older, often retired pub-goers who find it easier to take a couple of hours out from the day to shuffle Dominoes or shove a coin up the highly polished surface of a Shove Ha'penny. Sadly all the boards shown in this post are rarely if ever used, but at least they're still in situ at the pubs where they rightly belong, and available for play should time and a willing opponent permit. The one on the left, a fairly modern laminated board supplied as a promotion by the now closed Ruddles Brewery, can be found at the Dukes Arms, Woodford, Northamptonshire.

This venerable old slate Shove Ha'penny (above and below) is firmly bolted to the top of one of those old treadle sewing machine tables that started appearing in pubs in the 80's. It provides a solid and weighty base for a slate which has clearly seen good service over many years at the National Trust owned Fleece Inn in the village of Bretforton in Worcestershire. Until recently the Shove Ha'penny resided in the Games Room of the pub, but sadly both it and the Darts Board have been retired from use to provide more space for diners at this very popular historic pub. With its protective wooden cover on, the board now lives in a corridor and is used as a table for cutlery. The licensee of the Fleece has a keen interest in many aspects of English tradition. A Morris Dancer and Cidermaker in addition to being custodian of two of Worcestershire's most important heritage pubs. I'm reasonably sure that he would be happy to see the Shove Ha'penny polished up and played during quieter times at the pub, though whether the Ha'pennies remain is unclear, so you may have to bring your own.

One of the very first of the new-wave of Micropubs which are springing up throughout the country was Just Beer in Newark, Nottinghamshire. The single bar-room at Just Beer is a little larger than some of the micro's that have opened in its wake, there's even room for a Darts Board, and the layout lends itself well to games such as Dominoes which are available in a vintage Watney Mann box in the bar. A good solid-wood Shove Ha'penny hangs on the wall ready for play, though how much use it gets and whether a well-polished set of coins is available I couldn't say, it's just great to see it in the bar. Either way, Just Beer has a superb reputation for its beer and cider, and is well worth a visit when out for a pint in Newark.

The people behind the Thurlby group of pubs must have a bit of a soft spot for the shoving and pushing tradition of games. The Tobie Norris in Stamford has a very good example of a Pushpenny board in the cosy snug area, and the nearby Exeter Arms at Easton on the Hill had an old Shove Ha'penny as part of the furnishings the last time I visited. The latest addition to this growing collection is a modern laminate Jaques Shove Ha'penny at the Lord Nelson (above and below) in the Rutland market town of Oakham. Whether it gets a great deal of use at a pub which is noted more for its food offering than the (admittedly very good) beer and wine selection, I've no idea, but it seems unlikely to be honest. All the same, it's a nice addition to the pub, and the lovely tile-floored snug where I photographed the board would lend itself well to an afternoon game, though once again you may have to take your own coins.

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.