Sunday, 15 November 2015

Shoving Games

Many of the traditional pub games we see now have developed as scaled-down versions of much larger competitive games. Usually it was simply a case of miniaturising for the convenience of play in pokey Tap Rooms and Parlour Bars. Often too it was a way of bringing outdoor games such as Quoits and Skittles indoors, maintaining play during the inclement winter months.

Shove Ha'penny is a good example of this, a miniaturised version of a game known as 'Shovel Board' which was once highly fashionable amongst the gentry. Shovel Board was a fairly simple game which involved sliding metal or wooden 'pucks' up a highly polished, often very long table. The aim was to land your puck as close to the end of the table without overshooting and sliding off the end. Points were scored, and wagers were commonly placed on the outcome.

Shovel Boards, like the one shown above in the 'Audit Room' of Boughton House in Northamptonshire, were by necessity games of the larger country houses and stately homes since nowhere else could easily house (or afford) such a huge piece of carpentry. Inevitably, what was a fashionable game of the wealthy filtered down to the masses, and smaller versions of the game, measured in feet rather than yards, became popular in the drinking establishments of more common folk. Several Shovel Boards survive in the stately homes of England and Wales, but these smaller 'Tavern' tables are very rare indeed. Of those that have survived they are often only distinguishable from ordinary farmhouse tables by the lines scored into them for play, but they do occasionally surface in the antiques trade.

Smaller they may have been, but they were still bulky and expensive fixtures of a public house, so further miniaturisation of the game to that which we see now was perhaps inevitable.

An afternoon game of Pushpenny at the Organ Grinder in Lougborough
Pushpenny is the rarer, and possibly earlier cousin of Shove Ha'penny. Old English pennies are used in the game of Pushpenny, smoothed and polished on one side and with a slight bevel on the edge to stop the coin 'digging in'. The board is similar in size to a Shove Ha'penny, but the nine beds are wider to accommodate the bigger coins. The rules are similar, though only three pennies are shoved up the board as opposed to the five of Shove Ha'penny.

Old Pushpenny boards like the one shown here occasionally surface in the antiques and collectibles trade, particularly in those few areas where the game is still played. This board is a classic Stamford Pushpenny, the Lincolnshire town being one of only two places in the country where the game is still played at league level, the other being the Hastings area of Sussex. This Stamford board has been made from a fairly slim piece of highly polished Mahogany, most likely recycled from a redundant piece of furniture. There's a shallow dip in the surface at the end of the board to receive over-hit coins, and a vertical end-stop. The lead-in is barely wider than the beds, which is uniquely the standard for the Stamford game. These Pushpenny boards are also characterised by having extremely smooth polished playing surfaces, the lightest touch required to score in the first bed, and all too easy to overshoot the last one.

This heavyweight Shove Ha'penny gives a good illustration of the condition that many of these old boards are in when found in the antiques trade. Liberally smothered with the very worst kind of sticky oil and wax finish, in a pointless effort to 'age' what is already quite clearly an item of some vintage. Bees Wax and oil based finishes like this effectively make the board unplayable, and need to be carefully removed. A jar of White Spirit and a lot of elbow-grease will eventually remove the worst of the wax, and help reveal the beauty of the old wood as shown here.

This is a slightly unusual board in that the beds are quite wide for a Shove Ha'penny, though narrow for a Pushpenny. Older boards like this probably pre-date the commercial production of Shove Ha'penny boards by Jaques, Wisden etc. which may explain why the spacings and dimensions are often slightly different to later examples, a vestige of how the game would have been played when more local rules applied. This is a very high quality board, the scoring zones at the side are made of slate, and there's a good quality Brass end rail at the curved end.

Just a few of the many different 'coins' which have been shoved up polished wood in pubs and clubs over the years. From left: Victorian Penny, smoothed and polished on the 'Brittania' side for Pushpenny. Also shown is a set with the Monarch side smoothed off, regarded by some as something of a heinous crime! Half Penny, this one a George VI but many others are used including the earlier Britannia design. Again, these have had the monarchs head smoothed off. St Georges Series, a silvered brass shove ha'penny token manufactured in tandem with various boards, probably post-war or later. Trumans Tap Bitter, brewery advertising tokens for Shove Ha'penny. Half Penny Tokens, based on the 'ship' half penny design, but blank and with a raised-edge on the reverse. Jaques London, manufactured tokens by the famous London games retailer. French 5 Centimes, there are two of these along with three Victorian half pennies. These were given to me by a friend, and were originally used by his father, and possibly grandfather who operated a pub in London. These coins have been smoothed on the reverse, and are wafer thin from decades of use and polishing.

This Slate Shove Ha'penny is one of the cheaper (possibly later) variations on the 'Challenger' board, supposedly issued for play by the Shove Ha'penny Control Association. The design is identical, the cast metal end stop replaced here with a plastic version carrying advertising for a popular cigarette brand.

My recent visit to the Albion Brewery Tap in Northampton was principally to view the Northamptonshire Skittles Table and Bar Billiards. I was later informed that the bar also has this Shove Ha'penny available for play.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Beeston, Nottinghamshire

The Victoria Hotel, the first pub that greets you on arrival at Beeston rail station
The Nottinghamshire town of Beeston lies at the southern edge of the unique Derby/Notts Long Alley Skittles tradition, though sadly league play in the town has now dwindled to just a handful of pubs and clubs. Just how much of a skittling stronghold Beeston once was can be gauged by the number of outdoor alleys which still exists at pubs in the town, most sadly no longer in use, some unusable.

A good example of this can be found at the predominantly food oriented White Lion in the centre of town, (opposite the shiny new Tram stop). What appears to be a fully functioning covered skittle alley can be found in the pubs garden, but closer inspection reveals a fully functioning brick BBQ built in the middle of it! Patios and decking obscure other alleys in the town, and of course a good few community locals where skittles would have been popular have closed for good in recent years.

In fact the only pub alley I've come across in Beeston that is still in regular use for league matches is the one to the rear of The Queens, a pub which has already featured on this blog. On the same side of town at nearby Beeston Rylands, there is a pub skittle alley with the potential for the game to return at some level, given enough local interest of course.

The Boat & Horses takes its name from the close proximity of the Beeston Canal. Not actually located in Beeston proper, rather the low-lying 'village' of Beeston Rylands to the south of the town, it serves both the local community and those seeking recreation on the nearby canal and River Trent. After a period of neglect the pub is now in the safe hands of new tenants, and a very tidy pub it is too with a huge potential that the new licensees are keen to exploit.

Being close to the waterway, food is obviously an important part of the pubs offering, and for the locals a regular programme of live music keeps them coming back. Pool, Darts and Poker nights represent the current gaming interest at the Boat & Horses, the skittle alley currently unused.

The new licensees have done a great job tidying up the pubs large grassy garden, but whether the skittle alley will receive a similar spruce up depends on customer demand I guess. In recent years it has been used as a covered area for bands to play during summer events, but it wouldn't take much to bring the alley back into use for functions and casual summer games.

Though the local game of skittles is certainly harder to find in Beeston than it once was, the town is still blessed with more than its fair share of great pubs, some of which may now benefit from the newly opened southern Tram extension.

It's probably true to say that some visitors to Beeston, particularly those arriving by rail, struggle to make it any further than the fabulous Victoria Hotel. Perhaps no great surprise given its prominent location adjacent to the station platform.

A harmonious mix of Victorian and later 1930's decor, the Victoria was beautifully restored by Nottingham based Tynemill Ltd (now Castle Rock) who aqcuired the then run-down pub in 1994. Now a freehouse, the pub has a great reputation for its beer and food, and makes an excellent alternative waiting room for rail passengers.

Games are not a particularly prominent feature at the Victoria, but there is a Darts Board in the 'Red Room' to the right of the entrance. This is the smaller of several rooms at the pub, and a space which I've found a little less dining oriented. A great place for an afternoon game of Dominoes or Cards if the mood takes you.

If you do make it past the 'Vic' and into town, you won't go far wrong visiting the excellent Crown Inn (below). This is another important heritage survivor which in recent years, under the ownership of Everards Brewery in partnership with the Brown Ales Pub Co, has built a great reputation for its beer choice.

The pub was extended with a large new lounge in the 70's by Hardys & Hansons brewery, but thankfully the multi-room layout of the original building was preserved. It's the kind of pub where it's hard to decide where to settle, each small bar and snug having its own unique charm. On the day I visited with a friend, we settled in the Games Room, now effectively the link between the older parts of the building and the newer lounge bar. There's a Darts Board adjacent to the serving hatch, but we brought a Shove Ha'penny for an afternoon of supping and sampling the beers on offer.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Worcester Skittles

Most of the major towns in the Three Counties have a strong and enduring skittles tradition. The county town of Worcester is no exception with a fair number of alleys dotted around its pubs and clubs, particularly in the suburban areas where the pubs retain a more traditional social function than the town-centre circuit. However, the two pubs featured here represent the extremes of the games current fortunes, a situation common everywhere as pubs struggle to survive and adapt in a tough commercial world.

Although it's safe to say that skittle alleys are not as common as they once were in Worcester, the game is still popular and supported at competitive level by several leagues, including the Worcester & District Skittles League, the slightly smaller Worcester Friendly Skittles League, and a Ladies League. Players from Worcester also compete in the Three Cities League, a regional 'Derby' against teams from Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.

Throughout the traditional playing areas of the West Midlands and West Country, it's not uncommon to find skittle alleys in use most weekday evenings. Skittles is still very popular in certain parts of the country, and the consolidation that has resulted from numerous pub and club closures in recent years can make for some very busy skittle alleys. For many pubs this almost constant weekday skittles play can be the very lifeblood of the business, as the licensees of the West Midland Tavern in Worcester made clear to me on the Saturday afternoon I visited the pub.

The West Midland Tavern is located on the edge of the town centre, very much a friendly locals pub where sport, live music and entertainments pull in a good weekend crowd. During the week it's gaming that keeps the pub ticking over, and the skittle alley in particular, with teams accounting for upwards of two dozen customers on what may otherwise be a quiet night.

The West Midlands Tavern host enough teams in the various leagues to keep the alley and pub busy throughout the week. Each of the locked boxes shown below contain the pins and balls of a home team playing out of the pub, which must be quite a task for league secretaries to arrange the seasons fixture list without double-booking the alley.

You might think that leagues and teams operating in the same area would play with a standard set of  pins, but as can be seen here, there's quite a bit of variation from one set to another. These three examples could be broadly described as a Gloucester pin and two sizes of Bristol pin.

It was in conversation with the licensee of the West Midland Tavern that I learnt of the imminent demise of the nearby Bridge Inn, and by the time you read this the pub is likely to have closed, quite probably for good. A board outside advertised a 'Last Chance' disco and karaoke that evening, and what was probably a very fine pub at one time was showing all the signs of neglect I've come to recognise in similarly doomed boozers.

The skittle alley at the rear of the pub had already been taken out of service some years ago. A sad sight, made all the more so by the vintage roll of honour hanging at the business end of the alley (below), recording the early 80's Bridge Inn House Champions in Cribbage, Darts, Dominoes, Pool, and of course Skittles. The alley has been marking time as a storage and band rehearsal space for several years now, and is apparently destined to be demolished for flats. I'm glad I popped in to record its passing, and hope the roll of honour finds a better home than in a skip. Many more closures like this and the West Midland Tavern will need another alley!

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Boat Inn, Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire

Some of the early local and regional CAMRA pub guides can be useful documents to pub enthusiasts like myself. Dating from the 1970's onwards, these pocket-size guides would eventually cover most parts of the country, and at their best give a valuable insight into a tradition of pub-going which most pubs can only dream of now!

The actual pub descriptions are often perfunctory at best, the campaigning focus of CAMRA in those days being firmly rooted in the revival of real ale at a time when pubs were largely taken for granted! The Northamptonshire guide which I find most useful dates from the late 80's, a time which might now be regarded as the very beginnings of the current massive decline in pubs and pub going. This comparatively recent guide has much better descriptions than most, even the local Northamptonshire Skittles game was deemed important enough to feature wherever a table existed, sadly not always the case with CAMRA's current (and otherwise excellent) national pub guide Whatpub.

Though closures were much rarer back then, the late 80's and 90's were still a time of great change in the pub trade. The wholesale knocking-through of multi-room pubs was a particular concern, and inappropriate refurbishment was as common then as it is today. The descriptions in the Northants guide reflect this, sometimes in ways that seem unduly harsh in retrospect. The Boat Inn is a good example of this, the extensions and additions to the historic heart of the original pub described rather cruelly in the guide as being carbuncles!

Harsh indeed given the fate of so many similarly attractive village pubs in the intervening years. The writers of that pub guide must surely reflect on whether this beautiful thatched canalside pub would have survived at all had it not been for the investment and far-sighted business sense of the owners? That the original series of interlinked rooms survive to be enjoyed today is undoubtedly thanks to the success of the business overall. A honey-pot for families and diners which fully exploits the pubs attractive location, and yet remains entirely true to its origins as a humble bargees watering hole and village local.

You really have to take your hat off to the licensees of the Boat Inn. Less sympathetic owners would no doubt have opened out and spoilt the original interior to squeeze a few more tables in, assuming it even survived as a pub. And would a space have been retained for the old Northamptonshire Skittles Table in the bar? Doubtful in my view.

The Boat has been run by the same family for approaching 150 years, and in sympathetically modernising and extending the historical original, they have surely done local and visiting pub-goers a huge service. Indeed my only criticism of the interior is that you probably have to get there pretty early to bag a seat in the cosy older part, such is the popularity of the pub at all times of the year.

The Skittles Table, a 1960's W T Black & Son model, sits in its own ante-room off the old bar area. The table is missing the usual netted 'hood' designed to catch wayward throws, but this is not really required given that the table sits snugly in an alcove. I imagine it must come in for an awful lot of play from visitors to the pub, particularly the steady stream of leisure boaters with more time on their hands than most. Northamptonshire Table Skittles must be a local curiosity for many visitors, who no doubt require a little coaching in the throw, the rules of the game, and general skittling etiquette.

Life has just got a little bit tougher for this venerable old table following the Boat's recent return to the Gayton & District League after an absence of over 25 years.

Several decades of use can take its toll on a Northants Skittles Table. The leatherwork is usually the first thing to go, the woodwork usually requiring little more than a new coat of paint. Table No.124 has been refurbished by A Pinkard of Kislingbury at some point in the past, a name which appears on many skittles tables in Northamptonshire, and probably the local repairer and refurbisher for most of the league tables in the Gayton League.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Loggerheads, Shrewsbury

If you only have time to visit one pub in Shrewsbury, my recommendation would be the fabulously unspoilt Loggerheads on Church Street. Located in the very centre of the town, this is surely every tourists idea of the quintessential English pub. A truly historic and unspoilt alehouse, important enough to be included on CAMRA's inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

There's absolutely no doubting the heritage of the place. It's all there waiting to be seen because thankfully the current owners have resisted the urge to enhance or embellish its natural charms unnecessarily. Beautifully well-maintained, it's also an honest, working, town-centre locals pub, and that is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Loggerheads.

This aspect is perhaps most clearly seen in the small Bar Parlour (above & left), the centrepiece of the pub which fronts the main servery and it's row of polished handpumps.

Quiet and intimate, the kind of place where it's hard not to be drawn into the conversation, indeed it would probably be rude not to. This is clearly the social hub of a friendly and welcoming town-centre pub. Would that all pubs retained a 'Bar Parlour' like this.

There are two entrances to the pub, one takes you down a corridor to a smaller servery, opposite which is the Smoke Room (below). This was a 'Gentleman Only' bolt-hole until as recently as 1975. High backed settles and rough scrubbed-top tables create an intimate space, ideal for an afternoon game of Shove Ha'penny. The pub has a fine old slate board in the 'Smoke', and half pennies are available for a game from the bar.

The other entrance leads directly into the 1930's refurbished Lounge Bar (below), which if it were not for the rest of the Loggerheads attractions would be worth the admission price on its own. Note the erroneous Loggerhead Turtle pub sign mounted above the servery. As can be seen below, this room houses the pubs Dart Board.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Crown, Bathley, Nottinghamshire

The Crown first came to my attention a few years ago following a visit to the Muskham Ferry at nearby North Muskham. The Newark area was, until quite recently, one of only a handful of places in the country where Table Skittles, or Devil Amongst The Tailors, was still played competitively at league level. Sadly the league folded several years ago, but occasional friendlies are still played in those pubs where the skittles table hasn't been packed away for good. The locals at the Muskham Ferry were just about to play one of these friendlies, an away match at the Crown.

I can certainly see the appeal of an evening friendly at the Crown, it really is a great all-round village local. A pub noted for good beer and food in an attractive rural location, and with a lovely garden for the summer months. The lounge bar with its open fire a comfortable retreat in the winter, and a smaller public bar which houses the pubs well-used Darts Board. It's also the principal venue for village functions, and the meeting place for local council business given that the village has no other suitable venue.

The Skittles Table may only see occasional friendly use now, but the alley where it resides is still in regular use for games in the Newark & District Long Alley Skittles League. Long Alley in the Newark area is played with the same iron-shod curvy pins and large round balls found throughout Nottinghamshire, and as far north and west as Clay Cross and Ashbourne in Derbyshire. This is a very well-appointed alley in an area where many are still located outdoors and largely exposed to the elements. The cast iron 'frame' is set a little smaller than many, which means the pins stand slightly closer together resulting in higher than average scores.

Most of the skittles tables I've seen in the Newark area are locally made, usually by a pub regular or someone known to the league. These tables often bear a small brass plaque with the name of the maker, and perhaps uniquely to the Newark area, feature a small drawer rather than the usual lidded trough to store the pins in. The one at the Crown however seems to be a good quality manufactured table, similar to the better quality old Jaques models where a crib-style scoreboard acts as a cover for the skittle storage trough. The dimensions and spacings are standard though, as they would have to be to facilitate league play.

In the games heyday of the early 20th century, these 'league standard' skittles tables were made by numerous small manufacturers throughout the country. Some were very high quality indeed, sturdily manufactured from mahogany or other expensive hardwoods, and with leather padding to reduce impacts and noise during a game. This table is more modestly upholstered, as most pub tables are, with a few offcuts of carpet. The skittles table can be brought into the bar for a game on request.