Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cricketers Rest, Kimberley, Nottinghamshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 September 2016

One Eyed Jacks, Gloucester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Chapelhay Tavern, Weymouth, Dorset

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 10 September 2016

A Compendium of Leicester Table Skittles Images

Of all the many and varied pub games that are still played in Britain, it's those which remain firmly rooted in a particular local area, a genuinely local tradition, that interest me the most. The game of Table or Hood Skittles is in fact 'local' to several counties, more of a regional game in truth, but even so it's a game that few will have come across outside of it's core Northamptonshire and Leicestershire heartland. Within this region of play there is however a truly local version which many who play the more common regional game will probably never have seen or even heard of. If we take into account the myriad different ways of playing and scoring the game we could probably say there are dozens of versions, but as far as the actual hardware is concerned, the skittles table, the pins and cheeses, the vast majority play what is commonly referred to as the Northamptonshire game, and a select few the similar but significantly different Leicester version.

Although to the keen eye they do look different in a number of subtle ways, in practical terms there is little to distinguish a true Leicester skittles table from the more common Northampton version. In fact in the villages immediately surrounding the city where Leicester tables are found, they are more or less interchangeable for both styles of the game. The principal difference is in the pins, which are much thinner and styled like those used in the Leicestershire version of Long Alley Skittles (and which may give a clue to their origin), and the cheeses, which are also smaller and made from a denser wood than those in the Northants game. These differences in turn significantly affect the way the game is played, such that a good Leicester player may not do so well in the Northants game, and vice-versa. Needless to say, the rules are markedly different too, though the same can also be said of the numerous Northamptonshire skittles leagues.

Spot the difference (Crows Nest, Leicester): On the left a W. T. Black & Son skittles table from Northampton, with a typical Leicester table on the right. The Leicester table is set with plastic 'Northants' pins as used throughout much of Leicestershire. Despite examining over a dozen of these unique Leicester tables, I've yet to find one that carries any indication of manufacturer or the individual(s) who made them.
So Leicester Table Skittles is a unique and local sub-set of a game found in at least four counties centring on Northamptonshire. A relatively rare game like this may be of particular interest to enthusiasts like myself, but the downside of this is that few have ever come across the game, and even fewer actually play it, which is of course not a good thing for the long-term survival of games like this.

In common with most traditional pub games, Leicester Skittles Tables have almost disappeared from the very centre of Leicester, and the clubs and suburban boozers where the game can still be found are often those at greatest threat of closure. From what I've seen, the players are not getting any younger too, and it's hard to see at this time where the new blood needed to ensure the games survival are likely to come from. Even so, the game is popular with those who play it, and even given its obvious decline there remain several hundred enthusiastic players competing in various leagues in the Leicester area.

The photograph above hangs in the bar of the Earl of Stamford pub in the north Leicestershire village of Birstall, and shows the pubs all-conquering 1952/3 team. Sadly this image is the only indication that skittles was ever played here, given that the pub sadly no longer has a table. Whilst it doesn't actually say so, the City League was a precursor to one or more of the current Leicester Table Skittles leagues. Of course the existence of a city league suggests the game was so well supported that county venues would have had their own league(s), and it's certainly true that this game, and the more common 'Northampton' version, were widespread in Leicester even within my relatively limited time visiting pubs in the county. Birstall is still an important centre for Leicester Table Skittles, with teams playing out of the Royal British Legion and the Social Club.

Birstall Social Club

Celebrating 80 years as a club this year, the Birstall Social Club is a modern and well-maintained club set within a striking Art Deco building in the very centre of the village. Though some games and sports continue to be supported, the clubs traditional Long Alley, probably the last in the village, has now sadly gone, and regulars informed me that few if any now play the club staples of Cribbage or Dominoes. Even the Table Skittles team had upped sticks and moved elsewhere, but returned a couple of years ago to play in the 1st division of the Leicester Mixed Table Skittles Summer League.
Plastic pins and cheese like the ones shown here at the Birstall Social Club are quite common in the Leicester game (I have a set myself), but unlike the 'Northants' version found in Leicestershire and the Rugby area of Warwickshire, they are yet to replace wooden pins and cheeses for league play.

The Tom Hoskins, Beaumanor Road, Leicester

The Tom Hoskins pub in its original guise was simply an off-license for the now defunct Hoskins Brewery, the remnants of which are still located at the rear of the building. The pub was created from brewery offices in the 1980's, and was a regular on the nascent real ale circuit for Leicester drinkers like myself at a time when so many breweries had gone over entirely to bland keg beers. The newly created pub quickly established itself as a popular destination for locals, which it remains to this day, albeit under Punch Taverns ownership now.

We drank almost exclusively in the smaller public bar (above) in those earlier Hoskins Brewery days, and I can't in all honesty recall whether there was a skittles table at the pub or not. Certainly the current table was relocated from the nearby Abbey pub following its closure in 2010, the players from which presumably form the heart of the current Tom Hoskins team. The skittles table is perhaps uniquely located in a former office of the brewery which now see's regular weekly service as a Barbers Shop.

Black Horse, Blaby

Blaby and the surrounding area to the south of Leicester remains one of the county's real hotspots for local skittles games. Long Alley is still relatively common, and both forms of Table Skittles can be found in the pubs and clubs of the area. Blaby village itself has skittles tables at the Black Horse (below), Fox & Tiger (a Northants table), and a (possibly unused) Leicester table in the skittle alley of the Bulls Head.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Dog & Bone, Lincoln

Such is the fascination for some of Britains more obscure local or regional pub games that they can sometimes crop up in the most unlikely places. Full-on pub game enthusiasts such as those at the Brunswick Arms or Golden Cross are certainly likely to have more examples than most, and my friend and fellow writer on the subject John Penny has a track record of introducing 'funny foreign' games to his local pubs in the Dorset area. There are also numerous examples where foreign visitors have been so taken with a game they've constructed their own version back home.

Then there are those who just get taken-up with an idea for a new or revived game. A bright idea amongst friends over a few too many afternoon pints, or maybe a brainwave for a charitable fundraising event. This is often the origin of some of our most eccentric and unusual gaming 'traditions'.

What led a group of Lincolnshire pubgoers to sign up for a 'World Championship' tournament in deepest Sussex is anyones guess, but needless to say, until they did there was no known tradition of Toad in the Hole play in the county, indeed little indication that the game has ever been played outside of the South-East of England.

Toad in the Hole is a game which has experienced a significant revival in its home county of Sussex in recent years. Though similar in form to the game of Pitch Penny, which can still be found in a handful of mostly Eastern counties pubs, the equipment and rules of the game are entirely unique to the area. The very simple premise of the game is the tossing of metal discs (Toads), onto a lead-topped table with a hole in the middle (the hole!). Landing a Toad cleanly on the surface scores one point, a Toad in the hole scores two.

Toads tables like the one shown here were falling out of use and heading for extinction in their home counties in the south-east, until a late 80's revival, spurred on by a bunch of local 'Toads' enthusiasts, brought the game back from the brink. This revival has been so successful that new tables continue to be built, and the local Sussex league is one of the very few pub game leagues which have actually grown in recent years. More details on the game can be found on comedian Ben Ward's excellent website, and you can follow the games progress through the season on the Lewes & District Toad in the Hole League blog.

The game of Toad in the Hole arrived in Lincoln in 2012 when a touring team from Sussex challenged locals in the city to a friendly match. The Toads Table was subsequently presented to the Lincoln players, resulting in a team attending the annual World Championships in 2015, an open competition run by the Lewes Lions.

The Dog & Bone is now home to the 'Lincoln Toads' team, with regular practice nights and competition in the pubs 'Dog Kennel' games and function room. Recently the team have initiated a North-South Divide competition, playing an invitation team from Sussex for a handsome Toads Trophy.

It's easy to see why the Lincoln Toads team might have chosen the Dog & Bone as their home base. A very traditional and beautifully maintained back-street locals pub with a great reputation for its beer, and as fine a place to settle in for a few pints and a natter as you're likely to find anywhere. The left-hand bar area (left) has a stove for cosy winter drinking, and there's a lovely garden at the rear for the summer months, which is also where you'll find the 'Dog Kennel'.

The bar is also home to a Dartboard, and hosts a team in the local Lincoln & District (Doubles Board) Darts League. The all-black Doubles Board can be seen to the right of the numerous awards the pub and licensee has received over the years (below). The Doubles board is not usually on show, but I visited on the day following a victorious home match.

The 'Dog Kennel' at the rear of the pub is of course the venue for Toad in the Hole games, but there's also a 'Pin' Bagatelle Table, Cribbage Boards, and a couple of good quality Shove Ha'penny boards. The games pile in the 'lounge bar' side of the pub (below) is also well equipped with traditional pub games and more modern board games, so it's no surprise that the pub has hosted occasional 'Pub Games Olympics' in the past.

Sadly the current licensees are moving on following several successful years at the Dog & Bone, but it's hoped that little, other than the faces behind the bar of course, will change under new stewardship.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Selly Park Tavern, Selly Park, Birmingham

Large red-brick boozers like the Selly Park Tavern are still a relatively common sight throughout Birmingham and the West Midlands, albeit that many are sadly no longer trading as pubs now. Built at a time of rapid urban population growth in areas of heavy industrialisation such as the West Midlands, with a resultant strong growth in trade for local breweries. As thirsty workers swelled their coffers, brewers were keen to expand their businesses to meet demand, often through mergers and acquisitions which created major regional brewing concerns. They were also keen to put some long overdue investment into what was often seen as a chronically neglected pub estate. A pub estate that was invariably the preserve of male drinkers, and often with a reputation for intemperate behaviour, perhaps even lawlessness.

Pubs built during this pre-war period were designed to move the trade upmarket, with many of the older backstreet beerhouses de-licensed and closed down for good, often with strong encouragement from local licensing authorities. No expense was spared on the interiors, with local craftsman creating fashionable designs in leaded glasswork, polished brass, and fixtures and fittings crafted from the finest imported hardwoods.

Built in 1901 by Holder's Brewery Ltd as the Pershore Road Inn, latterly the Selly Park Hotel. The pub lies in a suburban area of Birmingham's industrial and commercial sprawl, an area which still retains something of it's independence from the city thanks to several areas of surrounding parkland. Holder's were an important local brewing concern and their logo crops up in pubs all over Birmingham, most notably at the fabulous tile-clad Craven Arms on Upper Gough Street. The brewery was subsequently bought out and closed by Birmingham's brewing powerhouse M&B, and the pub is now owned by Ember Inns, a pubco created from the old M&B estate. Refurbishment and alterations have all-but obliterated the pubs original internal layout, but there are still a number of distinct areas within the large open-plan interior. The Holder's logo can still be seen in stonework at the front of the building, and in an attractive leaded glass window on the rear staircase (below).

The Selly Park predates the trend for what has become known as 'improved' pubs by several years, yet there are indications that the pub adopted at least some aspects of this inter-war style of pub building. These 'improved' pubs were designed to offer recreation and refreshment for all of the local community, with a multitude of individual rooms designed to appeal to different tastes and social classes. This often extended to the inclusion of a large first-floor function room, or concert/dance hall, and provision for one or more of the more genteel games of the day such as Billiards or Lawn Bowls.

Of course most of these grand turn of the century pubs have now lost their multi-room layouts (the Selly Park Tavern is no exception), victims of the late 20th century obsession with knocking everything through to one large easily managed space. But the Selly Park is unusual in that it has retained not only its Bowling Green, but also what was probably a later addition of a fully functioning Skittle Alley.

The skittle alley occupies a separate (listed?) building at the rear of the pub, which a local newspaper feature on Birmingham's better known skittle alley at Moorpool suggests was originally built to house one or more Billiard Tables. It's hard to know just how popular and widespread the game of skittles would have been in Birmingham, but there are certainly records of other alleys, including at pubs in nearby Selly Oak and Harbourne, and there was at least one league to manage competition, the Birmingham & District Skittling League. The only formal competition for skittles that now remains in Birmingham is an in-house league at the aforementioned Moorpool Skittles Club, but the alley at the Selly Park Tavern sees regular use for Skittles Nights and private functions.

To the rear of the pub is what was once a common sight in the Midlands, and one of the classics of the movement to 'Improve' pubs, the neat square of a Bowling Green. Crown Green Bowls is the game played in the Birmingham and West Midlands area, and the green at the Selly Park Tavern has the pronounced rise in the centre which is a feature of this version of bowls. Unlike Lawn Green Bowls where play is down numbered 'rinks', players launch their woods from all directions across the crown which makes for a much less sedate, sometimes loud and fast-paced game. Many of these Bowling Greens have been lost from pub sites, and many that do survive are no longer owned by the pub itself. This one is still attached to the pub, and leased to the local club. The pub itself has a pretty decent range of real ales these days, so what better way to spend a summer afternoon than spectating a game on the Selly Park Tavern's Bowling Green, or maybe an evening of skittles in what is probably Birmingham's last dedicated pub Skittle Alley.