Thursday, 12 May 2016

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

The White Bear, Tewkesbury
Tewkesbury and myself go back a long way. The town was often the base-camp for early exploratory cider trips and cycling holidays in Gloucestershire and the Vale of Evesham, and on one occasion provided a memorable stopover on a boozy River Severn boating trip. Needless to say, I'm not exactly a stranger to the numerous pubs in the town, most of which I'm pleased to say are still open and trading today.

One of my more regular haunts in the town was the Kings Head Inn on Barton Street, for no other reason than the basic front bar was one of only two regular outlets in the town for a traditional cider of sorts. Sadly the Kings Head closed permanently several years ago, but the other main cider outlet has gone from strength to strength, albeit interrupted on occasion by the severe flooding which afflicts the area.

Another pub that I remember well from my earliest visits to Tewkesbury is the Olde Black Bear, probably the towns most famous and recognisable pub. A historic warren of dark timbers and wood panelling overlooking the Severn, with enough original and unspoilt features to make it onto CAMRA's inventory of heritage pub interiors. This was the pub that we settled into on that memorable boating trip back in the late 80's, but for my money it's the nearby White Bear that's probably the best pub in town now, and not just because of the impressive range of beers and ciders on offer.

The White Bear, pictured in 2006, just a year before the devastating floods which put the pub at the centre of national news reports. The pub has suffered similar flood damage more recently, the interior now fully restored awaiting the next deluge. The original sign has been replaced with the one shown below, reflecting the pubs support for Polar Bear conservation. There are plans to hang the old sign outside the pubs skittle alley. 
The White Bear is located at the far end of the towns busy High Street, tucked away round a slight bend in the old Bredon Road and feeling more like a traditional village pub than a town centre boozer. It's a solid traditional locals pub, but one that attracts a steady stream of visitors from the nearby marina making for a very friendly mix at the bar. Noted as one of the best pubs in the area for beer and cider, it's also very games oriented.

On entering the single L-shaped bar, the pubs Pool Table dominates the right-hand space, and I can't recall a time that I've walked into the White Lion when it hasn't been in use by the locals. At the other end of the bar are two Dartboards, league play at the White Bear being in the Tewkesbury & District Darts League.

Across the yard is Tewkesburys last remaining pub Skittle Alley, protected from flood damage thanks to its location on the upper floor of a large outhouse. The alley is currently home to two teams in the Tewkesbury & District Skittles League, the colourfully named Unreliables and Rousers. The Tewkesbury league, like so many in this neck of the woods, is predominantly a clubs league now, though other alleys certainly existed at pubs in the town as recently as the late 90's. This makes the skittle alley at the White Bear something of a rarity now.

The busy High Street in Tewkesbury is the most heavily populated with pubs, some of which needless to say have been heavily modernised in recent times. Thankfully there are still a few which retain much of their historic charm. The Berkeley Arms is one such pub, a traditional local in the town, as well as an attractive venue for the many tourists and visitors to Tewkesbury. Indeed the pub is almost overlooked by Tewkesburys most popular and well-known tourist attraction, the impressive Abbey.

A truly historic half-timbered building, the front bar and smaller lounge are linked by a narrow corridor running down the side of the pub. It's been a Wadsworth Brewery house for as long as I've been coming to the town, and run along pretty traditional lines.

The licensee has brought a number of traditional pub games with him to the pub, including a Shove Ha'penny (coins available behind the bar), and an intriguing old copper-spiked Quoits Board. The rubber quoits which accompany the board are the older style convex type which more closely resemble the steel versions they were originally modelled on.

The local game of Quoits would have been a common game in this area at one time, as indeed it was in nearby Evesham and throughout much of Gloucestershire. Sadly the game has all-but disappeared throughout much of its former heartland, with the nearest league play in the Forest of Dean and Hereford. The board at the Berkeley is currently buried deep within a store room, but it's hoped that it will be dug out and installed in the bar in the near future.

The highest or 'perfect' scoring hand in Cribbage is 29. Rarely achieved by even the most persistent players, some may never score a 29 hand so you won't find too many of these hanging in a pub or club to record the event. The Berkeley has a selection of games on the windowsill of the front bar (below), including Dominoes, and a couple of 'Long' or tournament cribbage boards. Cribbage is still popular in Tewkesbury and the surrounding area, with play on Monday evenings in the town.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Crown Inn, Woolhope, Herefordshire

As a frequent visitor to Herefordshire and the wider Three Counties area since the early 1980's, I've often found it something of a disappointment that in a county so strongly associated with the traditions of cidermaking, so few of the pubs offer much in the way of high quality local cider and perry. The ciders from Westons of Much Marcle, the county's major regional producer, have always been relatively common, but the smaller producers of high quality traditional cider and perry, of which there are now many, have often been hard to find outside of a handful of rural pubs and farmshops.

I'm pleased to say that things have improved a little in recent years, with several pubs in the county specialising in ciders from the Three Counties, and many more offering at least something from one or more of the smaller local producers. The Crown Inn at Woolhope has been a notable exception in this regard for several years now. In fact the Crown specialises in Herefordshire ciders and perries as well as the best local beers and fabulous locally sourced food. There can't be too many pubs which offer a separate cider and perry menu alongside the food and wine, an entirely local selection that even includes their own home-pressed 'Kings' cider and perry. It's for this reason that I was more than happy to return to the Crown for an excellent Sunday lunch recently.

Even if cider isn't to your taste, a diversion down the narrow winding roads to Woolhope and the attractive whitewashed Crown Inn is highly recommended, particularly in the summer when the garden, overlooked by St George's church, really comes into its own. Watch out for the local wildlife though, I very nearly had my lunch stolen by a particularly cheeky Blackbird the first time I visited the pub. Yes, even the birds love it at the Crown Inn.

The attention to detail at the Crown Inn extends to a luxury heated and covered smoking shelter at the rear of the pub (below). This space also houses the pubs Table Football, a Dartboard, and Herefordshire's local pub game Quoits. The Crown's Quoits board is a fairly typical concrete example, the standard for boards in the nearby Hereford city league. Painted in the traditional red and green and seated on a steel frame, netted to catch stray Quoits. The table is brought inside and positioned at the Darts oche for more serious play, but a set of Quoits are available from the bar for casual summertime games.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Hathern, Leicestershire

The trouble with visiting so many good pubs in pursuit of Britains unique games heritage (and good beer of course), is that I now have a list as long as a Yard of Ale of places I absolutely, definitely, must return to... one day! The sad fact is, I may never find the time to return to some of them, and the way things have been going in the licensed trade of late, who's to say how many will still be there when I do find time to revisit the very best of them.

Great pubs like the Dew Drop in Hathern are right up there at the top of my 'must return' list, in fact I'm definitely planning a return visit the next time I'm in nearby Loughborough with friends and a set of Dominoes. It's that kind of pub.

Unpretentious, well-run and welcoming, and possessing an indefinable 'rightness' that sets you at ease the moment you walk through the door. Even on a sleepy midweek lunchtime I found it a pretty hard pub to leave, the dark, moreish Greene King XX Mild going down all-too easily, the conversation flowing just as freely at the bar.

The Dew Drop is a fabulously unspoilt locals pub, largely unchanged since alterations in the 1930's, and as such it features on CAMRA's list of Heritage Pub Interiors. A Hardy's & Hansons brewery pub up until the Kimberley Brewery was acquired and summarily closed in 2006 by Greene King, hence the Kimberley Ales livery on the doors concealing the pubs Dartboard. Hence also the presence of a dark mild on the bar, albeit Greene King's version rather than the discontinued Kimberley Mild that would have been a firm favourite with the locals.

Hardy's & Hansons had a pub estate which stretched well into neighbouring Leicestershire, and like it's near competitor Shipstones, their pubs were predominantly traditional multi-room drinkers pubs like the Dew Drop. Many of these have now either closed for good, or changed beyond recognition, so the Dew Drop is a rare and important survivor. The tradition of bar-room games play also continues at the pub, with Dominoes and Darts played in local leagues. The licensee was also looking forward to welcoming a locally displaced Cribbage team to the pub when I visited, presumably victims of a nearby pub closure or crass refurbishment. Or maybe they just prefer the beer in the Dew Drop!

Of the four pubs in Hathern, the Dew Drop is certainly the most traditional and unchanged, but the Three Crowns (below), tucked away off the main road in the heart of the village, retains much of it's multi-room layout. It also retains a very good Skittle Alley, equipped for playing the local Leicestershire version of Long Alley Skittles. Note the murals painted at the business end of the alley featuring scenes from the village, including the nearby church and cross.

Sadly there are no teams playing out of the Three Crowns skittle alley at this time, but it is available to book for social functions. The main gaming activity at the pub is Pétanque (there is also a piste at the Anchor in the village), a very popular summer activity in this part of the county.

The Three Crowns fields three teams in the local 1990 Pétanque League, the floodlit piste at the rear of the pub (below) being large enough to accommodate all but the most poorly planned fixture clashes. Fixtures for the 2016 season get under way in May.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

White Hart, South Kilworth, Leicestershire

The road from Market Harborough to Lutterworth winds its way through five attractive south Leicestershire villages. Under its original designation as the A427 it was quite a busy route onwards to Coventry, but is now largely bypassed by the A14 and hence a minor A-road these days. As recently as the early 90's there were eight pubs dotted along its length, some of which were very popular destinations indeed. Driving the route in recent years it had come as something of a shock to me that this figure had fallen to just two open pubs, such has been the impact of diverted traffic, and of course the more general decline in pub-going.

The Coach & Horses in Lubbenham and The Bell at Husbands Bosworth were for a time the only pubs still offering refreshment to villagers and travellers, following the permanent closure of four of these eight pubs, and what would prove to be the temporary closure of two more. The good news today is that the White Lion at South Kilworth has reopened, albeit as a wine bar/restaurant, and the Black Horse at Walcote is due to open again shortly in the safe hands of community ownership. The latter is keenly anticipated by both villagers and visitors alike, the Black Horse having had a great reputation for its beer and Thai food back in the day.

Thankfully for those travellers with a thirst and a desire to explore the lesser known byways of rural Leicestershire, there have always been a number of good village pubs located just off the main drag, some of which have already featured on this blog. The White Hart at South Kilworth is one example, a village local just south of the main road and well worth the short detour. It's also one of only a handful of village pubs in this part of the county that opens at lunchtime with any degree of regularity (though not on Wednesdays).

I visited the White Hart on one of those bright winter lunchtimes just made for walking across fields and exploring village churchyards (the pub lies opposite the parish church of St Nicholas'). The fire was lit, and the Sunday lunchtime locals were just starting to drift in, all the talk on the weekends international rugby. Warm, welcoming, exactly the kind of pub that generations of locals, and a fair few travellers have been retreating to on a cold winter days like this for years. It's a pub I hardly knew about if I'm honest, but one that I've added to my list of occasional visits when in the area.

This area of south Leicestershire is one of the hotbeds of Leicestershire Table Skittles play. At least four of the pubs on the main road from Lutterworth to Market Harborough were equipped with a skittles table (only the Coach & Horses at Lubbenham has one now), indeed I recall playing a game at the White Horse in the days when it was a traditional and popular Marston's pub. Most of the village pubs hereabouts have a table, and I believe all of these compete in one or more of the local leagues. There's even a chance that the community running the Black Horse could reinstate a table to the village of Walcote, the Tavern Inn being the home of skittles in the village until its recent , and untimely closure and conversion to housing.

The White Hart's skittles table sits at the far end of the pubs games area along with the Dartboard and Pool Table. It's a W T Black & Son table, the turned wooden legs marking it out as an earlier model than most. The pins and cheeses are yellow plastic, which is the standard for play in many of the Leicestershire and Warwickshire leagues. The White Hart fields teams in the Dunton Bassett Skittles League, as well as a team in the Ladies League, with play on Monday and Wednesday evenings.

Trophies for Pool and Skittles are displayed next to the wood-burning stove. Keen-eyed gamers will also notice the Ruddles Brewery branded Shove Ha'penny at the back.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.26

Given that so much of the heritage of central Leicester continues to be casually brushed aside by developers and the council, and so many of its old pubs closed or modernised beyond recognition (the architecturally important Black Boy being the latest undervalued gem under threat of demolition), it's a wonder that a pub as honest and relatively unspoilt as The Salmon has managed to survive. Particularly given the pubs close proximity to the grim Highcross shopping centre, and the chronically congested roads that service it.

The Salmon is a pub I've been frequenting on and off for most of my adult life. Initially as a two-room Banks's Brewery pub, a basic tile-floored public bar to the right, a plusher carpeted lounge to the left. Around the late 1990's the partition between bar and lounge was knocked through, creating a single room wrapped around the central servery. At this point the brewery gave the pub a full, and it has to be said, very attractive 'Unspoilt By Progress' makeover. That the polished dark wood and brewery branded brass fittings remain to this day is testament to the quality of the work. The pub was eventually released from the Banks's (now Marston's) empire, and a period as a freehouse specialising in real ales followed.

Ownership of the pub has now returned to the West Midlands under the stewardship of Black Country Ales, a traditional family brewer with a strong commitment to running largely 'wet-led' pubs like The Salmon. The pub remains one of the most traditional and largely unspoilt drinkers venues in the city centre, popular with both beer enthusiasts and rugby fans (the pub can be very busy on match days).

It's also the perfect venue for an afternoon game of Dominoes, or maybe even Shove Ha'penny, though we had to take our own board for the game shown above. Following the transition to Black Country Ales ownership, the Dartboard has also returned to what was the original quarry tile floored bar area, and in common with its equally traditional sister pub the Kings Head, the licensee is keen to field teams in local leagues.

There can be few more iconic images of early 20th century pub-going than that of a group of men, settled at a table with pints at hand, playing Dominoes or Cards, and smoking roll-ups. Smoking and social activities such as game play, were until relatively recently as much a part of the pub experience as the beer, and it's for this reason that so much of the old advertising paraphernalia that once adorned pubs is for cigarette and tobacco brands. In fact the bewildering array of tobacco products available at the time, including those for the almost extinct habits of chewing and snuff-taking, feature far more frequently on advertising than any drinks brands. This is probably because most pubs were wholly tied to a brewery in those days, and whilst every pub would have had a reasonable choice of tobacco brands, there would have been little choice when it came to the beer. Little point then in advertising what people were compelled to drink anyway by virtue of the tie.

Dominoes, Cards, and Cribbage Boards, were the ideal vehicle for advertising tobacco products. The Franklyn's branded Dominoes shown above are unusual hollow tinplate examples, the spots formed by holes in the metal. Not at all nice to play with actually. The Bakelite Park Drive set (left) are much more comfortable in the hand, and far and away the most common type of advertising Dominoes I've come across. Indeed these are the kind I prefer to use myself, being slightly smaller in the hand than the 'club' sets commonly used in league play these days.

The snug front bar of the Man of Ross (above) is for me one of the most pleasant venues for a pint in the centre of Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire. Cosy and comfortable, with a good mix of locals and visitors like myself. It has the feel of a vintage hotel bar, but this is definitely a pub. There's a Dartboard, and a regular Wednesday night Quiz. There's also a number of trophies for the local Skittles League, slightly incongruous given that the pub does not, and probably never has had a skittle alley. The trophies belong to a local team who prefer to use the Man of Ross as their home base, which I suppose only goes to confirm my own feelings about the pub.

The Digbeth area of Birmingham is little more than ten minutes walk from New Street station, and has a number of truly outstanding heritage pubs that should be on every pub-goers list of 'must-visits'.

Pick of the bunch for me is the White Swan, one of several classic Victorian 'terracotta and tile' pubs in the area, built at a time when the local brewery Ansells seemed to be vying with their competitors over who could offer customers the most opulent drinking environment. Unspoilt and beautifully maintained, the White Swan is as fine an example of a Victorian urban boozer as you'll find anywhere in the country, and with a welcome to match I might add.

To the right of the servery, which stretches almost the full length of the public bar, is the pubs Dartboard (above), behind which is the original off-sales, intact though currently not in use. A table-topper with attached cribbage board is stored in the off-sales room, and available for games of Dominoes or Cards on request.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Cross Keys, Barwell, Leicestershire

A village the size of Barwell might be expected to support around half a dozen pubs, indeed this is exactly the number listed in a local CAMRA pub guide of 1979. What's perhaps surprising is that even with the loss of the historic Three Crowns, and modern estate pub the Red Hall (latterly the Boot & Shoe), the figure remains at six today. There can't be too many villages which can boast the same number of pubs they had 30-odd years ago, although it has to be said that at least one club has closed in the village, so the overall number of licensed premises is in fact down. Nevertheless, Barwell folk seem to appreciate their pubs in a way that many villagers sadly no longer do.

These six pubs, along with the Constitutional Club, continue to offer something for all the residents of Barwell. There's a sports dominated pub for younger drinkers, most offer food of some description, and there's at least one traditional wet-led community local where traditional pub games and sport are just about as important to the customers as the beer.

The Cross Keys is the kind of friendly village boozer where just about every competitive pub pastime is represented in one form or another, and there's rarely a night when something sporty or games oriented isn't going on. Televised sport is of course the lifeblood of pubs like the Cross Keys, football in particular, including enthusiastic support for the local Barwell FC. League Dominoes and Darts are staples of the Cross Keys bar room, as well as Pool, played in the Hinckley District Pool League. There's also a popular Quiz Night on the first Wednesday of the month, and games even make a showing as part of the Christmas celebrations. The Cross Keys Christmas Knockouts event was established as an annual fixture in 2014. An open competition featuring almost all of the games played at the pub, rifle shooting being one notable, though entirely understandable exception!

Not too many traditional Skittle Alleys remain in the Hinckley area of Leicestershire now, in fact Barwell may represent the very edge of Long Alley Skittles play on this side of the county. It's perhaps just as well that the alley is in such regular use then. Not only does the Cross Keys skittle alley play host to a team in the Tom Bishop Long Alley Skittles League, but it's also the venue for Darts tournaments and competitive Air Rifle Shooting.

Barwell may be on the very edge of the Leicestershire Long Alley Skittles tradition, but Bell Target Shooting has been popular in this part of the East Midlands for a very long time, perhaps even as far back as the sport's Victorian origins.

The fascinating history of competitive small bore rifle shooting can be found on the Bell Target Shooting website, but essentially the sport was established and encouraged nationally as a result of the poor standard of rifle shooting observed during the Boer War. The Smallshaws Air Rifle Club shoot at both Bell and Paper targets in the Cross Keys skittle alley, and compete in the Hinckley & District Air Rifle League.

The Hinckley & Bosworth Licensed Victuallers Association no longer exist under that name as far as I'm aware, yet the Domino league still carries the LVA title. Such are traditions maintained, and unnecessary change resisted in the world of 'Fives & Threes' Domino play. The back room at the pub (below) houses yet another Dartboard, and the Pool Table.