I'm indebted to my friend and fellow pub games enthusiast John Penny for the above image, which shows pub games writer and historian Arthur Taylor spinning one of Johns handmade Norfolk (or Dorset) Twisters in the bar of his local, the Rose & Crown, Bradford Abbas, Dorset. Arthur is accompanied here by Mary Ashby, licensee and custodian of this historic Dorset pub. Arthur Taylor is the foremost authority on British traditional pub games, and has written several books on the subject including the current definitive reference work, 'Played at the Pub: The Pub Games of Britain'.
The game of Twister is essentially a simplified version of Roulette, and in days gone by, the focus of illicit gambling activity in the Tap Rooms and Parlour Bars where they were installed. Quite a rare regional curiosity now, this and games like it were probably more widespread at one time, but given the nature of the game it's perhaps no surprise that they've all but disappeared from the licensed trade now. Only a handful of original examples survive in situ, mostly located at pubs in the Eastern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. Of course those that have survived are no longer used for their original purpose, more likely games involving forfeits, or perhaps deciding who's round it is next. John Penny has introduced (or re-introduced) the game to his native Dorset, where this and at least two other examples can be found.
Note the sign above the doorway for the pubs equally historic Skittle Alley. The Rose & Crown's alley features in possibly the oldest filmed record of a skittles game in progress, a 1936 British Movietone newsreel, pithily entitled 'Athletics' (below). In this wonderful old footage, four 'Lads of the Village', boasting a combined age of 357 at the time of filming, are seen delivering heavyweight balls down the pubs skittle alley. The 'Lads' are obviously old-hands at the game, achieving some measure of accuracy in the task if perhaps not the 'weight' of their youth. The commentary deals with the subject in a typically patronizing style common to these early newsreels, particularly when dealing with the everyday pursuits of ordinary working folk. But there's no doubting the authenticity of the game, which was probably only slightly staged for the cameras! In fact looking at this footage it's remarkable how little the game has changed in the intervening 80-odd years.
Whilst Northamptonshire Table Skittles, or Hood Skittles is almost unheard of outside of the East Midlands, it was a popular enough game in its post-war heyday to have spread to all the surrounding counties. This widespread popularity has certainly contracted in recent years. The game is still relatively common in the counties of Bedfordshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire, but in others such as Cambridgeshire, Huntingdon and Oxfordshire, Skittles Tables are thin on the ground and rarely supported by league play.
Buckinghamshire is not regarded as having any surviving skittles tradition as far as I can tell, and yet just over the border from Northamptonshire, a good 'Peppers' brothers table stands ready for play in the bar of the Fox & Hounds in Stony Stratford (above & below). Apparently another table exists at a social club in the town, and it seems likely that the game was once popular throughout the area, perhaps even further south and into Hertfordshire.
This Quoits Board breaks the mould by having a pale blue surround, but everything else about it is entirely correct. Constructed from Pitch Pine, thickly painted, and with a chain attached for hanging up in the bar of whatever pub it originally came from. I purchased this Quoits Board from a dealer, and needless to say he claimed to know nothing of its history!
This standardised design, in both colour and dimensions, is slightly unusual for a regional pub game based almost entirely on locally hand-made equipment. Some of the boards I've seen, this one included, are quite old and clearly homemade, and I would have expected some measure of variation from league to league, particularly given that the rules of the game do indeed vary significantly across the games current heartland of the Three Counties and Welsh Border area. Such is the nature of 'lowly' pub games like these that very few records exist from their earlier days. Pub gaming being so commonplace and taken for granted even now, that written accounts are scarce.
Of all the many different Cribbage Boards that have been fabricated over the years, it's the homemade examples that particularly fascinate me. Most are fairly rough and ready it's true, knocked-up from an offcut of wood, no fancy embelishments, simply designed to do a job. Others are pieces of real craftsmanship, often made from exotic and expensive timbers, beautifully inlaid and bearing a deep patina acquired from many decades of use. For my taste, manufactured Cribbage Boards lack this indefinable 'social' heritage, the human touch of an object knocked-up in a shed by a pub regular.
What manufactured boards lack in simple rustic charm, they make up for in build quality, design, and finish. The Cribbage Board shown here for example is a fairly simple board, a cheap enough item, inlaid with thin laminates of more expensive timbers, but with an extra design feature to accommodate the rare occasion of a three player game. This third scoring track was probably not often used since both Cribbage and Dominoes are traditionally played by four people as a game of Doubles. Nevertheless, it's a nice feature which covers all bases, and I particularly like the way the swinging arm conceals a row of holes for three sets of Crib Pegs. A clever design feature.