Sunday, 16 September 2018

Foresters Arms, Dunster, Somerset

Has there ever been a worse time to return to a much-loved pub after a long break? Change, as we all know, is a given in the pub trade, but for traditionalists like myself the wholesale changes that have occurred over the last few decades have more often than not been anything but good.

From the widespread 'knocking-through' of classic multi-room pubs in the 1980's, to the bland, blonde wood and sofa refurbs of more recent times. Add to that several decades of chronic pubco-inspired neglect and the epidemic of closures that inevitably followed, and the maxim that 'things ain't what they used to be' has never seemed more apt. It was with this in mind that I visited the Foresters Arms, a Somerset boozer that's been a regular, if infrequent stop for me when holidaying in the Minehead area for around three decades now. I needn't have worried...

The Foresters might be regarded as the last proper locals pub in Dunster, a village that's extremely well served with cafes, restaurants, and generally food-oriented venues like the historic Luttrell Arms. Under the same ownership for longer than most these days, the pub is reassuringly much the same now as I recall from previous visits. It's worth a visit if only to admire the rare surviving thatched and barrel-fronted bar servery (above), a once common feature of village pubs in the 70's and 80's, though sadly not, as yet, old enough to be considered for statutory listing...

What attracted me to the Foresters first time round was the presence of decent traditional cider, not nearly as common as you'd think in West Country pubs back then, and which I'm pleased to say is still a popular feature of the bar today. I also have fond memories of Nelson, the pubs highly vocal (and frequently very rude!) African Grey Parrot. It's that kind of a pub! So if you're easily offended by swearing parrots or enthusiastic cider drinkers (or dogs for that matter, there were a lot of dogs about the place), other pubs and bars are available in the village...

We tried them all on our most recent visit, and I think it's fair to say there's something for (almost) everyone in this busy tourist hotspot, but it was the Foresters that we felt most comfortable in, returning almost every night for the local Cotleigh Brewery beers, and to notch up another game in our traditional holiday Dominoes 'tournament'. A steady trickle of end-of-season tourists like ourselves, and a hardcore of chatty locals all received the same warm welcome from the licensees, a welcome which also extended to that lifeblood of village pubs like the Foresters, the home and away darts teams, who's lively Wednesday night game in the Minehead & District Darts League even silenced Nelson for a short time!

One aspect of the pub that I wasn't previously aware of was the Skittle Alley at the rear of the pub. Skittles is still a very important part of pub-going for locals throughout the West Country, with literally thousands of men and women enjoying fierce and/or friendly competition in hundreds of local leagues. Sadly a great many skittle alleys have been lost to refurbishment and closures in recent years, but the alley at the Foresters is in fine fettle, and host to league play throughout the winter months in the local Dunster League.

Alley skittles play in much of the country is by necessity confined to the Winter months, for the simple reason that it's easier to get a team up outside of the Summer holiday season. It's therefore not unusual to find alleys like the one at the Foresters, which is entirely separate from the warmth of the pub itself, often come equipped with a heat-source, in this case a substantial wood-burning stove. Skittles players show admirable commitment to the traditions of league play, even through the depths of winter, but an unheated skittle alley might be a game too far for some.

Of course there have been one or two changes at the Foresters in recent years. The now obligatory wooden baton across the delivery-end of the skittle alley is a new-ish addition. An aid to the 'modern' phenomena of the two-handed 'Flop' delivery, developed for accuracy, and small-handed folk like myself who find the heavy Lignum Vitae balls something of a handful. Until recently the alley was fitted-out with four Dartboards for local league play, an indication of just how popular the game was in the area. There's now just the one well-used board in the games area along with a Pool Table. And an African Grey Parrot!

A Shove Ha'penny board went missing from the pub a few years ago, possibly around the same time the swinging pub sign disappeared from it's gantry (the photograph above with the sign intact is from one of my earlier visits). Perhaps it will have returned by the time I visit the Foresters again, though hopefully little else will have changed. There's little need for yet another gastro venue in the village, proper locals pubs like the Foresters Arms are getting ever harder to find.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Cambridge Skittles - Girton Social Club, Cambridgeshire

If there's one game that perhaps best demonstrates the wide variety, and very local nature of traditional pub games, skittles is surely it. Almost everywhere you care to look in England (and to a lesser extent the rest of the British Isles), a unique local version of what is basically the same game can be found. Sometimes the differences are obvious, the equipment and rules of play radically different. More often though the variation is more subtle. That this local distinctiveness has survived when most other games and sports have evolved to a single national or international standard, is a major part of the appeal of pub games to enthusiasts like myself.

In the case of skittles, the only truly common factor throughout the numerous versions of the game is the number of pins used in play, the familiar diamond arrangement of nine wooden (or plastic!) skittles being the standard everywhere (except the very old twin alleys at Moor Pool in Birmingham and the Sheeps Heid Inn Edinburgh, which are equipped for a 10 pin game).

The particular version of skittles that I'm most familiar with is Table Skittles as played in the East Midlands, and the counties of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire in particular. Yet even in the Midlands there's wide variation in the way the game is played. Different rules and playing conventions apply in leagues throughout the region, even though the equipment used is largely the same.

Table Skittles is not just confined to the Midlands though. In the southeast of England the game of Daddlums clings on, albeit with just one original pub table in regular use at the Jolly Drayman in Gravesend. Other tables do exist, but the Jolly Drayman represents the last continuous link with a table skittles tradition that would have originally encompassed several counties in the south-east. Indeed Daddlums itself seems to have been the southern edge of a much wider table skittles tradition found throughout England's eastern counties, including Anglia and up as far north as Lincolnshire.

Whilst the Northamptonshire and Leicestershire game is still relatively common, practically all the skittles tables of this wider south-eastern tradition are long gone. Only photographs and video footage of the Anglian game are known to exist, and just two or three original Daddlums tables remain. There is however an active skittles league, geographically close-by, that might be considered part of this massively shrunken tradition. A game that has much in common with that found in the Midlands, something of the Anglian version in appearance, and perhaps most interestingly of all, a game played to the rules of an alley skittles game found only in London, and which some have suggested may represent the origin of table skittles itself.

Cambridge Skittles

At first glance there seems little to differentiate the game played in the Cambridge & District Skittles League from the more common Northamptonshire game, but there are in fact several important differences. Let's start with the equipment itself, the example above being the table from the Carlton Arms, a suburban local a mile or so north of Cambridge city centre and whose 'B' team are the current league champions.

The tables for the Cambridge game are in fact very similar to that found in the Midlands, but noticeably smaller. In common with the unique tables used in the Leicester Table Skittles leagues, there seems to be enough variation in construction, and lack of makers details, to suggest these tables would have been crafted locally by a skilled carpenter or joiner rather than manufactured as most Northamptonshire tables are. Thick padding to the back of the table as well as the sides, and no netting 'hood' are other obvious differences.

The pins are not only smaller than standard Northants skittles, but have a straighter profile making them more slender and slightly less top-heavy. The small hardwood cheeses are oval in profile, more like those of the old Norfolk table skittles game than the flatter 'edam' shaped cheeses used in the Midlands. In fact these pins and cheeses most closely resemble those which Timothy Finn photographed in a Norfolk pub for his 1975 book Pub Games of England.

Though I've yet to visit the club, I've also seen images of another two tables located at The Rathmore in Cambridge, and these seem to be identical in form.

So a smaller version of the common Midlands game. Interesting but hardly newsworthy, and certainly not significant enough to suggest we're dealing with a uniquely different game here. The major difference though, the one that sets the small, somewhat isolated Cambridge League apart from others, is the rules of play. These are entirely different to the Midlands game, indeed entirely different to almost all skittles played in Britain, yet they're more or less exactly the same as the rare London alley skittles game already mentioned.

In just about every table skittles league I've come across up to now, team rules vary widely, but the basic rules of play are the same, and fairly straightforward it must be said. Three cheeses are thrown at nine skittles, the aim being to achieve the highest score. If all the pins are knocked down with the first cheese, they are re-set for the second, and similarly for the third, giving a maximum score of 27 (3 x 9). In the Cambridge game the aim is entirely different (left).

Up to four cheeses are thrown, the aim being to knock all pins down. Therefore, a 'floorer', where all pins go down with the first throw scores the maximum points of 1 (the lowest score in a match wins), if it takes all four throws to knock all pins down, that's a score of 4, whereas if after all four throws any pins remain standing, that's a (presumably shameful) score of 5!

This is more or less exactly the scoring method employed in London Skittles, and a braver man than me might suggest the location of Cambridge, in an area known to have once played host to this old game, yet also close to the Eastern counties table skittles tradition, may have developed as a kind of hybrid of the two, a genuinely different and unique game.

Not as far fetched as it might sound. There are numerous examples of indoor games that have developed from a similar outdoor version, presumably for continuance of play during the colder winter months when alleys and pitches were often genuinely 'outdoor', or at best in covered but unheated outhouses. The Leicester Table Skittles game is a good example of this. The pins are shaped in a similar fashion to the much larger Long Alley Skittles game played in the same area, even down to the inclusion of a king pin, a feature which is unique to the various table skittles traditions. Is Cambridge Table Skittles the indoor version of the game now known as London Skittles?...

It's also interesting that the image at the centre of the magnificent Mixed Pairs shield shown at the head of this post, which dates from the late 60's, seems to show the game being played on a table which more closely resembles a Daddlums table than anything found further west of Cambridge.

The Cambridge & District League is currently made up of seven teams playing from six venues in the wider Cambridge area, only one of which, the Carlton, is a pub. It's difficult to know how widespread the league(s) for skittles in the area would have been, in common with most pub games there's scant coverage or records to be found outside of the individuals who played the game. I think it's safe to say there would have been many more pubs and clubs equipped with a table, certainly up until the late 20th century when many pub games suffered a catastrophic decline. There's a very good photo in this news feature of The Empress skittles team, a pub on the very edge of the city centre, and I've little doubt this was a common enough sight in many of the city's backstreet locals.

The league may be small, but it's well supported, and an early adopter of social media to keep players informed and help promote the game locally.

Girton Social Club

The table shown above is the home table for the Girton Social Club, acquired only a few years ago from a former venue, and only in league use at the club for the past couple of seasons. The club celebrated it's 100th year in 2011, the history of which can be read here. When I arrived at lunchtime on a Saturday, club members were in the middle of setting up for a locals 70th birthday party, but very kindly accommodated me and my camera, indeed the club is happy to sign in visitors like myself for a pint and a game (though a huge disco setup prevented me from actually having a chuck!). All the main social games of the day are enjoyed at the club, including Darts, Pool, Cribbage, and Dominoes, a true social venue in an area where so many of the pubs have become little more than upmarket restaurants and gastro-pubs.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Rising Sun, Bream, Gloucestershire

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the pub...

From Whitecroft Station in the Forest Of Dean, it's only a mile to the Rising Sun at Bream. I knew this because I'd checked and double-checked my somewhat dog-eared vintage Ordnance Survey map prior to the trip, and decided the walk would pleasantly fill the hour between my arrival at the station, and lunchtime opening at the nearby Miners Arms. When a volunteer at the station suggested it was "...a bit of a walk!" and offered a lift most of the way, I naturally declined. A lift! It's only a mile! Does he even know the area?...

I really must take the time to read Ordnance Survey maps just that little bit more carefully. A solitary mile it may have been, but even a cursory glance at the map should have alerted me to the dozen or so tightly packed contour lines that I'd spend the next half-hour or so wearily trudging across. Red-faced, cursing, smiling back through gritted teeth as yet another peloton of lycra-clad, rake-thin cyclists cheerily glided past me with apparent ease. Oh for a lift... By the time I arrived at my destination, I really needed a drink.

So my rusty map-reading skills need to improve, but at least I got the opening hours of the pub right, something of a lottery in rural England these days but you can usually rely on lunchtime opening on a Saturday.

With the permanent closure of the nearby Cross Keys, the Rising Sun is now the only pub in the village of Bream. Needless to say it's very-much a locals pub, but in common with most hostelries in the forest in my experience, equally welcoming to visitors like myself. The bar is a fairly intimate affair, annexed by a slightly larger 'lounge' (above), and the all-important games room that was the principal motivation for my short stroll up the hill. I ordered something refreshing from the ever-reliable Wye Valley Brewery, propped the bar up, and chatted hill-climbs and Quoits with the locals.

The Royal Forest Of Dean Quoits League is, reassuringly, more or less exactly where it was the first time I investigated it a few years ago. Which is to say that whilst there's been some shuffling around of venues, there are still eight teams in the league, including two that call the Rising Sun home. Quoits is certainly not the most widely played game at the pub, nor indeed in the Forest, as the numerous trophies around the bar for Darts indicates, but it's an important survivor in an area where league game play of any description can be difficult to sustain.

Although there's still a good appetite for pub games like Quoits, Darts, and Skittles in the forest, getting a team together when so much work in the area is on a shift basis can be quite a challenge. In practice, a pub needs to sign up a relatively large pool of players at the beginning of the season as cover for work-based unavailability, though one thing that works in the favour of a relatively small league like the one for Quoits is the close geographical spread of the venues.

The Quoits 'Board' at the Rising Sun is the same moulded concrete type found throughout the forest, indeed the only wooden board I've come across is at the nearby Fountain at Parkend (currently not fielding a team in the league). Plain white is the colour, another unique feature of the forest league. I've found that concrete boards like this are quite common throughout the whole of the Quoiting region, the Hereford League seems to favour them for example, but most maintain the traditional red and green colour scheme.

Another interesting aspect of play in the forest is the Quoits themselves, which are more often than not the older 'convex' type (below). These more closely resemble the steel quoits that the indoor game would have originally developed from. Whether these are vintage survivors or still available to buy new I couldn't say, but outside of the Forest of Dean the standard form seems to be the flat Quoit, one side black, the other white to indicate the scoring side. League-standard quoits like these are made from a particularly soft kind of rubber, which 'slaps' down onto the playing surface with less of a tendency to bounce off than harder rubber types.

In common with most pub games leagues, the Royal Forest Of Dean Quoits League supports a range of competition, from the standard home and away league, to cup knockout tournaments such as the 5-a-side shown here.

Play follows what a local described as 'Evesham Rules', which means using the unique scoreboard shown below. Play is not simply a case of the highest score, or as in the Hereford league, a countdown similar to Darts. In the Forest and other leagues players are required to score each of the numbers on the scoreboard, the figure scored flipped over when it's been achieved. This certainly makes for a more skilful game, in fact it took me most of a pint to achieve the 'full-house' on a similar scoreboard at the nearby Royal Oak, Whitecroft. What was I doing at the Royal Oak? Well, walking downhill for a mile tends to pull a bit on the calf muscles, and with no lift available I really needed a drink by the time I got back to Whitecroft...

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Thorn Tree Inn, Belper, Derbyshire

The Derbyshire town of Belper has, in recent years, become one of my more regular weekday pub destinations. A former mill town in the attractive Derwent Valley, and just a short train ride north of Derby, Belper forms a major part of the Derwant Valley Mills World Heritage Site, and as such is a bit of a treat for lovers of our industrial past. For many though, the town is likely to be just a staging post on the road to nearby Matlock and the Bank Holiday 'seaside' attractions at Matlock Bath. But one thing that Belper has which puts Matlock firmly in the shade, is an unusually high number of pubs, many of which are very fine traditional locals.

Clearly Belper folk like their beer, and thankfully they seem to prefer drinking it in the highly social surroundings of their local pub rather than at home. Of course not all of the towns pubs have escaped the blight of closures which continue to affect just about all parts of the country, but there's still more than enough to go at on a weekday afternoon, including a few personal favourites. The cosy and welcoming George & Dragon (left) was a return visit for me and has already featured on this blog. One of the few early openers on the Wednesday I was in town, and notable for it's traditional outdoor skittle alley, wood-burning stove, excellent draught Bass, and friendly pub dog. A new attraction for me was the recently opened Angels Micro Pub, which along with the towns Arkwright Real Ale Bar (another skittles venue) helps service the needs of local beer enthusiasts by offering a more eclectic range than most.

Another pub with a particularly strong emphasis on its beer range is the Thorn Tree Inn. This pub was recently reopened by local mother and daughter team April and Amber Rose Elliot after a period of neglect and eventual closure, and it's this 'good news story' that was the principal inspiration for my most recent visit to the town.

The Thorn Tree Inn is set a short walk out of the town centre. A solid stone-built wedge of a pub dividing the main Chesterfield Road and smaller Swinney Lane, it's a classic locals pub with a traditional bar in the narrowest part of the wedge, and a slightly larger lounge-bar, warmed by a good fire on the day I visited. The focus on a range of local Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire brewers ales stems from the licensees experience working at the towns Arkwright Real Ale Bar, and in a town which is slightly dominated by Marston's beers, represents a good point of difference.

Darts and Dominoes are played at the pub, and it's hoped that the Thorn Tree will once again be fielding a team in the local Belper & District Skittles League for the forthcoming season. The Belper league is very active in the area, with around 30 teams playing league matches throughout the summer months in three divisions, as well as as all manner of knockout and multiple player competitions. As with most venues in the area, the skittle alley is an outdoor one at the rear of the pub.

A Horseshoe on the timber decking marks the throwing point for the skittle alley, and a brick-built extension to the pub makes for an interesting bottleneck at its centre-point. Whether this contributes any significant home advantage is hard to say, it certainly looks a bit challenging to me, though presumably offers no real restriction to the throw. I would imagine that the Frame (below) needed to be re-set to a new angle following the building of this extension.

The view of the valley from the decking is impressive even on a misty winter day

Monday, 3 April 2017

Bridge Inn, Worcester

The Bridge Inn c.1972
In the four years I've been writing this blog, one thing has become increasingly, indeed sometimes painfully apparent. Whenever I get the chance to return to a pub, perhaps one that I've featured for a particularly rare or unusual traditional pub game, all too often I find there's been a change of licensee or owner, sometimes an all-encompassing refurbishment, and often little or no sign of the traditional games that attracted me in the first place. That's assuming that the pub is still open of course..

One of the reasons I started documenting these games and pubs in the first place was the current and continuing turbulence in the licensed trade. I wanted to highlight what is often an under-promoted and largely unappreciated aspect of pub-going, but also provide a snapshot of where we are now, a lasting record of what continues to be lost on an almost daily basis.

Whilst I understand that pubs have always had to change and adapt to the market, and the priority should always be to keep pubs open wherever possible, and however that might be achieved, it still saddens me when I arrive at a pub and find the skittle alley closed, the Dartboard removed, the pub re-invented for a different, often less inclusive clientele where the age-old traditions of social game play are no longer part of the business model.

Just occasionally though, I find that the opposite is true, as is the case at the Bridge Inn, an historic pub close to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Lowesmoor in Worcester. I featured the Bridge in a blog post on Worcester Skittles not more than 18 months ago, photographing the sadly neglected skittle alley as a kind of final record, given that everyone I spoke to that day claimed the pub was closing for good and the alley likely to be demolished. I'm delighted to say that the predicted demise the pub and its skittle alley has proved to be premature.

Around a year after I first visited, the Bridge Inn reopened under new, enthusiastic ownership, and has quickly re-established itself as the locals pub it's always been. The pub was in a pretty poor state of repair when I visited last year, a handful of locals polishing off the beer ahead of a final closing party scheduled for that evening. The main bar area was all dark wood and tatty furnishings, not at all inviting it must be said, but even then I could see there was an attractive pub waiting to be rediscovered underneath the years of neglect. It's this bright and attractive space that the current licensees have revealed following an extensive refurbishment (above). An historic pub on the verge of being lost forever is now spruced-up and fit for purpose again.

The separate Skittle Alley (above) at the rear of the pub had fallen into disuse and disrepair under the previous tenants (left), littered with equipment from band practices and parties. The alley surface has now been fully restored to the standard required for league matches, though like most alleys of this type it will still be used for functions from time to time. Sadly the unique 'House Champions' wall plaque that decorated the end of the alley (see previous post) had gone missing before the current licensees arrived.

Two men's and a ladies team are now playing from the pub, and it's hoped that more teams will eventually follow from one or other of the Worcester leagues now that the pub is in safe hands and its future secured.

The unique indoor version of Quoits shown above would have been quite common in the Worcester area at one time, but has now almost entirely disappeared from its pubs. Nearby Evesham was a real hotbed of the game and an active Quoits league still exists over the border in Hereford, so it's probably safe to say that Worcester would have been at the very heart of a Quoiting tradition which covered most of the West Midlands and Welsh Border area. But if the distinctive boards still exist in pubs hereabouts they're not on show, and competitive play of any kind has long since ceased. Which makes the board shown above at the Bridge Inn something of a rarity, and probably the only one of its kind that can be played in a Worcester pub (correction: I forgot about the board at the Brunswick in St Johns). The Board, which originally belonged to a Bridge Inn local, gets regular use for afternoon friendlies.

Games and sport are at the very heart of the revived Bridge Inn, with Pool and Darts teams back again, Poker evenings, and a trusty Shut The Box available to play from behind the bar.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Station Hotel, Hucknall, Nottingham

If we look at the ever-changing face of the great British pub, there's one aspect that might be considered something of a constant (alongside the beer of course!). The most successful pubs are the ones that have always adapted to suit the changing needs of their customers, often closely reflecting the social trends and fashions of the time. A notable example of this is the way that pubs have adapted to service the prevailing modes of transport. The famous coaching inns which served the needs of travellers and the early postal system eventually gave way to a network of railway and station hotels, which in their turn were largely superseded by the 20th century roadhouses that sprang up to accommodate the new trend of motoring.

Despite this and the massive contraction of the rail network in the 1960's, many of the pubs and hotels associated with the railways have survived, even where the associated station is long gone (the Railway remains in the top 10 of British pub names). Sadly, the neglect and decline of the rail network in the latter part of the 20th century has often been mirrored in the abject condition of these once thriving hostelries.

More recently, station bars, refreshment rooms, and other railway pubs have been reappraised by enthusiastic pub operators. Neglected for years, these pubs which are often quite grand affairs, are being lovingly refurbished and re-established as important refreshment stops for both passengers and locals, often with a firm focus on the current trend for real ale and craft beer. There have even been a few micropubs established at rail stations. The pub adapting and changing once again for modern needs.

The Station Hotel featured here is one of the most recent examples of this, a neglected pub in the very heart of Hucknall town which has been comprehensively refurbished and reopened by the local Lincoln Green Brewery as their flagship taphouse.

The team at Lincoln Green can see the potential of a pub like the Station Hotel where previous operators have clearly failed, served as it is by both the nearby rail station and the excellent Nottingham Tram network. They also appreciate the undoubted heritage of a pub like this, a genuine Victorian hotel which thankfully retains a multi-room layout that includes a large function room and several letting rooms. A proper locals pub, and with the excellent range of beers on offer a true destination pub too.

In addition to the pubs separate public bar and lounge, the Station Hotel features a games room equipped with one of the most traditional of all pub games. Anthony Hughes is the owner of Lincoln Green Brewery, and the driving force behind great pubs like this and the Robin Hood (and) Little John in Arnold, another revitalised pub which has already featured on this blog. He's also a born and bred Northamptonshire man, and recalls playing Table Skittles as a lad in his fathers village local. The games room at the Station Hotel presented the perfect opportunity to fulfil a dream and install the local Northamptonshire game in one of his own pubs.

The table is a vintage 1950's W T Black & Sons model, originally from the closed Royal British Legion Club in Hillmorton, Rugby. Skittles tables like this can be found throughout Northamptonshire and the surrounding counties, but I've found no evidence for the game in the counties of Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire. Long Alley and the associated indoor game of Devil Amongst The Tailors are local to the Nottingham area, so this table is unusual, quite probably unique to the county, although they do pop up in unusual places in private hands. The boxwood pins and cheeses are kept behind the bar if you fancy a game.

In addition to the pubs skittles table, the games room is equipped with a very good Mahogany Shove Ha'penny Board, as well as a couple of Pin Bagatelles, Cards, Dominoes, and a selection of good old Cribbage Boards. The pubs original Skittle Alley is currently out of action and in need of extensive renovation, but may come back into use at some point in the future. Since the closure of the Seven Stars, there are no active pub skittle alleys in Hucknall.

The Lounge Bar (below) has a lovely old piano, and like it's sister pub in Arnold, piano singalongs are planned. There really is no excuse for twiddling your thumbs in the revived Station Hotel!