Thursday, 20 June 2019

Dominoes - A Great British Pub Game

This illustration from the 1955 book 'Know The Game - Inn Games' helps explain why Dominoes was so popular in the mid-late 20th century. No matter how competitive the players,  how serious the game, Dominoes never interferes with the far more serious business of smoking, drinking, and socialising that's at the heart of all great pub pursuits.
When the Dartboard was elevated from its humble position in the public bar to prime-time television in the 1970's, it helped secure Darts as the most high-profile and popular of all traditional pub games (albeit that Pool gave it a run for its money in the 90's). It's slipped-back a little in the public eye since then, but nevertheless I'd suggest that Darts remains the game most strongly associated with the pub. Not for me though! Whilst I fully appreciate the skills on show in the game, even in the humble public bar, I'm literally rubbish at Darts and rarely give it more than a passing glance if I'm honest.

Dominoes is the game I play most of all in the pub, and the one that I most strongly associate with pubs and clubs, certainly the more traditional ones which are the pubs I like the most. As a game it's not necessarily my favourite. I have more of an 'interest' in games of skill and dexterity like Shove Ha'penny, and regional specialities like Indoor Quoits and the various local Skittles variants. But Dominoes for me is the pub game I get the most pleasure from playing, and the one I enjoy seeing others play more than most, certainly more than Darts anyway. That's because Dominoes is, at heart, a highly sociable pub pastime. In fact I often describe a game of Dominoes as being little more than something to do with your hands whilst drinking beer and chatting. At least that's how I play it anyway...

Domino sets (and cards) remain relatively common in pubs, even if the game is not nearly as popular as it once was. Even upmarket hotels and gastro-pubs tend to have a box of Dominoes tucked away somewhere, and it's one of the few traditional pub games that are ideally-suited to micropubs where space is often at a premium.

That there are still plenty of old Domino sets around, including antique bone and vintage bakelite examples, is largely down to the fact that Dominoes was hugely popular in pubs and clubs until relatively recently. It's only in the last few decades that the game has struggled for the kind of patronage it enjoyed in the latter half of the 20th century, a time when league play was ubiquitous in all parts of the country, as it still is in some areas.

Dominoes in Britain is very much a local, or at most regional game these days, but in the late 1970's a national competition based on the popular game of Fives and Threes was devised, sponsored initially by Mann's Brewery. Seven regional heats led to the national finals, and by 1980 this had been expanded to eight heats with the Sunday People joining the sponsorship. This nascent competition seems to have been short-lived, but the idea stuck and a national Dominoes event was resurrected in 1985. This competition ran very successfully for around 20 years, with the finals eventually settling in the seaside town of Bridlington, the local council sponsoring the event in its final years. Though Fives and Threes might still be regarded as the national game, the British National Domino Championship finally folded in 2007. Though there are a number of International/World Domino competitions currently running, the only national Championships still in existence in Britain is the one run by the Club & Institute Union (CIU), a long-standing competition open only to members of affiliated clubs.

Wherever the game of Dominoes is played with any degree of seriousness, weekend play often takes the form of the lunchtime 'Domino School'. This takes the form of one or more games of doubles, open to anyone that's keen to play and with the patience to wait their turn for a place at the table(s). In one of my regular weekend drinking pubs, a highly sociable Sunday game has been observed for decades, and a simple knock on the bar counter signals your desire to join the table for a game. I recall the licensee of the White Lion in Oakham (now closed) telling me how the Sunday 'school' was so popular at his pub in the 80's that customers would effectively queue up for a game, sometimes in vain given the strictly limited opening hours that pubs observed in those days. The Domino School was both practice for the serious league players, and an opportunity for novices like myself to learn or improve their game, and maybe even progress to the pub team when the old-guard deemed that you'd 'graduated'.

Dominoes remains popular throughout the county of Shropshire, and none more so than at the excellent Cross Foxes in the Belle Vue area of Shrewsbury. Table-toppers drilled with a Crib Board for scoring are available, and the walls are richly decorated with shields and trophies testifying to success for the pubs Darts and Dominoes teams.
There are of course a great many different games that can be played with a standard 6-spot set of Dominoes, some of which remain staples of the pub and club scene. The standard 'block' game, where the aim is simply to get rid of your own tiles first whilst blocking your opponents, is often the game played by friends out for a social drink. As a youthful apprentice in the 80's, the Friday lunchtime drinks session at the Royal Oak in Wigston, Leics (now closed) was often accompanied by a lengthy game of Dominoes. This was played as a 'block' game where the losing players would throw in a penny-a-spot, modest winnings even by the standards of the early 80's! The block game is also the one favoured by the West Indian community, though I've yet to see it played in a pub on my travels, serious competition now more likely to be played in the social clubs and conference facilities of hotels. I've also seen Matador played in the pub.

The game that pubs and clubs are most strongly associated with, and the basis of league play in most parts of the country as far as I can tell, is Fives and Threes. In this game, players lay tiles to match in the same way as the block game, but with the aim of achieving multiples of five and/or three on the open ends of the dominoes. Scoring is usually on a standard Cribbage Board, the winning player or pair being the first to finish exactly on 61 (or 121). A leagues match will often consist of both singles and doubles matches, with various knockout and cup matches played throughout the season too. Fives and Threes is the game that I play, and whilst there's obviously a big element of luck in which tiles you initially draw, meaning even a newcomer can win games, it's also true to say that the better players, the ones who count the spots and even exercise a little bit of bluff in play, tend to come out on top more often. Which is of course the whole basis of league play, you're in it for the long-haul, playing the averages rather than settling for the occasional lucky win.

Winners medals are still sometimes awarded at the end of the league season, though trophies and shields are now much more common. Solid silver medals like the one above (Fattorini & Sons, Birmingham 1959) are now very much a thing of the past. Sadly this one doesn't appear to have been used so there are no league or winners details engraved on the back. The choice of tiles on this medal is suggestive of the game it was designed for. In Fives and Threes, two of the most important tiles are the double five, and six-three, one or other of which is needed to create the highest scoring combination of fifteen spots which scores eight points (fifteen is a multiple of three fives and five threes, so 5+3=8).

Practically every aspect of games play at the pub has provided an opportunity for drinks and tobacco companies to advertise their wares. Blue Bell Tobacco on this Cribbage Board, and Leicester (more probably Burton-on-Trent at this time) brewers Everards supplying this heavily branded set of Dominoes. Even Everards themselves are not sure when these early plastic Dominoes first saw use in their estate.

This set of Dominoes (above) from the long-closed Bell Inn is on display at the Rutland County Museum in Oakham. Just another small but important aspect of working class social history, an everyday heritage which is being lost every day. I'm not sure how common it was to read your fortune with Dominoes, but this old newspaper cutting (below) reveals the secrets of the tiles should you feel the need...

Saturday, 8 June 2019

The Castle Hotel, Wem, Shropshire

In the dark days before the craft beer boom, when massively hopped pale ales were the preserve of homebrewers with faulty scales, and barrel-aged sours an old-fangled Belgian speciality, regional breweries reigned supreme in the sleepy provinces of England. And for the most-part that was a good thing.

The Midlands was pretty well served with regional tastes, with even the larger Burton brewers churning out passable sweetish session beers and classic dark milds. True, the choice of beer styles was abysmal, but for lovers of truly sessionable beers in proper local pubs, hindsight tells us that we'd really never had it so good. Until we went on holiday that is...

North Shropshire was somewhere I visited quite regularly in the 90's, sometimes by barge, one of the most drink-friendly ways of getting around rural pubs. I quickly grew to love the area for it's traditional pubs and green hilly vistas, but not it has to be said its rather dull beer. Back then, the unholy trinity of Whitbread brewed Chesters, Greenall Whitley, and Wem Ales held sway in this neck of the woods, and a blander selection of beers you couldn't hope to find. Dreadfully cheap post-war concoctions, and the very worst 60's keg bitters and milds, begrudgingly casked to cater for the growing demand for real ale.

So the village of Wem hasn't been high on my list of go-to places for the past few decades, stigmatised in my mind by association, which is pretty daft I know but then I 'really' didn't like Wem Ales! All three of these breweries have now passed into the brewing history books, their timely closure creating space locally for newer, far better beers. Salopian of Shrewsbury is the new small regional in Shropshire, and a revived Joule's Brewery has a presence in many of the towns and larger villages around their base in Market Drayton, which happily for me includes Wem where the brewery run not one, but two of the village pubs.

Joule's were a massive Staffordshire brewing concern that eventually fell victim to takeover and subsequent closure by Bass in the 1970's. The brewery was revived in 2010, and has rapidly expanded its pub estate to 40 'Tap Houses', representing a wide cross-section of village and town-centre communities but with a common theme. The house style is very traditional, with plenty of wood on show and retaining as much of the heritage and character of the pub as possible, as it has been at The Castle Hotel in Wem. I've no idea what The Castle was like prior to Joule's acquisition, but chatting with the hospitable locals, the consensus is they've done a marvellous job of refurbishing and revitalising the pub. Multiple rooms serve different functions, including a large dining area and adjoining lounge-bar, and a public bar which manages to be both plainly functional and cosily comfortable. The Joule's Pale Ale was in superb condition, and went a long way to banishing those earlier memories of dull Shropshire beer.

The public bar functions as the space for games play at the pub, Darts and Dominoes the principal games on offer. A good few of the more traditional pubs we visited in Shrewsbury and to the north are conspicuously Dominoes pubs, none more so than the Castle where a game had just finished when we arrived on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. Handy, as we had our own mini-tournament running through the week and this gave us the opportunity for a quick game to move things on. The two gentlemen who'd just finished their game are stalwarts of the local Wem Darts & Dominoes League, and were more than happy to answer my questions about the pub and league. Both the Dominoes and Darts teams at The Castle are firmly mid-table in the league, but the Dominoes team are proud holders of the Consolation Knockout Shield (below) for the 2018/19 season.

The Wem league commenced as a competition shortly after the war in 1948, making the current 2018/19 season its 70th anniversary year. 12 teams compete in each of the two sections from pubs and clubs in and around Wem, which is a healthy enough number though down from 14 teams in the 2011/12 season.

"...and the winner of 'Four Best Domino Players In Wem' goes to..."
The equipment for Dominoes play can be found easily enough, a pair of table-toppers and brass Crib Boards located beneath the Domino Clock to the left of the bar counter (below). The Dartboard may be less easy to find, often hidden as it is behind a door that carries the scoreboard (bottom).

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Dog & Gun, Syston, Leicestershire

I occasionally like to re-visit a pub that's already featured on this blog. Usually with some trepidation it must be said, certainly as far as traditional pub games are concerned where subsequent developments are rarely positive. It's best not to leave these things too long though...

I prevaricated over an exploration of the skittle alley at the Coach & Horses, Markfield for several months before a refurb made the decision for me, the alley now a skittle alley-shaped dining area. It was a similar story with the Gate Hangs Well on the edge of Syston Village, a makeover spelling the end for this traditional Leicestershire skittle alley. Since then, Syston has been on my mind, and a return to the Dog & Gun something of a priority since the pub last featured on here over five years ago.

I'm delighted to say that the Dog & Gun remains a very fine multi-room pub, a backstreet boozer that feels more like a rural village local than its semi-urban setting might suggest. The pub is part of the small Steamin' Billy chain which has successfully revived many struggling pubs in the county, and features a traditional flag-stone floored bar, and a larger modernised lounge bar. There's also a games/function room, which was the principal reason for my visit, though a nice pint of Dark Mild from the local Belvoir Brewery was also a factor.

The image to the left shows how the games room appeared on my last visit, the Leicester Skittles Table showing signs of use, and with a complete set of the hardwood pins and cheeses which are unique to this local game. There was also a nice Jaques Devil Amongst The Tailors, the classic bar-room game. The Dartboard was set-up for league play at this time, the skittles table merely available for casual games and functions at the pub. Things have changed a little since then, though sadly not in a particularly positive way for games enthusiasts like myself.

The Devil Amongst The Tailors seems to have disappeared, though it may still be tucked away somewhere at the pub. More crucially, the Leicester Skittles Table, whilst in a similar play-worn condition, is now lacking two of the three Lignum Vitae cheeses essential to a proper game (and one of the pins has been replaced with a newer king-pin, more of a detail than a problem), though I was told the table rarely if ever gets used these days anyway. The Dartboard is wall-mounted now, though whether league play continues at the pub is hard to say. Sadly, the impressive games aspect of the pub appears to be withering on the vine.

It was an interesting and rewarding visit for me despite these less than positive developments. The skittles table, whilst showing signs of its undoubted age, is a lovely vintage model. Most of these Leicester tables that are still in use for league play have received at least one extensive refurbishment in recent years, essential maintenance to counteract the ravages of weekly competition. But this is usually done locally, and more often than not with brightly coloured vinyl and rubber replacing the original oxblood leather upholstery. The stitched and tacked leather remains on the table at the Dog & Gun (above), possibly padded with horsehair, and it really does make a difference to the overall look of the table if not its playability. As usual with the Leicester version of the game, I can find no indication of who originally made this table.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of my return visit was the sudden realisation that the 'games room' is in fact the pubs original Skittle Alley. Pretty obvious when you look at the photo of the whole room, it's a classic alley-shaped building for the local Leicestershire game of Long Alley Skittles, it just hadn't occurred to me until now. At one end is a bar counter, and at the other is the business end of the alley, all-but concealed behind folding doors and carpet. Un-lock and open the full-width doors though, and the trough and hanging 'curtain' at the back of the alley is revealed in all its slightly tatty, unused glory (above). There's even a couple of old pins lying in the trough gathering dust. A careful examination in front of this area reveals the nine steel seats which make up the frame, concealed but now poking through the carpet in several places (below).

So games appear to be in decline at the Dog & Gun, and I understand there was a plan to convert the alley into a Gin Bar at one time, maybe there still is. But as it stands, it's all still there. A skittle alley under a carpet, the skittles table just a sensitive refurbishment away from coming back into use. Both important elements of the Leicestershire pub games tradition, both just waiting for a revival of interest at the pub. A revival that if I'm honest, may never come, but it'll be worth a re-visit to find out if only for another pint of that Dark Mild.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Moon Inn, Mordiford, Herefordshire

I recently achieved a long-standing goal in visiting the Moon Inn, a classic half-timbered Herefordshire pub in the village of Mordiford. The village itself is fairly modest in size, but something of a magnet for walkers on the Mordiford Loop footpath. Modest it may be, but it punches well above its weight in the tight-knit world of 'traditional woven cereal figures', giving its name to the unique heart-shaped Mordiford Corn Dolly!

I was keen to visit the pub both for its fine reputation, and its location which is close enough to Hereford to be an important venue in the local Indoor Quoits league. Unfortunately, rural pubs in Herefordshire can be difficult to get to by public transport, which is a bit of a problem as I usually travel to Hereford by rail. An overnighter in Hereford town with my partner provided the opportunity, as well as the greatest gift a partner can bestow, the willing services of a designated driver. As with all things in life though, you should be careful what you wish for because whilst the pub was certainly as good as I'd hoped it would be, the visit brought with it a bit of sad news for pub games enthusiasts like myself, more of which later...

The Moon Inn is that rare thing, a popular destination pub with a great reputation for food and beer, yet remains very much a village local with a strong commitment to the community it serves, and of course traditional pub games. Local and highly distinctive pub games at that, and none more so than the card game Phat which is as popular in the Hereford area as Cribbage is in the Vale of Evesham. Phat isn't unique to Hereford, but it's certainly a game that most of us will probably never have heard of, least of all seen being played. In fact I've only ever come across Phat in Hereford where the game is played in practically all of the more traditional pubs and clubs in the town and surrounding villages. A 'Phat Friendly' pub can often be recognised by the presence of one of the unique green felt-topped boards shown below, or indeed a group of people actually playing Phat in the corner of the pub!

The game of Phat is a trick taking and points scoring game played by two pairs of players, and scored to 181, hence the larger 'cribbage' style scoring board seen here in the bar of the Moon Inn. The game remains popular at the pub with play on several weekdays, but the Hereford league is much reduced from its 70's/80's heyday when there were over 70 teams playing in 6 divisions in the area.

Local Phat enthusiast Albert Phipps and other players at the pub, recently hit the headlines for the very generous donation of their game winnings to the local St Michaels Hospice. The full article can be read here, and is a reminder, should it be needed, of the huge importance local pubs like the Moon Inn and their customers play in fund-raising for charitable causes like this.

Of course Darts is probably the most important game played at the pub. The trophy cabinet to the right of the dartboard holds a good collection of silverware for the Moonatics, the pubs highly successful Darts team which is currently throwing in division one of the Hereford Licensed Victuallers Darts League.

So something of a hotbed for pub games, but sadly it's not all good news for the traditions of games play at the Moon Inn, or indeed the wider Hereford area. When I last visited the area around a year ago, I received the bombshell news that the Mens section of the Hereford City Quoits League had finally folded. At that time the Ladies section was still going, though in as parlous a position as the struggling mens section had been. I now learn from the landlord of the Moon that the Ladies section has also ceased competition, bringing almost 70 years of continuous league Quoits play to an end in the Hereford area. This is very sad news indeed, particularly as the Hereford League was one of only half a dozen remaining in an area stretching from the Forest of Dean up to Shropshire along the Welsh Borders.

It's certainly a blow for the game, but it also represents yet another loss of the genuine local distinctiveness that makes the British pub at its best so special. Obviously the game will continue to be played in pubs that still have one of the heavy concrete boards and a set of rubber Quoits, indeed the landlord of the Moon Inn was setting-up ready for a game that evening between the pubs two Quoits teams. But league play of games like this is absolutely crucial for the survival of the tradition as a whole, as evidenced by the absence of Quoits in Evesham, an area that was until relatively recently an important centre of Indoor Quoits play. Indeed Indoor Quoits is often referred to as 'Evesham Quoits' and played to 'Evesham Rules', yet there are currently no Quoits pubs remaining in the Evesham area to my knowledge. When leagues fold, games just never seems to hold their position in the pub to the same degree, and it's hoped that in-house competition like the one at the Moon Inn will go some way toward preventing Quoits disappearing entirely from the Hereford area over the coming years.

The Moon Inn has been much extended in recent years to accommodate the all-important food trade that ensures village pubs like this survive and thrive, but the heart of the pub retains much of its traditional charm and character. The metal strips screwed to the parquet flooring (below) mark the throwing points for the Dartboard, and the former location of the Quoits Board in the bar, which originally sat between the door and bench seating to the left. Note there are two strips for the Quoits throw, the furthest being the standard for the mens league, the closer one for the Ladies throw. Quite why it was decided there should be a difference is probably lost in the mists of league history, the weight of the rubber quoits don't seem to offer too much in the way of difficulty for all but the most frail players, but then it seems the game has always been more popular with older players. The board is now located in a more convenient location in a side-room of the main bar area with a set of Quoits available for a game whenever you fancy one, which I hope you do, as often as possible.

The door to the cellar, located roadside from when the pub was a coaching inn.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Bulls Head, Whetstone, Leicestershire

Of all the really good, and occasionally really great pubs I've visited over the years, there's often been a single crucial factor that goes a long way to explaining their particular appeal. Not heritage, though that's clearly a bonus at times. Not the number of hand pumps on the bar, which is of course the 'only' measure that some folk use to judge a pub. No, for me it's the less obvious, but fundamental issue of how long the licensee(s) have been at the pub. Long tenure at a community local was once the norm, it's now very much the exception, and it's this increasingly rare aspect of the pub trade that often determines whether a pub is merely 'decent', or whether it delivers something really special for its locals and visitors alike.

The seemingly endless 'churn' of licensees in the pub trade is so normal now as to seem hardly worthy of comment, but I believe this is one of the major factors in the overall decline of pubs. This constant instability, which usually brings with it regular and often highly inappropriate refurbishment, change for change sake, is anything but attractive to locals. Yes, pub-goers have always enjoyed the novelty of the new, but novelty quickly wears thin. It's a fact that for a pub to be regarded as your local, somewhere you care about and are happy to buy into on a regular basis, there has to be some measure of stability in the faces behind the bar and the direction that the business is moving in.

Which is not to say that a new business can't deliver an instant wow-factor that's highly attractive to customers, particularly with regard to beer range or a great food offering. But what I'm talking about here is that indefinable 'rightness' that you get in a well-established community pub, and in a business where licensees come and go at a truly bewildering rate, I think this goes a long way to explaining why so many pubs struggle to be truly 'great' at what they do, and why it's such a pleasure when you 'do' find one that has that indefinable 'rightness'.

Which brings me to the Bulls Head, a thriving village local on the very edge of Leicester's southern urban sprawl. I used to drink quite regularly in Whetstone some 20 or so years ago, which was an easy half-hour walk from home in nearby Littlethorpe. At that time, of the five pubs in the village we tended to favour the Wheatsheaf, a low-beamed, sticky-carpeted, horribly smokey locals pub with a consistently excellent pint of Ansells Mild, a beer I miss the taste of to this day. The nearby Bulls Head just never figured for some reason. Perhaps it was just a little too much of a locals pub back then, perhaps it was simply that we could get our Everards beer fix at our own great local The Plough. I'm glad we chose the Wheatsheaf though, because sadly the pub is no longer there! Bulldozed quite recently for a small housing development in a village not exactly short of housing...

Many of the locals from the Wheatsheaf have moved their trade to the Bulls Head, a pub which has been in the same safe hands for over a dozen years now. Now this may not sound a particularly long time in the grand scheme of things, but the fact is it's a significant period in the current topsy-turvy market, and certainly represents a firm commitment to the business that's been recognised by pub owners Everards on more than one occasion. Licensee Jayne Irwin and her team run a tight ship at the Bull, but always with an eye to what her loyal locals actually want from 'their' pub, which I think is how it should be.

The pub itself is a fairly substantial red brick and mock Tudor affair, sitting on a large plot that includes a well-used garden. It retains a traditional two-room layout of bar and lounge, the latter the quiet space, the former equipped with Pool Table, Dartboard, and when I popped in, the current afternoon bar-fly obsession of Snooker on the telly. The pub dog was lazing on a big floor cushion, and there was a smattering of locals in for a pint even on a slow midweek afternoon when so many pubs don't even bother to open these days. The pub supports numerous games teams, including those for Darts and Pool, and I think Dominoes is still played at the pub if the silverware in the trophy cabinet is anything to go by. There's also skittles of course, Whetstone being at the very heart of Leicestershire's Long Alley and Table Skittles tradition.

The Skittle Alley is in a separate building at the rear of the pub, possibly re-purposed many years ago as it has something of the look of a former garage with at least one set of double doors along the length of the brick building. This space is available for functions as well as skittles play, though the pub don't currently field a team in the local Long Alley league.

Instead, league skittles play is represented at the pub in the Dunton Basset Ladies and Mens Leagues, as well as a couple of mixed teams in the smaller Lutterworth League. That makes for a lot of skittles play, and the Bulls Head is clearly one of those pubs that derive a great deal of trade from its support of traditional pub games.

While I was there rooting around and taking photos in the alley, a local popped his head round the door to see what I was up to and a bit of a chat. He'd spent the morning sprucing up and cleaning the alley ahead of a function, and I could tell the place was his pride and joy. He was also effusive in his praise of Jayne who is clearly the beating heart of one of the finest and well-run community locals I've had the pleasure to visit in a good while.

The skittles table is a local Leicester model, and in common with all similar examples I've seen in the area, there's no indication of who made it. As far as I can tell, the table is used exclusively for the 'county' version of the game with its distinctive yellow plastic pins and cheeses, rather than the thin wooden skittles used in the unique 'city' game and which this style of table was probably originally designed for.

The tables shown here are unusual. I've seen plenty of games tables with alcoves for a pint, but not this steel frame design. Sadly, they're on their way out in favour of new furniture, all part of the day-to-day upkeep of the alley and the pub in general.