Saturday, 9 February 2019

Golden Lion, Hereford

This was only the second time I'd visited the Golden Lion, yet the pub has already become a firm favourite of mine, perhaps even my new favourite pub in a city blessed with far more good pubs than I can possibly visit in a day.

The first occasion was a summer evening several years ago, the bar busy with locals, a world cup football match being largely ignored on the telly in the corner. By happenchance I'd also arrived on the night of an even more hotly-contested match between local rivals in the Ladies section of the Hereford City Quoits League. As a result it proved a difficult night to engage anyone in the kind of idle conversation I'm accustomed to in pubs like the Golden Lion, and what's more, I didn't feel that my amateurish photographic skills would have been welcome that night. Taking photographs while players are concentrating on their game is a definite no-no in my view, and besides, it's my experience that ladies teams can be particularly camera-shy! I took a few discreet pics for the record and sauntered off into the night, vowing to return when the pub was a bit less busy.

Weekday afternoons are a good time to take photos in pubs and chew the fat with licensees, albeit that it may not show a pub at it's vibrant best. Sparse of customers, sometimes empty in fact, but all the better for the kind of uninterrupted views that are essential to this blog, and much less chance of disturbing camera-shy locals of course. It can also be the best time to get creative with what remains of the days natural light, infinitely better than trying (and usually failing!) to get the white balance just right in a bar with neon strip-lights. My second visit to the Golden Lion confirmed what I'd strongly suspected the first time round. This pub is indeed my new favourite in Hereford.

Needless to say, Barrels, Beer In Hand, and Hereford Beer House fans will be scratching their heads in bemusement at this choice, and I have to admit that there are far better pubs and bars in the city for the beer and cider enthusiast. So it's perhaps more accurate to say that in the context of this blog, the Golden Lion is currently my favourite pub in Hereford, because this blog is all about the pub itself and not the beer or cider. On this blog I focus exclusively and unapologetically on a pubs place in the community, the social aspects of pub-going, and of course the traditional games that still play such an important role at community locals like the Golden Lion. In this regard, you'd be hard-pressed to find better in Hereford or anywhere for that matter.

The Golden Lion is that little bit out of the way as Hereford pubs go, in fact I've little doubt that most visitors to the city, and even some of its more regular pub-goers might struggle to place the pub. Located in a residential area known as Widemarsh, the pub sits almost opposite the old Hereford Lads Club Cricket Ground, and near a patch of former industrial land that was once the site of the mighty Evans Cider Works (swallowed-up and closed by the even mightier Bulmers).

Internally, the pub retains a very traditional bar and separate dining lounge, separated by a small entrance vestibule with hatch opening for the former off-sales, a feature of just about every pub until supermarkets muscled in on the lucrative take-home trade. The pub is both unspoilt and beautifully maintained, with that cosy 'lived-in' feel that all the very best 'locals' pubs have. Landlady Paula Watson runs a tight ship for the benefit of a loyal band of regulars, as well as a bewildering menagerie of largely domesticated animals including that most traditional of pub pets, a swearing Parrot! This is a true 'community' local, and the landlady and locals have recently been acknowledged for 25 years of fundraising for the local St Michael's Hospice, a thoroughly positive aspect of pubs and pubgoing that's rarely acknowledged by those who seem to think pubs like this have had their day.

I love the place, and was made so welcome by Paula on what was a slow post-Christmas Thursday afternoon. I was given the run of the pub for my photographs, and even forgiven the heinous crime of moving the dogs favourite chair to access the well-used, but off-season Quoits Board (right). They were still eyeing me with suspicion when I left...

It was this Quoits board that was in use on my first visit, indeed the licensee can be seen in the photo below getting a few practice throws in after the cut and thrust of the ladies match had wrapped-up for the night. It's a typical red and green painted concrete board, the standard item throughout the Hereford area, mounted on a steel stand with netting to catch errant quoits. A solid bit of kit built to withstand the rigours of twice-weekly league action and more, which is sadly more than can be said for the league itself...

I was lucky enough to meet one of the stalwarts of the local Quoits league at the Golden Lion that afternoon, a local who's been involved in the organisation of the league from its very beginnings, and still throws a mean Quoit in the ladies game to this day. The Hereford City Quoits League started as a mens competition in 1950, with the ladies section joining the fun a couple of years later. It would have been a substantial league in those days with dozens of teams, and just one of many similar competitive leagues throughout the West Midlands and Welsh Border area. There are now perhaps just half a dozen leagues in total, and the Hereford league has reduced to a similar number of venues in and around the city. In fact I was greatly saddened to learn that almost 70 years of mens competitive Quoits in the city had only recently come to an end!

When a games league shrinks to just a single division and just a handful of teams, the writing is usually on the wall for its long-term survival. Thankfully the ladies section carries on, albeit that this too finds itself in a similar position to the recently demised mens league with no more than half a dozen teams currently active. The sturdy concrete boards will presumably endure for as long as pubs like the Golden Lion survive, but for how long the game will be played at league level in Hereford and elsewhere remains to be seen.

Other games which are played competitively at the Golden Lion are Darts, Pool, and Skittles. The Skittle Alley (above) is tucked away behind rabbit hutches and fish ponds at the rear of the pub. An old alley, thoroughly spruced-up for play in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League, and the Hereford City Ladies Skittles League. The Hereford leagues are unique as far as I can tell in using what look like ten-pin bowling pins rather than the usual dumpy skittle pins found in the West Country and elsewhere. Until very recently I thought this was a relatively modern development, probably down to expediency, and a good use of the wood from bowling alleys once past their prime. But recently I've seen a photo of a 1935 winning team in the Hereford League, the smartly suited gentlemen posing with a full set of the very same styled pins. This date even predates the arrival of American servicemen during the second world war, hitherto, my most likely explanation for this skittling anomaly. Somebody knows why Hereford skittlers use different wood to practically every other league in the country...

The magnificent Hereford & District Invitiation Skittles League Champion of Champions Cup, current holders Harry's Lads.

The 'spare' Quoits Board in the Skittle Alley, recently returned from a brief league-loan at Broadleys in Hereford.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Bulls Head Inn, Little Hallam Hill, Ilkeston, Derbyshire

The Derbyshire town of Ilkeston lies at the heart of one of the country's great skittles traditions. The game of Long Alley Skittles is a true East Midlands speciality, played almost exclusively in the neighbouring counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. It's a robust, highly skilful game in the hands of experienced players, and very different to the more widespread game of alley skittles found throughout the south and west of England and Wales, where the balls are generally required to roll sedately down the alley rather than flying through the air 'Dambusters' style! Long Alley Skittles is frequently played outdoors and in all weather conditions, though Winter competition is confined to those pubs and clubs with indoor, or at least covered alleys. Skittlers are a hardy bunch, but not 'that' hardy!

In common with almost all of the more traditional pub games, participation in Long Alley Skittles has declined markedly over the last few decades. Even so, alleys are still relatively common, and there are several leagues active in each of the three counties. Ilkeston gives its name to one of these, a league of some 16 teams competing over the Summer in two divisions at pub and club venues in the town and surrounding villages. It's a great game to play, and a good one to spectate if you get the chance, albeit that some alleys can give a limited view of the action.

There are perhaps half a dozen pubs and clubs in Ilkeston town with skittle alleys, not all of which are in league use. The Bulls Head Inn is just a short walk out from the centre of Ilkeston, and has a good covered outdoor alley which is currently out of action for league play, though it's hoped this won't be a permanent situation.

The oldest part of the pub dates from the 17th century, but has been extended over the years to give the substantial building we see today with a games oriented Bar (left) and separate Lounge, as well as a garden and patio which overlooks the Skittle Alley.

When I asked the licensee about skittles and its place in the pub, she pointed me in the direction of the chap shown below. "Alf knows more about skittles than anyone I know...". I had a good chat with Alf and I can confirm  that he knows a hell of a lot more about the subject than I do, and probably more than most folk who play the game. This should come as no great surprise, Alf has been involved in the local Long Alley leagues since he was a young man, including time as League Secretary, though now confines himself to the equally skilful table version of the game.

Table Skittles, or Devil Amongst The Tailors as it's sometimes known, was once as common  in pubs and clubs as the outdoor game in the Derby and Nottingham area (and possibly Leicester too). In fact wherever Long Alley is (or was) played, Table Skittles seems to have been played too. Providing more comfortable, and considerably less strenuous indoor competition for keen skittlers during the Winter months. Until very recently this was still the case in Newark, and vestiges of the tradition survives in the Nottingham & Arnold Table Skittles and Domino League, a very small league of mostly club venues on the East side of the city. It's because of this almost extinct local pub game tradition that so many of these old skittles tables can still be found in the area, some of which I'm pleased to say are still in regular use.

The old Jaques table shown here in the bar of the Bulls Head is one of several vintage models owned and maintained by Alf. This one is on permanent loan to the pub, and Alf was happy to demonstrate his undoubted skills at the game over the course of a pint or two and a couple of rather one-sided games. All I'll say about the result of these games is that if, like me, you think you have some level of proficiency in a game of skill like table skittles, just try playing someone who really does! I found the table quite difficult to play despite being set up perfectly, not getting anywhere near a 'spare', let alone a 'floorer', and I have to admit that I gave Alf very little in the way of genuine competition. Alf, needless to say, made the game look very easy indeed. A highly enjoyable lesson though, and I very much look forward to a return match some time soon, once I've got in a bit of practice...

The Skittle Alley has all the common features of the Derby/Notts game. The metal 'shoe' (below) indicates where the players trailing foot must remain before the ball leaves the hand. Should the ball fall short of the white line in front of the frame (above), it is adjudged a foul throw and any pins felled don't score. This line is often marked with a loose metal sheet to give an audible indication of a foul throw. The ball-return chute (bottom) crosses the steps up to the patio and is shown in its dismantled state here.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Carew Arms, Crowcombe, Somerset

One of the great pleasures of visiting pubs in far-flung parts of the country, quite apart from the patently obvious pleasure of enjoying local beers in someone else's 'local', is the opportunity to savour our precious stock of 'Heritage Pubs'. Those rare, sometimes historically important survivors, which through good fortune or design remain relatively unspoilt by too much in the way of unnecessary 'progress'.

Which is not to say that a commitment to maintaining tradition and heritage should mean these great pubs lack modern comforts. In fact many of them manage to juggle the ever increasing demands of customer expectation, like fine dining, craft beers, and inside toilets (the famous Monkey House excepted!), without the need for an all-encompassing modernisation that strips out much of the pubs true heritage. By which I mean the 'social' history of the pub, as represented by quirks of architecture, fixtures and fittings, and of course the traditional pub games I like to highlight on this blog. Because it's aspects like these which play an important role in maintaining local distinctiveness in an increasingly homogenous world, and besides which, they've served customers perfectly well for generations, so why change for change sake! At their best, those pubs which we might designate as Heritage Pubs are attractive for all the right reasons, and in fact represent most peoples ideal of what the great British pub should be.

The West Country, and Somerset in particular, seems to have more than it's fair share of genuine heritage pubs, perhaps a result of the region being that little bit more far-flung than more central counties of England. A rural isolation that effectively cushions the area from the very worst examples of interior design trends and transitory fashion. Three cheers for 'far-flung' then!

The Carew Arms in Crowcombe is one such example. A grade II former coaching inn, located in a beautiful village on the edge of the Quantocks. This is no chocolate box fancy though. Very much a working hostelry which features a highly regarded restaurant, letting rooms, and a well-used skittle alley. The heart of the pub, and the principle attraction for pub-lovers like myself, is the lovely flagstone-floored farmers bar (below). Scrubbed pine tables, basic bench seating and a high-backed settle adjacent to the fireplace, with old photos and taxidermy on the whitewashed walls. It's the kind of bar that in the depth of winter, when the stove is running at full blast and the local ales are tasting fine, it would be very hard to leave without a heavy heart.

Of course the real beauty of a pub like the Carew is that it remains at the very heart of the village community it serves, not merely a museum piece for tourists like myself to admire and photograph. The Carew is very much a locals pub that's also welcoming to visitors, and as such it maintains many of the pastimes that make a pub truly a local, including the local West Country speciality, alley skittles.

The Skittle Alley is one of the more interesting ones in the area, located as it is in the pubs former stabling block, a relic from its days as a coaching inn on the road from Taunton to Somersets northern coast. The individual compartments of the stable have been retained, and cleverly incorporated as seating areas along the length of the alley. In fact, despite appearances, the alley is quite a modern construction, the original now the pubs dining area.

The Carew is the home alley of a couple of skittles teams, both of which are currently mid-table in the Watchet & District Mens Skittles League. This is a winter league of three divisions and various cup matches, summer skittling in rural areas like this being the exception, with seasonal work and holiday commitments taking precedence for many of those that play.

Skittles remains remarkably popular throughout the West Country, with participation bucking the trend of many other areas for the game in that it's still something that younger players take an interest in. Perhaps this can be partially explained by the long tradition of the 'Sticker-Up', whereby youngsters are encouraged to earn a little extra pocket money of an evening by returning the balls and sticking the pins back up during a match (note the refuge for the stickers-up to the left of the frame). In fact some leagues have a dedicated end-of-season competition for the volunteer 'stickers-up', sparking enthusiasm in the game, and helping to foster the important social side of skittling from an early age.

Boules is played on a Pitch at the rear of the Carew Arms, as it is at many other pubs and clubs in the area and throughout the country now. Competition has developed quite rapidly from small beginnings in 2001, to the current 20 teams in the West Somerset Boules Association.

The Restaurant, formerly the pubs Skittle Alley

Thursday, 22 November 2018

The Racehorse, Taunton, Somerset

If like me, you have an interest in the unique pub games traditions of a particular county or region, you might imagine that the pubs and clubs of the relevant county town would be a good place to start. Sadly, in my experience this is rarely the case, and the more affluent the town/city, the less likelihood there is of finding anything at all that might be considered local to the area.

Take my own nearby county town of Leicester as an example. Within the bounds of the inner ring road, which represents the commercial, and in the case of nightlife, the social heart of the city, I can think of just one pub and a single private members club where the traditional Leicester version of Table Skittles can still be found. Move a little further out of town and you may find another couple of examples, but the bulk of the venues for this rare traditional game are to be found in the suburbs and nearby villages.

The county towns of Nottingham and Derby are if anything slightly worse, with only one example of an alley for the local game of Long Alley Skittles within walking distance of Nottingham town centre, and none at all that I know of in Derby. Even Northampton, a county town at the centre of a relatively thriving Table Skittles tradition is hardly blessed with venues for the game in the centre of town.

It seems the more traditional and locally distinctive the games, the more likely they are to have been pushed out by prevailing trend and fashion to the fringes of the urban pub scene. This is hardly surprising of course, pub games may still be very popular in certain areas of the country, but they're certainly not regarded as 'fashionable' these days, even amongst those who might consider themselves fans of traditional pubs and the traditions of pub-going.

Mid-60's Skittles at the Plough Inn. Something of a family affair it seems, with four 'Skinners' in the runners-up team for the knockout cup competition
A notable exception to this trend is the not insignificant area loosely designated the 'West Country', where skittles is still prevalent just about everywhere you care to look. Skittle Alleys can be found with relative ease in the pubs and clubs of just about every sizeable town and village. The county towns of the West Country are no exception, and a recent afternoon in Taunton gave me an opportunity to confirm this to some degree.

I started the day with something like half a dozen pubs and clubs within easy walking distance of the centre to choose from, though had to rule the Kings Arms out early-doors as there was a large 'white shirt and dickie bow' social going on when I arrived. I know when a lengthy chat with the landlord about skittles is likely to be a non-starter.

The Plough sadly no longer has a skittle alley, though it's perhaps easy to see why it hasn't survived where others in the town have. The Plough is regarded as one of Tauntons best pubs for good beer and local ciders, but the traditional bar is a pretty slim affair, hence the loss of the alley to provide more drinking space at the rear of the building. It's nice to see the old photo (above) wasn't lost in the process. This is the kind of decoration I like to see on the walls of a pub, images with genuine local interest rather than the bought-in faux vintage stuff and coffee-house chic favoured for pub refurbishments everywhere these days.

Pick of the day however was The Racehorse, something of a tardis-like traditional community local on the edge of the town centre. It's an all-day every-day opener, increasingly rare in the modern pub landscape, and a town-centre pub which is owned and run by a regional brewery rather than a national concern or non-brewing pubco. The brewery in question is St Austell, which meant one of the better pints of the day, the reliably hoppy Proper Job, though the pub also has something of a reputation for the quality of its Irish stout...

The relatively modest frontage of this former coaching inn reveals a pub that goes on-and-on, only stopping when it reaches the beer garden and adjoining skittle alley. The pub has been kept nice and traditional, the front bar the highlight for me, but it's one of those interiors that's chock-full of interesting fixtures and fittings. The reclaimed shop-window and old advertising signs in what was originally the entrance for coaches and drays works very well, and features the games table with built in Cribbage Board shown at the end of this post, just asking for an afternoon game of Dominoes.

The Skittle Alley is fairly typical of those found throughout the West Country, a purpose built brick building, functional rather than attractive, and showing signs of many years enthusiastic use. There's a chimney breast at the social end of the alley but I can't in all honesty remember whether it's still in use. As with all the alleys round these parts, the delivery end is inlaid with a contrasting strip of cast metal (sometimes laid with contrasting timber), with local rules stating that on each delivery, the ball must hit this at some point or be adjudged a foul. This prevents the site of heavy lignum vitae balls being launched full-toss down the alley, and the subsequent damage to the surface over time. Another feature which has become common to alleys in the West Country is a wooden baton fixed to the floor, an aid to the two-handed 'flop' delivery that many skittlers favour now.

There are several leagues covering pubs and clubs in the Taunton area, with St Austell Brewery sponsoring the current winter league (below). There is of course a long tradition of brewery sponsorship for all pub games, but in the West Country this often extended to some of the bigger cider making businesses. Taunton Cider were a significant employer at their ciderworks in nearby Norton Fitzwarren until the site closed in the late 90's, so it's no surprise they would have sponsored this Ladies Knock-Out Cup competition in the 50's (above). Some footage and photos of inter-department skittles at Taunton Cider can be seen here, and in a nice bit of continuity, Taunton Cider as a brand has recently been revived by a group of local cider enthusiasts, with the company sponsoring a Skittles World Cup earlier this year.

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Rathmore Club, Cambridge

The Rathmore Club has been on my pub games 'to-do' list for several years now. One of only a handful of venues where the unique Cambridge version of Table Skittles is played, in fact it was a series of online photos of the bar area at the Rathmore that initially hinted to me the local league played a slightly different game to that in nearby Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.

As it happened I was very lucky to get any photos of the club at all. On the walk out on Hills Road toward Cherry Hinton you pass the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs, a huge edifice with a massive clock bolted on the side. This is the centre point of Catholic worship in the Cambridge area, and impossible to miss from all four approaches of the busy junction the church dominates. None less so than when a well-attended funeral is about to commence, which was the case when I wandered by.

So when I arrived at the Rathmore shortly after midday opening, the first thing I noticed was the lack of customers, and the fact that most of the tables were laden with piles of freshly made sandwiches. It didn't take a genius to put two and two together and get a wake, and an imminent wake at that, so I was very grateful to the landlord for allowing me the time to explore and photograph the interior before the place filled-up with friends and family of the deceased.

I can't imagine the Rathmore is on the drinking circuit of too many local Cambridge folk, particularly the more fussy beer drinking types. Guinness is the drink of choice at what is in effect a social club and welcoming home-from-home for the local Irish community. I have to say though, I was made very welcome for a pint and a chat, perhaps remarkably so given the circumstances at the club that day, so it would be wrong to assume this is in any way an 'exclusive' venue, I'd just advise you to choose your visiting time more carefully than I did!

As a social club, it's perhaps no great surprise that sport and games play such an important role. Every corner of the extensive bar area is littered with trophies for Darts, Pool, and a handful for the local game of Table Skittles, a game which is important enough at the Rathmore to warrant not one, but two of the tables unique to the small but thriving Cambridge & District Skittles League. The Rathmore team are currently top of the 2018/19 league, and the two tables make the club an ideal venue for off-season friendlies like the Summer Singles Competition held in August this year.

The Cambridge version of Table Skittles is played on slightly smaller tables than the more common 'Northamptonshire' game, and to rules which are entirely different (an overview of the rules can be seen here). Rules which seem to suggest a direct connection with a very old alley skittles game, known as Old English Skittles that was once common throughout the Home Counties and beyond. This game, known locally as London Skittles, is now the preserve of just one solitary pub, the Freemasons Arms in Hampstead, London. That a game which is played to almost identical rules survives in Cambridge, albeit much shrunk as a league, is a good indicator of how widespread geographically this style of skittles play would have been until the massive decline which affected so many pub and club games in the post-war years and into the mid-twentieth century.

I've absolutely no idea as to the provenance of these Cambridge Skittles Tables. They seem to have some age for sure, whilst showing evidence of regular repairs and refurbishment over the years, but in common with the equally unique tables found in Leicester, the four examples I've seen so far carry no details of a maker.

My guess is they were locally made by skilled carpenters and joiners, all to the same basic design and standard dimensions, but subtly and uniquely different in appearance reflecting the materials available. Perhaps the league(s) for the Cambridge game were never big enough to warrant a 'manufactured' table like those from the Northamptonshire makers W T Black & Sons or Pepper family. Nevertheless, it's likely there were many more of these tables to be found in Cambridgeshire pubs and clubs at one time (vintage league tables listing up to 17 teams over two divisions have recently been posted on the Cambridge league Facebook page), though where they are now is one of the many mysteries that make old pub games like this such an endlessly fascinating subject.

In most games, a shield for the lowest score would be regarded as the 'Wooden Spoon', but the rules for Cambridge Skittles are different, the aim being to achieve the lowest score by toppling the pins with the fewest throws.