|A Leicester Skittles Table. The Foresters Arms, Leicester|
I've been asked on a number of occasions since I started this blog for the dimensions of the various Skittles Tables featured. Whilst many of these tables are still common enough and regularly come up for sale locally or online, good examples are not cheap to buy, and in some cases the enquiry has come from overseas where building your own table is the only realistic option. I've answered these queries personally in the past, but I thought it was high time I created a more permanent and accessible record, starting with my own example of a Leicester Skittles Table. A timely post as this particular table is off to a new home soon, and of course Leicester pubs and clubs remain closed for the foreseeable future so accessing a table is difficult right now.
The Leicester Table Skittles Tradition
Whilst the superficially similar game of Northamptonshire Table Skittles is common throughout Northants (as well as large parts of neighbouring Bedfordshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire), the Leicester game is confined largely to the city, its suburbs, and a handful of villages in the North-West of the county. In fact the Leicester game is regarded as something of an oddity by the few Northants skittles players I've spoken to who've actually heard of it! Sadly it's also a game that's been in steady decline for many years, such that it's now something of a rarity in its home town.
It's been suggested that Northamptonshire skittles may have developed as a smaller indoor version of Old English Skittles, a virtually extinct game that was once common throughout much of South and Eastern England. Certainly it shares some similarities in both play and appearance with the much larger alley game (though only the Cambridge version of Table Skittles is actually played to the same rules now). Similarly the Leicester game may well have developed as an indoor bar room version of Leicestershire's other unique traditional pub game, Long Alley Skittles, both of which are played in the same area of the county and nowhere else.
The throwing point in the Northants game is usually defined by a simple line or removable baton of wood, positioned on the floor at the appropriate throwing distance for the game. The actual throwing position along that line is only limited by obstacles such as the walls, the bar servery, or immovable furniture such as bench seating. This is important as in the Northants game it's sometimes desirable to bounce a cheese off the padded sides of the table in order to knock down an awkward broken frame of skittles, a tactic that may require a throw from an acute angle. In Leicester Table Skittles however, no bouncing off the side walls is allowed and the throwing position is therefore more strictly defined, as indeed it is in Long Alley Skittles. In Long Alley, one foot must remain in what's known as the 'Chock Hole' until the cheese is released from the players hand. This restriction is replicated in Leicester Table Skittles by the use of a welded steel 'Motte' (or Mot), within which both feet must remain during the throw.
The principal differences that mark a Leicester Skittles Table out from the more common Northamptonshire models are the cushioned side walls, and the length and design of the playing surface. In the Northants game the side walls are usually upholstered in leather and thickly cushioned, originally with horsehair. This is necessary because players occasionally direct a cheese into the side wall, bouncing off and giving angles of attack that would otherwise be impossible. In the Leicester game there's none of this bouncing of cheeses off the walls, and hence the padding is much thinner and the profile somewhat different. In practice almost all of the tables I've come across in Leicester have had their padding refurbished with often brightly coloured vinyl. Leather originals like the one shown here at the Dog & Gun in Syston are now quite rare.
The playing surface is usually lino covered, and the diamond-shaped 'frame' which marks the position of the pins is located further back than in the Northants game. In fact the playing surface and whole table itself is longer than the more square-form Northamptonshire tables. The rear 'trough' which receives the fallen skittle pins on a Northants table is shaped in a 'V' to match the rear of the 'frame'. This is important as none of the 'dead wood' of fallen skittles and cheeses is removed during a players turn, but pins and cheeses tend to fall quite freely into the trough and out of play anyway. The Leicester table is cut straight across at the rear which would tend to make the fallen pins less likely to drop off the playing surface and out of play, but in the Leicester game any cheeses that remain on the playing surface between throws are removed by those players resetting the pins in the 'wood yard', making it somewhat less of an issue than in the Northants version.
As you can see, the styling of a Leicester table is significantly different to that of the Northants version. They tend to be a bit less 'engineered' than the heavy-duty Blacks and Peppers tables, and the top playing surface is designed to lift off the 'legs' making storage easier when not in use. The canvas 'Hood' at the rear of the table is not nearly as pronounced as that of the Northants game. Presumably there are less instances of wayward throws and dangerous flying wood in the Leicester game where the cushions are not used as an aid to play. It's worth pointing out that despite all these subtle differences, it's quite common to find a Leicester Skittles Table in use for the numerous 'county' leagues, all of which use Northants style pins and cheeses that are usually made from plastic. I don't doubt that the Leicester game is played on Northants tables on occasion too.
Quite why a local Leicester version of the game exists on the very edge of the much wider Northamptonshire Table Skittles tradition is not at all clear. My own theory is that whilst the game almost certainly developed as an offshoot of Northants Skittles (there are too many similarities for it to have emerged independently), it rapidly evolved to emulate Leicestershire's other important local pub game, Long Alley Skittles.
|Long Alley Skittles. The Black Dog, Oadby|
The Leicestershire version of Long Alley Skittles is a very noisy game, hence Skittle Alleys are usually located in a separate outbuilding to the main pub. These would have been sparsely heated at best, perhaps even open to the elements as many still are in the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire area where a similar skittling tradition exists, such that many leagues are active only in the Summer months. It's therefore only natural that players would want to keep their skittling hand in during the colder Winter months with an indoor game that requires similar skills.
|Birstall Social Club|
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Leicester Table Skittles and Long Alley is in the style of skittle pins used, both of which are tall and slender (above & right), and both feature a slightly taller 'King Pin' as part of the set of nine skittles. This is in stark contrast to the fatter, stubby Boxwood pins of the Northants game which more closely resemble the huge Hornbeam pins of Old English Skittles, neither of which game features a king pin incidentally.
The small Edam shaped 'Cheeses' of the Leicester game have been made from a number of different hardwoods over the years, one of which is the very dense tropical wood Lignum Vitae. This wood has also traditionally been used for the barrel-shaped cheeses of the Leicestershire Long Alley game. In fact it's quite possible that a set of three cheeses for Leicester Table Skittles could have been turned-down on a lathe from a single Long Alley cheese, recycling the expensive (and now rare) wood when no longer up to League standard. Another feature of the Leicester game which bears some similarity to Long Alley is the 'Motte', or throwing point.
|The 'Motte'. The Tudor, Leicester (closed)|
The Skittles Table
A Leicester Skittles Table appears at first glance to be almost identical to the more common Northamptonshire made WT Blacks & Son or Pepper Bros tables, but put the two side-by-side and the differences become more obvious. 'Blacks' and 'Peppers' tables are the most commonly found examples of the Northamptonshire style, and whilst the two are recognisably different in style, they do seem to have been manufactured to a strictly defined league standard. Less is known about the manufacture of Leicester tables (sadly I've yet to find details of a maker on any of the tables I've come across), but they do appear to be made to a standard pattern which suggests there was at least one common local manufacture.
|A typical W T Black & Son Northamptonshire Skittles Table with the chunkier Boxwood Skittles and Cheeses of the Northants game. Gardeners Arms, Northampton|
|Dog & Gun, Syston|
|Sir Charles Napier, Leicester|
|The Star Inn, Stoney Stanton|
Dimensions & Features of the Leicester Skittles Table
The following measurements were taken from a skittles table that was originally in use at Birstall Social Club, latterly in my ownership following a major refurbishment of the club and now in the possession of a pub in Buckinghamshire. The original standards for these tables would undoubtedly have been imperial measurements, but I'm giving them in metric here to cover all bases/countries. I'd also say that there will almost certainly be variation between different tables (I've seen two side-by-side in a club where the all-important height of the playing surface is different by as much as a couple of inches!). Insofar as playing is concerned though, height, width and depth of the playing surface, and the dimensions of the frame are the only really important standards.
Overall length of the Table (A) = 153cm
Total width including sides (B) = 99cm, the Lino playing surface width a little less at 92cm
The height of the playing surface (C) = 58cm
The distance from the front edge of the table to the start of the walls (D) = 29cm
Depth of rubber protection on the (rounded) front edge (G) is 8cm
Height of side panel at rear (E) = 96cm, at the front (F) = 78cm
Height of 'Hood' (H) = 70cm
The 'Frame' marking the position of the skittle pins (I) is 41cm square
The distance from the front edge of the table to the front pin (J) is 65cm
The distance from the rear edge of the playing surface to the rear pin (K) is 8cm
Pins and Cheeses
Perhaps the single most distinctive feature of Leicester Table Skittles is the Skittle Pins and Cheeses used, both of which are smaller than those of the Northamptonshire game. This has a significant bearing on how the game is played, and it's certainly true that a good player in the one game will not necessarily be as successful in the other. The Skittle Pins stand 16cm high, the King Pin a little taller at 18cm. The Lignum Vitae Cheese shown here is 8.5cm in diameter and 2.5cm thick.
|Skittles and Cheeses (L-R): Northamptonshire (Boxwood), Leicester (Beech/Lignum Vitae), Leicester (Plastic)|
Rules and Conventions of the game