The Hand & Heart in Peterborough (above) is one of a select number of pubs which appear on the CAMRA Heritage Group's inventory of unspoilt interiors, possibly one of the most important pieces of campaigning that CAMRA have undertaken. The Hand & Heart is a classic inter-war years terraced boozer, largely unaltered inside, and now lovingly run by local CAMRA activists Paul & Susan Brammer. Of interest to this blog are the traditional Cards/Dominoes tables in the bar, once a very common sight in all public bars and tap rooms, but now really quite rare items. What sets them apart from more run of the mill tables is the alcoves on all sides below the table surface, designed to hold pints, cigarettes etc. during a game, and therefore negate the risk of spillage during a lively domino shuffle or card game. There are many other unspoilt and traditional aspects of the Hand & Heart which deserve mention, but for me the most pleasing thing to see is the notice board, and the numerous fixture lists for pub games pinned thereon.
Rothwell Arts & Heritage Centre have recently installed this old Northamptonshire Skittles Table (circa early 1900's). The table was donated by one of the last craftsmen still producing the Boxwood Pins and Cheeses used in the game, John Pepper of Hardwick in Northamptonshire. The Pepper family have been associated with the game for generations, such that if you come across an old skittles table in Northamptonshire, it's likely to be either a Pepper's, or W T Black & Sons table (Pinckard of Kislingbury seems to be the other, less common maker in the area, though there are also many locally made tables).
The tables themselves are pretty durable, a relatively easy job to maintain and repair by any competent joiner (although leather working skills would be a bonus). It's the Boxwood Pins and Cheeses which cannot easily be fabricate. Sourcing the timber alone requires a degree in local knowledge (I understand that much of the Boxwood comes from ancient hedge lines on country estates), and the robust nature of the game means that each pin and cheese has to be made from wood which has been seasoned for several years. The smallest crack could result in the untimely splitting of a pin which would otherwise be expected to give several years good service. The robust nature of the game also led to the Pepper's developing their own special varnish mix, an additional protection against splintering and splitting during play. When Mr Pepper finally calls it a day, I wonder who will have the skills and knowledge to continue making the all important hardware of this traditional Northamptonshire game, or will the plastic pins and cheeses favoured in the Leicestershire game win the day.
The leather padding on the table shown above has been replaced on the left-hand side, but everything else appears to be original, only missing the distinctive netting at the rear (it's this metal frame and netting which has led to the game being known as Hood Skittles in some areas). The table is accompanied by photographs and trophies from many years of play in the village of Rothwell. The ladies at the Heritage Centre all seemed to have played the game at some point in the past, and it's wonderful to see this local game being given such prominence amongst the many items and displays in the centre, a clear indication of how important the game was (and still is) to Northamptonshire people.