Thursday, 31 January 2013

Soar Bridge Inn, Barrow-on-Soar, Leicestershire

Long Alley Skittles may not be quite as popular as it once was in Leicestershire, but thankfully there are one or two venues where the game is still well supported, perhaps none more so than the Soar Bridge Inn at Barrow-on-Soar near Loughborough. The tidy, well used alley at this Everards Brewery pub doubles as a function room, and is available to book for Skittles Evenings when free of league play. The alley hosts matches in the Syston & District League and also several teams in the local Amicus Skittles League, a local 'derby' contested between the Soar Bridge Inn and The Beacon in Loughborough.

The Skittles and hardwood Cheeses shown here have been marked with red paint to indicate their use in the Amicus League. Different teams playing in separate leagues are required to fund their own equipment, so it's important that in a game like Long Alley where damage to the pins and cheeses is a frequent and normal occurrence, each team only plays with the correct set.

The pins for the Amicus League have been protected from undue damage with a layer of Gaffer Tape, probably not allowable in other leagues, but a good way of extending the life of this expensive woodwork. Note also the large rubber sheets hanging at the back of the alley, along with padding to protect the lower parts of the side walls from damage.

This wonderful old silver trophy, the Everard Infirmary Skittles Challenge Cup, was presented by William Lindsay Everard for competition in the Syston area. It's good to think that the then head of Everards Brewery, a man later knighted for his achievements in commerce, politics, and aviation, held the humble game of skittles in high enough regard to gift a trophy like this to its players. The game would have been an important one to the Everards estate, and clearly still is at the Soar Bridge Inn.

More recent trophies held at the pub include those for the Porter Cup in the Syston & District Skittles League, and for success in the Quorn & Soar Valley Cribbage League. Darts and Pétanque are also played at the pub.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Shove Ha'penny Control Association

Not much is known about the grandly titled Shove Ha'penny Control Association, which is perhaps surprising given how widespread the game was in pubs and clubs until relatively recent times. As yet, no-one has managed to unearth an archive of minutes and transactions for this auspicious control body, neither have any trophies, awards, or league tables come to light bearing their name. So it's a bit of a mystery just who or what the Association were actually controlling!

In reality there probably never was a fully functioning Shove Ha'penny Control Association. Perhaps it was simply an invention of one or more manufacturer, a marketing trick to encourage purchase of their 'official' board as opposed to inferior homemade or crafted boards, or indeed those sold by their competitors. Perhaps there was a serious attempt to set up an official governing body, an attempt which was treated with disdain or simply ignored by the local leagues and casual bar room players it was aimed at.

In the post-war years when the game was at its most popular, there were one or two short-lived attempts to develop Shove Ha'penny as a  nationally competed game. The News of the World organised competitions for a number of pub games including Shove Ha'penny. Occasional world championship events still occur to this day, and several regional champions of the game can be seen shoving for a big money prize on Yorkshire Televisions fabulously un-PC Indoor League series in the 70's (now available on DVD). But other than these rare moments in the spotlight and the few local leagues which still exist, the game remains resolutely one for casual play at the pub, without the need for Control by an Association of any kind.

This very heavy slate Shove Ha'penny was the very first board I acquired, and is still a particular favourite of mine. The slate is very smooth indeed, and in remarkably good condition for its age. The Patent number gives a date for this design of somewhere in the 1920's, a time when the game would have been very popular in pubs, clubs.

There's plenty of additional design to warrant the patent, including this handy depression to hold your chalk and numbered beds for a scoring game. This appears to have been the Rolls Royce of Shove Ha'penny slates, there was also a cheaper 'Challenger' model without the numbering, and later slates were of a similar design but with plastic surrounds replacing the expensive alloy of the originals. Many of these slates were drilled for screwing to a table top, not strictly necessary given the weight, and possibly more of a guard against theft.

Serious league play, of the kind the Shove Ha'penny Control Association were presumably trying to foster, would require a stringent set of rules which left no room for ambiguity or dispute. Before play began, the 'Number of Beds' required for a win would have been chalked into this circle, a simple verbal agreement simply wouldn't do. Needless to say, this and the Challenger board are the only ones I've ever seen with this entirely unnecessary design quirk.

The French Chalk tin is a red herring, actually used to hold a set of five old ha'pennys. A number of treatments are recommended to help achieve the requisite slipperiness of the slate surface, including Arrowroot, Talcum Powder, and French Chalk. I've tried a few of these and come down firmly on the side of Talc. In actual fact, the talc doesn't create a more slippery surface, the slate is smooth enough to provide this already, but acts to even out any particularly smooth areas or dead spots on the board. One problem in common with all really smooth surfaced Shove Ha'pennys is the tendency for smoothed and polished coins or tokens to either overshoot on a cushion of air, or stop dead unexpectedly on hitting a speck of dust or minor imperfection in the surface. A small amount of talc helps creates a slightly slower, but more predictable playing surface.

The manufacturers of this board were not ones to miss a trick, making special Shove Ha'penny Tokens for use in place of the age-old solution of a plain old ha'penny.

These bespoke tokens are made from a thin disc of Brass. The top side is silvered and cast to indicate the 'official' nature of what is essentially a brass washer! To be honest, they do work very well, once again removing some of the unpredictability of using a mixed-bag of old coinage.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Old Kings Head, Belper, Derbyshire

'What's On' at the Old Kings Head, Belper? Well, as you can see from the image below, quite a lot actually. This includes the traditional pub game staples of Darts and Dominoes, the modern staple of a Quiz Night, and of course the thoroughly traditional local game of Long Alley Skittles.

The licensee of the Old Kings Head has only recently taken over the reigns of the pub, and seems hell-bent on making good use of every nook and cranny in the tardis-like interior. The function room hosts a weekly folk club, and perhaps more unusually can be converted into a Skittle Alley for play in the Winter 'Border' League which is contested between pubs and clubs in the Notts and Derby border area.

The wooden return chute for the long alley balls (below) is a nice survivor, and an example of how all such returns would have been in the past. Nowadays a section of weather-proof plastic piping usually fulfils this role, and whilst this does the job well enough, it could hardly be described as an elegant solution. The timber on this chute is in poor condition and the current licensee is planning a replacement for the coming season

The upstairs function room, set up here for the folk club, can also be used for Skittles play in the Winter, when outside play is neither practical or pleasant. Note the floor mark for the throw in the foreground. I can't imagine what this must sound like below, but then I don't think this room is located above a drinking or dining area of the pub.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Four Pub Game Books

This small two shilling booklet on Inn Games is regarded by Arthur Taylor, author of 'Played in the Pub' (see below), as probably the first to treat pub games as a separate subject in its own right. These 'Know The Game' books first appeared in the 50's, and covered every sport, game, hobby and pastime imaginable, giving the most up to date rules as supplied by the relevant governing body.

The choice of games in such a slim volume is necessarily selective, but even so, the inclusion of Draughts seems slightly odd to me. Was it really considered a pub game in 1955 when this edition was published?

Of greatest interest to me is the chapter on Shove Ha'penny, which gives the most comprehensive explanation of the basic rules I've yet seen, including one or two subtleties I hadn't come across previously. These were written in collaboration with the News of the World, who at that time were involved in organising national competitions in both Shove Ha'penny and Darts.

The Watney Book of Pub Games was written by the then Northamptonshire resident Timothy Finn, and expands greatly on the selection given in the Know The Game booklet (and with no room for Draughts!). It's a good book which suffers somewhat from comparison with the authors later, much revised and expanded work, Pub Games of England. The latter work is also much better presented, with photographs replacing the simple diagrams of this modest paperback. Most of the pub games known to us now are included and explained, including a chapter on the banned, but still believed to be in existence at the time 'sport' of Cock Fighting.

Timothy Finn was a great fan of Northamptonshire Table Skittles (or Hood Skittles as it's known here), and played at his local pub. The photo on the back cover shows the author standing outside a pub with a half drained pint glass in hand. Whilst it's hard to be sure from such a small monochrome image, the pub has more than a passing resemblance to the Royal Oak at Naseby, a pub which may well have been the authors local, and which still has a fine Northants skittles table today.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion in Pub Games is the short listing of pubs 'Where They Play' each game, an idea which was expanded on in the follow up book, Pub Games of England. Needless to say, many of the suggestions included in this 1966 publication are either no longer with us, or have been refurbished with little or no room for traditional games amongst the dining tables. For example the Fox at Catworth is noted as a venue for Northants Skittles, but this pub closed for good in 2012, and I don't believe any of the pubs noted in the Evesham area still have a 'Dobbers' board, Evesham Quoits having declined so completely in recent years.

Timothy Finn's follow up book, Pub Games of England, is a much more readable version of the Watney brewery sponsored book above, though even here the pictures are fairly low quality monochrome. A minor but notable change in the editorial is the sense of decline in many of the games featured, even a suggestion that some may be on the verge of extinction. This is perhaps surprising given the publication date of 1975, a time when most pubs would still have been thriving.

On a more positive note, Cock Fighting has gone, to be replaced by a chapter on the slightly bogus pub game of Dwyle Flonking. Chapters are arranged on a regional basis, and include a more comprehensive listing of 'Reported Sightings' to aid games enthusiasts like myself track down many of these increasingly rare games. Given that this book is now over 35 years old, the listings are mostly of academic interest only, although some, such as the Talbot Inn, Gretton, Northants, are still accurate.

Played at the Pub by Arthur Taylor is the current, and definitive guide to the subject of pub games. It really is a wonderful study of the subject. The more you read of it, the more you want to discover and experience the many fascinating games which are featured.

The book is packed with a fine selection of vintage and contemporary photographs, but this is no coffee table book. The text is authoritative, well researched, and written with warmth, and a genuine enthusiasm for the subject. Of course the decline of both pubs and the games played in them is never far away, and it would be all too easy to look at this book as nostalgia pure and simple. But the fact is, many of these games are still played regularly and enthusiastically by thousands of ordinary people throughout the country. This is not nostalgia, this is both social history, and everyday life and play for many folk.

My only criticism of this book, if I really had one, is that there isn't nearly enough of it. The subject of Skittles for example, in all its myriad forms and local rules, could easily fill a book of this size on its own. Perhaps one day someone will give skittles the kind of literary attention that Cricket and Snooker have been afforded, Arthur Taylor would certainly be my choice of man for the job.

All of these books can be fairly easily found in the secondhand book market, but Played at the Pub is available to buy new, and I urge anyone with an interest in pubs and the games played in them to go out and find a copy.

Friday, 11 January 2013

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.13

The Alexandra Hotel in Derby. Handy for the rail station, and popular for beer, railway memorabilia, and Darts. A pub league operates at the Alex.

This is the Aunt Sally 'throw' at the rear of the Horseshoe Inn, Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire. An excellent pub with friendly locals and a good reputation for beer and cider. The Horseshoe team play in the Chipping Norton Invitation Aunt Sally League, and appear to have finished bottom of division three with no wins in 2012 season. Perhaps the beer comes first at the Horseshoe.

Shiny new stainless steel fermenting vessels and an old traditional Northamptonshire Skittles Table co-exist at the Hart Brewery in Wellingborough, but for one day only. This photo was taken during the run-up to Christmas when the brewery were running a 'pop-up' bar for the Nene Park Christmas Fayre. The table, another A R Pinckard of Kislingbury model, was on loan from a nearby pub.

This old Shove Ha'penny has the look of a well used ex-pub board. Made from three planks of quite lightweight timber, it's certainly not a commercially manufactured board, and may even have been produced from an old door or table top. The joins, which are solidly fixed with box joints, can clearly be seen on the image below where they have split slightly over the years through shrinkage. I've no idea what the wood is, but it's less dense and therefore softer than you would normally expect with a Shove Ha'penny Board. The surface is not especially smooth, and as can be seen from the images here, there are numerous dents and scratches on the surface. Nevertheless, it plays well enough, if a little slow, and the light-weight nature of this board means it is ideal for carrying to the pub for an afternoon game. A small brass eyelet on the top edge was probably used to hang the board in the bar when not in use.

These Long Alley Skittle Cheeses originally saw service at the Coleman Road Sports & Social Club in Leicester, as indicated by the embossed lettering on the ends. Sadly, this once thriving club has now closed, though the skittles team(s) are still in action elsewhere. This set of eleven hardwood (possibly Lignum Vitae) Cheeses were considered too worn and damaged to be of use in a league match and therefore surplus to requirements. A few hours with sand paper and Teak Oil has helped bring them back to a more usable state.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

George & Dragon, Belper, Derbyshire

The attractive Derwent Valley market town of Belper is still one of the main centres of Long Alley Skittles play, a game increasingly hard to find in the larger towns of the Derby and Nottingham area, but happily still clinging on in smaller towns and villages. The Derby/Notts version of the game, featuring quite large wooden balls rather than the barrel shaped 'Cheeses' found in Leicestershire, is usually played outdoors, and is therefore predominantly a Summer game. A Winter league does exist, but only pubs and clubs with a covered (and ideally heated!) alley can compete in it.

This alley at the George & Dragon is now lying idle for the Winter, though presumably the existence of an incomplete set of skittles means that casual games on fine days can still be had. The pub is one of the best in the town for real ales, and supports a number of pub teams in local Darts, Dominoes, Pool, and Quiz leagues.

This red concrete foot marker can be found in the car park of the pub, positioned at right angles to the current layout of the alley as seen to the right. It's not in the least bit unusual to find an alley has been rotated from its original position in this way, particularly in the Derby/Notts area where Long Alley is still played for the most part outdoors. In this case the move was probably necessitated by the increased pressure for car parking at the pub. As featured on this blog already, the Queens at Beeston altered the orientation of their alley to facilitate the building of a lean-to covering for the alley, a stipulation for participation in the Winter league.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Trophy Cabinet

This nice old Darts plaque may have been silver plated originally. It's also possible that the high sheen of the 'cartouche' at the bottom is the result of the original inscription being polished out, which is a shame as this would have helped locate the plaque to the pub or club it originally came from. Having said that, it does make this attractive trophy eminently re-usable.

I can only assume that the engraver was payed by the letter to embellish this humble Pewter Tankard trophy. Presented to a W. Jones some 55 years ago, the abbreviated lettering is probably for the Newfoundpool Working Mens Club in Leicester. Now a non-political social club, it is still going strong and hosting a wide range of traditional games, including Leicestershire Long Alley Skittles and the rarer Leicester version of Table Skittles.

The tradition of awarding a trophy to teams and individuals who finish at the bottom of a league table is a long one, and usually takes the form of a Wooden Spoon as shown below. Whilst nobody wants to win one of these trophies, it is to the credit of the pubs and team members who receive them that they are generally always displayed in the pub and not tucked away out of sight. A trophy for the Leicestershire game of Long Alley Skittles is quite a rare one these days, so a special award for the lowest average score as seen above could only be found at one of the current hotbeds of the game. This one sits amongst a shelf-full of assorted pub game trophies at the Rose & Crown, Thurnby. The skittle alley at the Rose & Crown is one of the better known in the Midlands, and features prominently in Arthur Taylor's book 'Played at the Pub'.

The Artizan Ladies Darts team appear to have a stranglehold on the Division 2 wooden spoon. This basic back street Northampton pub is active in local Darts, Pool, and Cribbage leagues.

These impressive Shields, displayed at the Eagle pub in the Lincolnshire town of Boston,  represent some of the spoils of the Boston Dominoes League.