Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Queens Head, Newton, Cambridgeshire

Many people I'm sure have a vague notion of what constitutes their top ten Desert Island Pubs. It's a fanciful notion for sure, but still serves a useful purpose in that it helps set the standard by which all other pubs are judged. My own list would almost certainly include the Queens Head, one of those rare examples of a village pub where everything seems to be done extremely well.

The pub is another of those which are listed on CAMRA's database of Real Heritage Pubs, featuring as it does a largely unchanged interior, decorated with objects and images from the pubs colourful past, and equally vibrant present. A curved high-backed settle provides cosy seclusion in the tile floored public bar. Pale green hops decorate the servery, watched over by Belinda the pubs very own goose (now stuffed and mounted in a glass fronted case). Ales from Adnams are served direct from the barrel along with local cider from Crones, and simple but exceptionally good quality food consists of soup and sandwiches, including Ham carved from the bone or a scoop from a whole round of Stilton.

The Queens Head is no self-conscious 'heritage' pub though, this is a living, breathing local occupying a cherished place at the heart of its community. It's the kind of pub many people would want as their own local, a place for conversation, and of course traditional pub games play.

The games room was added as an extension to the bar in the 60's. The vintage array of pub games helps this later addition blend easily with the unfussy style of the bar itself. Pride of place goes to a play-worn Devil Amongst The Tailors table, an absolute beauty that provides clear evidence of just how durable this game can be in a pub setting. The pins are slightly chunkier than those used on more modern tables, and seem to be made of a lighter weight wood than usual, making for a 'softer', less noisy strike from the hardwood ball. Rubber mats have been added to the base of the table to help reduce the noise still further, and a pair of old Mahogany Cribbage Boards are provided for scoring the game. The result is a game which is a delight to play, yet unlikely to disturb other customers in the bar.

As well as the ubiquitous Darts Board, several more games feature at the Queens Head, including this damaged but perfectly playable Shove Ha'penny. It's a nicely polished chunk of Mahogany with brass lifters for settling disputes. A large wooden Nine Men's Morris (or Merrels) Board is also available, presented to the licensee in recognition of several years as licence holder for the local CAMRA beer festival.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Restoring a Warped Wisden's Shove Ha'penny

The Wisden's Board, fully restored (other than the warping)

Buying old Shove Ha'penny boards like the one shown here will often lead to a certain amount of careful restoration, which is of course part of the appeal. Usually this involves nothing more than a light rub down with wire wool to remove staining and smooth the surface, followed by a modest polish-up with something wax based. This Mahogany Wisden's board was bought online as part of a job lot, and coming as it did with a few unforeseen problems, needed a little more attention to bring it back to a playable condition.

Prior to restoration, showing the bracing baton fixed where it shouldn't be at the top end of the board.

The first major issue with the board was a quite serious warp on the diagonal, such that it was on the verge of being unplayable. Straightening a piece of old Mahogany like this can be a difficult task. Once the fibres of the wood have expanded, usually due to exposure to damp, they can't be made to contract again so your only hope is to try and expand the fibres on the opposite side. After several attempts involving a good soak on one side and the application of weights, I managed to straighten the board to some degree, but it's never going to be an entirely flat Shove Ha'penny.

At some point, this board appears to have been modified, though for what purpose I don't know. The crescent of the stop bar, which contains the carved recesses for chalk and coins, would have originally been located flush with the end of the board. For reasons unknown this had been moved down by a couple of inches, and the wooden baton used to brace the board against the edge of a table had been removed from underneath and fixed in the gap which resulted.

The rear of the board has had a wide hole drilled towards the top, presumably so the board could be hung on a wall. Perhaps this provides the answer to the other modifications. Removing the bracing baton would enable the board to sit flush with the wall, so perhaps this board had become a purely decorative item, possibly as a result of the warping.

Moving the stop crescent back to its original position would have left a number of unsightly holes at the top end of the playing surface, so I decided to leave it there, re-fit the bracing baton in its original position underneath the front of the board, and fabricate a new Cribbage style scoring board to fit in the gap at the top of the board. A score board like this wouldn't usually be needed for a game of Shove Ha'penny, but there are one or two scoring games which can be played on the board by numbering the beds from 1-9 with chalk.

In common with my other (flatter) Wisden's Shove Ha'penny, the playing surface has polished up to be exceptionally smooth, and the remaining warp doesn't seriously affect play.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sir Charles Napier, Leicester

A little off the beaten track as it is, I'd recommend making the effort to visit the Sir Charles Napier. The pub is a classic inter-war years community local, recently refurbished, but still retaining three separate rooms including a cosy wood panelled lounge, and more functional games oriented bar. The interior is considered of sufficient merit to be included on CAMRA's inventory of Real Heritage Pubs, and more information on this and many other unspoilt classics can be found on the excellent searchable website: www.heritagepubs.org.uk.

Traditional, and some not so traditional games play an important role at the pub. League Dominoes, Darts, and Table Skittles are all popular, and compete for space with the more recent additions of Poker and Quiz nights.

The Skittles Table at the Sir Charles Napier is the somewhat rarer Leicester version, distinctly different to the more common Northamptonshire tables found in the south of the county. The pins and cheeses are the slender hardwood variety unique to the Leicester game, as opposed to the more chunky Boxwood or plastic used elsewhere. This makes for a very different game, one where the higher scoring 'Tips' (Whackups in Leicester) and 'Floorers' (Nine-a-Ball) of the Northants game are much harder to achieve.

The table is turned round and 'parked' in an alcove when not in use. It's a very smart and well maintained table, and the team presumably want it to stay that way. Skittles night is on Wednesday, with play in the South Leicestershire League which covers quite a wide geographical area including Earl Shilton, Syston, and Wigston.

Darts, Dominoes, and Skittles trophies jostle for position in the trophy cabinet.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.14

This is the wonderfully unspoilt interior of the Fox & Goose at Ilston-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire. The back bar now appears to be more for dining than a singalong around the piano, but the diminutive main bar is just as it's always been, or at least since the 70's when the pub was acquired by Everards from the now defunct Ruddles Brewery of Rutland. Everything about the bar draws the eye, from the taxidermy (note the dogs head overseeing the Darts Board) to the numerous bygones and relics acquired over the years. The Darts Board comes equipped with a nice piece of Wilton carpet for the surround, and scores of 180 are recorded on a beam in the bar. Dominoes and Crib Boards are also available, and I can't think of a better venue for an afternoon game.

This Skittles Table shares playing space with the Darts Board at the Royal George in Cottingham, Northamptonshire. The table was originally located at the Red Lion in Middleton, but was moved to the George (along with most of the playing team) following the pubs untimely closure in 2011. Cottingham's other pub, the Spread Eagle, also closed in 2012. The whereabouts of its Skittles Table is currently not known.

Until fairly recently the Artizan pub in Northampton was home to that most traditional of local games, Northamptonshire Table Skittles. Sadly the game is now very hard to find in its home town, and only the original chalk scoring boards remain at the pub. Pub games are still popular at the pub though. The Games Room on the left of the entrance accommodates a Pool Table for Wednesday league play, and the main lounge/bar to the right is home to a Darts Board and on Tuesday evenings the serious business of league Cribbage. The Artizan team play in the Northampton Licensed Trades Association Cribbage League, a venerable league established in 1897 and active throughout the year with both a Summer and a more usual Winter league, plus a whole host of knockout competitions and cup nights.

The Winter League is currently competed for by teams of nine players, and yet eleven individually numbered Cribbage Boards can be found in the games storage box at the Artizan. This is a throwback to the time when the game was popular enough for teams of eleven to compete. The 'odd' player numbers for teams is presumably designed to prevent the possibility of a drawn match

Not a pub game it's true, but the sport of Pigeon Racing is strongly associated with pubs, and more particularly the club scene. This sign is located on the wall of the Midland Railway pub in Syston, Leicestershire. Whether the Harrow Racing Pigeon Club still make their home at the pub is not known.

The beer, spirit and tobacco trade have long been keen to advertise their wares through the paraphernalia of traditional pub games. Playing Cards and Dominoes are obvious favourites for this kind of branding, as are Cribbage Boards, as shown in the selection above. The Tetley Bitter Domino set at the top is a relatively modern item, the lid to the box reverses to give the crib board. Watneys Brewery, the infamous creators of Red Barrel Keg Bitter, would have been distributing these boards during the 70's or 80's, whereas I've not managed to find out anything about Showman Tobaccos 'Six Pleasing Varieties', one of literally hundreds of long-gone tobacco brands from the early 20th century. This connection has weakened considerably in recent years, but regional and local breweries are still important sponsors of some traditional pub game leagues.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Steamin' Billy Pubs, Leicestershire

The Leicestershire based Steamin' Billy Brewery Co are a small but highly regarded pub company, with a steadily growing estate of traditional pubs. They take pubs which have often been neglected by their previous owners, spruce them up, greatly improve the beer and food offering, and then return them to their communities as true local assets. A Steamin' Billy pub is a proper pub, free from bolted-on themes or gastro affectations, and allowed to grow and develop naturally through use rather than given the twice yearly makeover common in the trade.

The latest pub to get the 'Billy treatment will be the Railway in Hinckley, a pub in a great location opposite the station, and in a town with a greater need for beer variety than most given the longstanding stranglehold Marstons have over the area. Skittles has been played at the Railway for many years, and it is hoped that this feature will be retained during the forthcoming refurbishment of the pub.

The Horse & Trumpet (above and below) in Sileby has sadly lost its Skittle Alley, but retains this dedicated Darts 'alley', and the licensee is keen to develop other games at the pub such as Poker evenings and Cribbage.

The north Leicestershire village of Syston has recently gained a Steamin' Billy pub, the Dog & Gun (below), a traditional two bar local located in the heart of the old village close to the River Soar at Brookside. Both bars come equipped with warming real fires making this the ideal Winter bolt-hole, but if you can drag yourself away from the cosy comfort of the bars you'll also find a fine selection of traditional pub games in the function room.

League Darts is played at the pub, but it's also great to find both a Leicester Skittles Table and Devil Amongst The Tailors available for play in the function room. Change of ownership and the inevitable refurbishment which follows often spells the death-knell for games like these, so it's to the company's credit that space has been found to retain one of the areas rarer pub games. The skittles are the slender hardwood variety favoured in the Leicester games, considerably more difficult to knock down than the plumper Northants pins in my experience.

The Western in Leicester is a substantial former Everards pub which has been leased to the Steamin' Billy Brewing Co since 2007. The pub was always very traditional in appearance, but has since received the full Steamin' Billy makeover, including plenty of items from Barry Lount's breweriana collection on the walls, and a beefed-up beer range. It's a good pub in a predominantly residential area close to the bright lights of Braunstone Gate, and features a Darts Board in the larger of the two bar areas.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Pushpenny - Two Stamford Boards

The Stamford Pushpenny League pushed off for the 2012/13 season last Autumn. It's good to see that this unique pub league is still being contested in the town, though sadly participation appears to be down to just four pubs and a club now.

Pushpenny boards tend to be jealously guarded when not in league use, if you want to see one in use you'll have to visit one of the participating pubs on a matchday evening. One pub in the town where a good quality board may be available for casual (and careful) play, is the Tobie Norris at the top end of the High Street on St Pauls. The board, which is located in the cosy 'Snug' adjacent to the bar, has a highly polished Mahogany surface, and comes with three smoothed and polished Edwardian pennies, kept safe from harm in an old glasses case. You won't find a better example of a board, and the pub is pretty decent too. It may be a good idea to have a word with the staff before play though.

Stamford Pushpenny Boards are individually hand-crafted and therefore vary slightly from pub to pub. The central playing surface is pretty much standard, with a short run-in, lightly scored lines for the beds, and usually a slight dip at the end of the board to collect over-hit coins. The chalked scoring sections are often separate pieces of wood screwed on to the main body of the board, and there will always be an end stop and a baton of timber attached underneath to brace to board against the table edge. I've puzzled about the depth of the beds, they don't seem to conform to any sensible metric or imperial measure. One possibility which seems to measures up and make some sense, is that the distance is approximately one and a half the diameter of the old pennies used in the game. This gives a wider margin for error in play than in Shove Ha'penny, where the beds are only slightly wider than the coins. The easier scoring in Pushpenny is compensated for by there being only three coins used as opposed to the five played in Shove Ha'penny, also scoring coins are not replayed in Pushpenny to create a 'break'.

I've recently acquired a second Pushpenny board (shown above on the right). This one appears to be made of Teak and follows the standard construction in every way other than having no dip to collect over hit coins at the end of the playing surface. The playing surface on this board was very slow for a Pushpenny, so it's been given a light rub down with wire wool and a good polish up. This has transformed the surface which is now almost as smooth as the Mahogany board I've had for some time. Comparing the two you can see that the length of the playing surface is almost identical, but the width slightly different. One of the main challenges of league play is the slight variations between boards, particularly the 'speed' of the surface which varies widely. The away team are expected to play on the home board(s) giving a clear advantage to the home team.

The coins shown here are Victorian Pennies, entirely smoothed on one side as is the norm for the game of Pushpenny. A set of three like these for use in league play are often smoothed to the point where each coin has a slightly different thickness. Using coins of different 'weight' can help more skilled players when cannoning into a coin already in play. Heavier coins will tend to push up the board, whereas a lighter coin will often bounce back from another weightier penny. The coins shown here are identical in 'weight'.