Saturday, 27 April 2013

A Compendium of Skittles Images

This Image has kindly been made available by Leo Reynolds under a Creative Commons Licence.
The grandly titled Skittle Saloon at the Black Horse in Norwich is now long gone, as indeed is the pub which closed for good over 40 years ago, the building now an opticians. What kind of skittles would have been played at the pub I wonder! Devoting a whole room to the game would suggest something a little more substantial than a Devil Amongst the Tailors, so perhaps it housed an alley of some kind. A Table Skittles tradition has been noted for Norfolk, played on a table similar in size to the Kent game of Daddlums which is somewhat smaller than a Northamptonshire Skittles Table. But would a game of this size warrant a whole Saloon? There are currently no known examples of the Norfolk game in existence.

This Skittle Alley is at the Bell Inn, St Johns, Worcester (right). Despite being very busy, the assembled competitors and spectators were happy for me to take a few photographs during a hotly contested Sunday afternoon cup match.

This is a popular and very well used skittle alley, located in an extension at the rear of this unusually laid-out 17th Century locals pub. Well worth a visit when in Worcester.

The pins are of the 'Bristol' type (see below), the white painted ends and stripe on the leading pin is purely to help give players something to aim for. The dark wood of the balls suggests that they are made from Lignum Vitae, preferred by many skittlers over more modern alternatives as they have the correct weight for their size and are very durable. The disadvantage of Lignum balls is that they can reduce the life of both the pins and alley surface.

I've included a picture of the all important 'Sticker-Uppers'. Usually a pair of local lads or family members, employed for the day to put the pins back up and return the balls during a game. You won't find too many Sticker-Uppers in East Midlands skittling, that job is done on a rota basis by the players, but this system is the norm throughout the West Country and West Midlands.

The Skittle Pins shown here are the classic 'Bristol' shape, 10 inches tall and around 4.5 inches across. Bristol pins come in different sizes, and there use is not confined to the Bristol area. These pins originally saw service in a Worcester pub, but they are not the very best quality, which may explain why they've been retired to my ownership whilst still in reasonably good condition. The better quality pins are made from a solid piece of well seasoned Beech or Sycamore, often treated with Linseed oil. The pins shown here are fabricated from several pieces of Beech wood bonded together before being turned and varnished. Whilst they are perfectly adequate for general play, I'm not sure they'd be durable enough for a well used alley like the one at the Bell Inn, particularly if the harder Lignum Vitae or composite balls are preferred. Rubber balls are available which are more suitable for this quality of skittle.

The Dukes Arms in Burton Latimer, Northamptonshire is a sparse, drinkers pub, just the kind of establishment you're likely to find a well used skittles table in the county of Northamptonshire. A brass plate on the front leg indicates that this table has been refurbished by John Tonks in 1998. Note the large sheet of ply wood at the rear of the table, used to protect the glazed doors on the right during play.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Cock, Broom, Bedfordshire

Don't be put off by the Greene King signage on The Cock, it's well worth visiting for a pint (there's usually a guest beer or two), and you'll be made very welcome if my own experience is typical. The pub is another treasure on CAMRA's list of Heritage Pubs. Much altered and extended over the years, but done in such a sensitive way that The Cock can be held up as a great example of how pubs can develop to keep pace with changing circumstances without being spoilt in the process.

The interior is a mellow blend of old polished wood and red floor tiles. There are several distinct areas for drinking as well as a separate dining room, all linked by a narrow wood panelled corridor, the floor tiles worn to a shallow groove through many years of traffic to and from the cellar door. Beer is served straight from the cask and delivered to the top of the cellar steps on a tray. There's no bar counter to get in the way at The Cock.

The pub currently opens all day every day, which is great news if, like myself, you've been disappointed far too often by the ever more limited opening hours of rural and village pubs. Whilst it's reasonable to expect pubs to limit their lunchtime or even evening opening during the week, I'm finding it  increasingly difficult to find a rural pub open on a Saturday afternoon, often one of the main times I'm looking for a pint when out and about. The difficulty with The Cock is that having found the pub open, you may not want to leave in a hurry.

The Games Room is located directly to the left on entering the pub, and houses a Darts Board and a well polished Skittles Table. Pins and Cheeses are the pale yellow plastic variety favoured in the Bedfordshire game. The table has a couple of faded labels on the legs, probably marking this out as a W T Blacks model. Now no longer in league use, a collection of trophies in the Snug attest to the skittles action which would have once taken place at the pub.

Given the small size of the games room at the Cock, the Skittles throw is positioned on the diagonal to achieve the correct distance. Consequently the Darts and Skittles Oche's share space on the tiled floor. As far as play is concerned it's one or the other, unless some kind of strict rota is in place.

Trophies in the snug include two from the Lord Roberts Skittles League. There is a Lord Roberts pub in nearby Sandy. This league now appears to have been consolidated to form the Beds & Roberts Skittles League.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Daddlums (and other Rare Skittle Games)

For all the wide variety of games still played at the pub, it's probably true to say that just as many have all but disappeared in recent years. Some games which would once have been very popular, albeit played quite locally, are now very scarce indeed, and others have sadly disappeared entirely. And yet just because a traditional game has vanished from the pub in recent times, it doesn't necessarily mean it's gone for good.

Certainly examples of scarce or long-lost pub games do occasionally resurface, usually via the antiques and collectables trade. Suffolk Quoits boards are a case in point, now effectively extinct as a pub game it nevertheless seems that many of these simple games boards have survived.

With pub closures running at an all time high, it's inevitable that old games, perhaps even rare or hitherto undiscovered ones, will once again see the light of day, rescued from the dank cellars and dusty store rooms of old pubs where they've languished un-played and unloved for many years. My understanding is that this is how the Skittles & Cheeses shown here have come to light, discovered recently at an as yet unknown closed pub in the small Lincolnshire town of Grantham.

These skittles and cheeses superficially resemble the game of Northamptonshire Table Skittles (sometimes known as Hood Skittles), though there are a number of features which set them apart from this game, most notably their significantly smaller size. Unlike most of the larger forms of the game of skittles, where a ball (or barrel shaped 'cheese') is thrown or bowled at the pins, Table Skittles developed as a compact bar-room game, with thick, flat discs of wood replacing the balls. These are thrown onto a padded leather table where nine stout boxwood or hardwood pins are arranged in the traditional diamond pattern.

A slightly smaller version of this game, known locally as Daddlums, was once played in Kent and the surrounding counties. Only one original Daddlums table is known to be in existence now, located at the recently re-opened Vigo Inn, Fairseat in Kent (there is a photograph of the table on the pub website). The local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale also have an original set of pins and cheeses, and stage occasional Daddlums matches on a reproduction table (see this edition of Channel Draught from page 40 for a good description of the game, and how the branch came to own the pins and cheeses). The game seems to have been quite popular right through until the late 70's, in fact I've spoken with a gentleman from the area who remembers playing the game at a pub in the village of Trottiscliffe around this time, which suggests that most pubs in this area would have had a table in the games heyday.

A very similar game to Daddlums extended up the eastern seaboard to Norfolk (and possibly beyond!). Sadly, since the last known Norfolk Skittles Table disappeared from the Horseshoes Inn, Alby, no example of the Norfolk game has been seen for some time. A photograph of this table can be seen in Timothy Finn's 1975 book Pub Games of England. One thing is clear though, given the popularity of these games, it seems certain that more tables, pins, and cheeses are waiting to be discovered in the area. It's also quite possible that given the relatively wide spread of such similar games, a small table skittles game like Daddlums may have been played much farther afield than has previously been thought.

Which brings me to the skittles and cheeses shown here, and what little I currently know about them:

  • There are nine hardwood (probably Mahogany) skittles, a little over 4.5 inches high, and exhibiting enough variation to suggest they were made by a local craftsman rather than manufactured. They're in pretty good condition for 'old' skittles, so perhaps these are relatively new replacements.

  • There are three stitched 'Cheeses', each one made from three thick rounds of leather. Two, possibly the oldest, are also crudely pierced with iron rivets, and perhaps most importantly, stamped on both sides with the words LE TALL and GRANTHAM. The third cheese is similarly constructed, but the rivets are finer, and made from brass and copper. This cheese is not stamped.

  • A second set of three cheeses are made from two rounds of thick leather sandwiching a round of rubber. These are lighter, softer, and merely glued. I feel that these are more modern, possibly replacements for the hard (noisy!) leather originals.

What conclusions can be drawn about this highly unusual skittle set? The fact is that buying items like these from a dealer in a particular location is no indication of origin, although I am led to believe they did come from a closed pub in Grantham. More compelling as an indicator of origin is the name and (presumably) location stamped on two of the cheeses. Le Tall seems to be a family name with some connection to Lincolnshire.

The construction and materials used to make these cheeses strongly suggests that this was a pub skittle set. A parlour game would certainly not have needed to be so robust, particularly with regard to the rivets which would have been a liability in a home environment. The skittles themselves are similar in size to those used in Daddlums and Norfolk Skittles, and significantly larger than Devil Amongst The Tailors pins.

So, this appears to have been a local Grantham pub game, probably played on a table similar to that used for the game of Daddlums, and possibly representing a far-flung example of a game once played throughout the South-East of England, and extending up the Eastern coastal counties at least as far as Lincolnshire.

I hope to be able to find out a little more about this skittle set in the near future, and would like to construct a table for their play at some point, probably based on the Norfolk Skittles table featured in Timothy Finn's book, unless I can find evidence of an original Grantham model in the future.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Muskham Ferry, North Muskham, Nottinghamshire

Skittles is the game of choice for pub goers in the Newark area. Long Alley in the Summer, and up until very recently Table Skittles (or Devil Amongst The Tailors) during the colder Winter months.

The local Newark Table Skittles league was one of the last of its kind still active in England. Revived only a few years ago following its untimely demise, the league has now hit the buffers once again. I guess a Winter league is always going to be that little bit harder to sustain, particularly if travel outside of the immediate locality is involved. It's a great shame, you only have to look at the handmade table shown here (and the similarly impressive model already featured on this blog at the Royal Oak in Newark) to see how important the game was to the area at one time.

I'm pleased to say that the Muskham Ferry team are still keeping their hand in though, with a friendly match lined up at a nearby pub on the evening I visited.

Another handmade Skittles Table, this one by Bernard McLean, and very similar in design to the one at the Royal Oak, right down to the neat little drawer for the pins as opposed to the cribbage board lid seen on most manufactured tables. The games room at the pub also features Darts, Pool, and a Shove Ha'penny.

The Skittle Alley was out of action for the Winter off-season when I visited the pub, league play starts towards the end of April come rain, shine, or indeed blizzard! In common with many Notts/Derby alleys, the throw is located in the car park, and in this version of Long Alley, the Sycamore balls are thrown on the full-toss, and must clear the metal sheet in front of the pins to score.

The two pieces of green painted metalwork seen here fit together to form a ball return. More durable than a wooden chute, and a little more elegant than the industrial plastic piping used at most alleys.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Blue Ball Inn, Grantchester, Cambridgeshire

Grantchester could perhaps best be described as an upmarket village located on the edge of an equally upmarket city. For the most part, the village pubs follow suit, all thatch, neat whitewashed exteriors, and plenty of gravel to accommodate the big cars of those drawn to this 'destination' village. I couldn't honestly tell you what most of the pubs are like inside, the lure of a more down to earth boozer drew me in on a cold Winter day.

The Blue Ball Inn is a lovely little pub located on the edge of the village. Snuggled into the centre of a row of cottages, a rural gem overlooking ploughed fields, yet only a short bus ride from the centre of town. Once you're there, you won't want to leave in a hurry that's for sure. Good beer, an open fire, a pub for conversation and conviviality. There are also plenty of amusements to keep you occupied should you choose to stay for a few leisurely pints.

The games played at the Blue Ball are practically part of the furniture. Pride of place, and a real rarity to boot is the Ring The Bull, possibly the simplest of all pub games to play, yet one of the hardest to master. An annual 'World Championship' is contested at the pub in April, though should you fancy your chances it's worth pointing out that home advantage counts for everything in this game.

If Ring The Bull is one of the simplest pub games, then Shove Ha'penny is certainly one of the oldest. The original version was played on extremely long wooden tables, highly polished to give minimum resistance to a metal 'puck' slid along its length. The more modern game developed as a compact, slightly more sophisticated version, easily accommodated and played in even the smallest beer house or tavern. The board at the Blue Ball is a nice old polished Mahogany one, the dark timber blending nicely with the surroundings of a bar considered sufficiently unspoilt to be listed on CAMRA's list of Heritage Pubs.

Chess is a game well suited to a pub like the Blue Ball. Another game which the licensee looked long and hard at installing was a Bar Billiards table, but despite much scratching of head and careful measurement, he concluded there was insufficient space for the game in either of the bar areas.

* Please Note: For clarity I've reversed the frosted glass image above, which read backwards from inside the pub.

Friday, 5 April 2013

A Vintage Pushpenny Board

Pushing Pennies on a Saturday afternoon in the bar of The George, Ashley, Northamptonshire

The game of Pushpenny differs markedly from its more common sidekick Shove Ha'penny in that the boards used for play seem never to have been manufactured. This means that no two Pushpenny Boards will ever be quite the same, in fact they can vary considerably in design and the all important spacings and measurements. The Pushpenny shown here is one of the oldest I've come across, and despite being purchased in Stamford, Lincolnshire, it differs in several respects to the boards currently in use in the local Stamford League.

The most obvious difference is the overall size. This is a large piece of Mahogany even by the standards of the Stamford league where boards are commonly longer than a standard Shove Ha'penny. The run-in is deeper than usual, the playing surface that little bit wider, and perhaps most important of all, the bed depth is significantly shallower than a Stamford board. This all adds up to a particularly difficult board to play, particularly as the surface has been polished to an exceptionally smooth finish, requiring the lightest of touch to avoid overshooting the board.

The original varnish/lacquer which would have originally covered this piece of Mahogany can clearly be seen in this image, and is a good indication that this piece of wood had a very different life before being recycled as a pub game. Only the playing surface and semi-circular end zone has been stripped and polished back to the bare wood. Also of note is the smaller semi-circle above the ninth bed, presumably a scoring option but one which I've yet to find rules for. On this board I've decided to use this additional 'bed', which is quite difficult to score in, as a kind of Joker. Landing a penny in the semi-circle gives the player the opportunity to score once in any bed of their choice.

The three holes shown here are repeated at the other end of the left-hand edge, and may well have been where a pair of hinges were originally located. Perhaps this piece of Mahogany was originally a cupboard door or desk top. Perhaps a cabinet maker may have a better idea. Whether the end piece of wood was contemporary with this is hard to tell. It has been very firmly jointed to the board with tongue-and-groove, and there are useful indentations for pennies and chalk on either side.

The chalk scoring areas are very unusual, being made from strips of inlaid slate screwed onto the surface. This is a feature I've only very rarely seen, and marks this out as being quite a highly crafted board, certainly on a different level to the usual manufactured or home-made pub boards.

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Bear Inn, Beyton, Suffolk

The traditional tile-floored bar at The Bear Inn is the kind of place that encourages you to linger a while. An open fire and a pint from Norfolk's award winning Woodforde's Brewery are always going to set the mood on a cold Winter day, but it's the quiet comfort of this unspoilt space which really hits the spot for me. Conversation comes easily in a bar like this, which is of course the single most rewarding pastime associated with pub going (despite what beer geeks and foodies might have us believe). Of course dining plays a very important part in the success of the Bear, but this is kept largely separate from the business of drinking and chat in a well appointed restaurant.

It's a good bar for a game of Skittles too, though the rattle and clunk of ball-on-pins perhaps suits the busier times at the pub. Often you'll see a piece of carpet fitted to the tray of a Devil Amongst The Tailors, and better quality tables were sometimes 'upholstered' with padded leather, but this one has a simple green baize lining, so it's a bit loud in use.

The table is most often used these days for a weekend game of Killer, one of the most traditional games played at the pub when no league is active.

This Devil Amongst The Tailors set is another sturdy model from Jaques of London, one of the most widely found manufactures of this and other traditional pub games, and still producing 'League' standard tables to this day.

The wood appears to be a lovely golden Oak, the pins and ball a hardwood, possibly Lignum Vitae. The scoring board slightly unusual in that it more closely resembles a Billiards scoreboard rather than the more standard cribbage board layout.