Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Romany, Northampton

The 80's vogue for knocking through multi-room pubs into a single, large, easy to manage space, signalled the death-knell for many separate Bars, Snugs, and Games Rooms. It's certainly not just nostalgia which leads me to mourn the loss of this traditional multi-room layout. Different spaces serve different needs in a pub, and losing the separate bar/lounge/snug/games room layout can often remove at a stroke the pubs ability to appeal to a truly diverse customer base. It's true that fewer rooms mean less staff are required to run a pub, but I can't help feeling that the loss of flexibility and 'inclusiveness' which can result from this 'knocking-through' is just one more reason why some people have fallen out of love with the pub, let alone the loss of 'character' that almost inevitably comes with it.

Of course dull and unimaginative refurbishments of traditional pubs continue apace, but thankfully the wholesale removal of interior walls seems to be much less prevalent now. Sadly the damage has already been done in far too many traditional pubs, and there seems to be little or no desire on the part of brewers and pub owning companies to reinstate what has been lost.

The Romany in Northampton has certainly seen a number of changes to its internal layout over the years, but crucially two large separate bars have been maintained. This has undoubtedly helped in the success of the pub, where the games room concept has been taken to its logical conclusion by devoting almost half of the pubs trading area to the numerous gaming activities which take place. Gaming can be a noisy business, and a dedicated games room like the one at the Romany often makes sense, particularly with games such as Northants Skittles which can be both noisy, and occasionally hazardous in play.

So, if it's a quiet pint you're after (or perhaps a band in the evening), simply turn left at the main entrance, but if it's games you're looking for, the right-hand door will lead you to the Romany's excellent and well appointed Games Bar.

As you can see in the image above, gaming truly is the lifeblood of the Romany. League play includes everything from Darts and Pool, to the local speciality of Northamptonshire Table Skittles.

This table is one of only a handful which can now be found in what is the home town of the game. As far as I'm aware, Northamptons town centre pubs are now entirely devoid of skittles tables, though there may be a few clubs where the game can still be found. It's in traditional community pubs like the Romany, located on the edge of town and further out into the suburbs, that the game can still be found. Perhaps unusually for one of the more physical pub games, it's a Ladies League which still hold the torch for skittles play in the Northampton. It's hard to say why this might have come about, but perhaps the ladies make more of a social event of skittling than the men.

Darts and Pool are the main events at the Romany, with much of the silverware on display in the trophy cabinet coming from the Darts and Pool leagues.

There's also a very good quality open-top Football Table. The game of Table Football (or Foosball as it's now known) has dipped in popularity somewhat since the days when many pubs, and every student union bar had a table, but there are still a few about, with even league play in certain parts of the country. The British Foosball Association has a good interactive map which shows venues throughout the UK, with some limited coverage of Europe where the game is still very popular.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Plough, Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire

The first time I popped in for a pint at The Plough in Bruntingthorpe, the place was so busy that taking photos was simply out of the question. This was a Sunday afternoon, a quiet time for many rural pubs.

It wasn't so long ago that the ritual of the pre-Sunday Lunch pint (often followed by the Sunday afternoon session) was almost universally supported, albeit mostly by men of course! But as we all know, the steady weekly traditions of pub-going have been seriously eroded in more recent times, so much so that many rural pubs are now barely ticking over on what was once one of the most sociable drinking days of the week.

So despite the slight inconvenience to my photographic interests, it's great to see a pub like The Plough as busy as this, particularly on a Sunday afternoon in the depth of winter time. But then take a look at the picture below and it's easy to see why the Plough's regulars wouldn't want to be anywhere else on a cold Sunday afternoon.

The Games Room at the Plough features Pool, Darts, and a well used and well maintained Skittles Table which sees service in the Dunton Bassett Skittles League and Dunton Basset Ladies Skittles League.

The impressive array of trophies in the bar of the pub include the three turned Mahogany 'cheeses' shown below for 'Player of the Season', 'Most Improved Player', and a 'Wooden Spoon' for an individual team player. It's not uncommon to find that additional trophies like these have been presented, particularly where pub games play is still popular and well supported at a pub. Lilacs of Isham had a similar trophy for example.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Snookerette - The Gedney Hill & District League

The external signage on the Black Bear in Wisbech advertises the pub game staples of Pool and Darts, no surprises there, but notice also that something called Snookerette is on offer at the pub. Now that's a game that not many will have heard of, although locally it's quite common, played as it is in a league of up to nine venues in the Gedney Hill & District League. So what might Snookerette be?

As you'll see from the image below, which was taken in the single large bar of the Black Bear, Snookerette is in fact the same (or very similar) to the much more commonly found, and almost universally named game of Bar Billiards. So why the curiously different name in this small part of Lincolnshire?

The cue game that we now know as Bar Billiards was effectively an import from continental Europe in the early part of the 20th century, where the game was known in the french speaking regions as Billard Russe, or Russian Billiards. The London firm of William Jelkes was the preferred manufacturer of the initial crop of tables in this country, and since a more palatable, less 'Soviet' name for the game was needed, Bar Billiards was chosen. More crucially, the name was also registered for use by Jelkes alone. The game proved to be popular, and inevitably a number of other manufacturers began to produce their own tables, often subtly different in design or dimensions, and all by necessity bearing a different trade name. The company of Alfred Sam's & Sons of Hertfordshire produced a four pin table (most are three pin models), and it's this model which is now found throughout the Gedney Hill & District league. Sam's appear to have chosen the name Snookerette for their tables.

Time has moved on since the early days of the game, and the term Bar Billiards is now almost universally used. But for some reason, the name Snookerette has persisted in the Gedney Hill area (and possibly elsewhere), such that you will be politely corrected by the locals if you make the mistake of referring to the game as Bar Billiards!

Match nights in the Gedney Hill & District League are usually on Thursdays, and there are Summer and Winter leagues, the latter slightly better supported. Needless to say, the tables are available for play outside of league match nights.

All the tables in the local Snookerette league carry the logo of the now defunct National Bar Billiard Association. The All England Bar Billiard Association now regulate the game, though the Gedney Hill & District Summer and Winter leagues are not affiliated to this body.

The Butchers Arms is located in one of the more attractive Fenland villages of Parsons Drove. The bar is a traditional drinking and gaming space with ample room for both Pool and Snookerette tables. The pub also acts as the unofficial licensed clubhouse of the adjacent Parsons Drove Bowls Club. The many trophies on display in the bar include the magnificent Shield shown below, which is still in use, with some of the older badges being replaced with new winners names when necessary.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt 16

The Chestnut is a friendly and vibrant local, tucked away in a leafy residential area of Worcester. It's an interesting pub, run by an enthusiastic (and slightly eccentric) landlord. A recent addition to the bar is a full size Pine Pulpit, and afternoons can be spent browsing the extensive vinyl collection, with a record deck available to play whatever takes your fancy. This huge slate Shove Ha'penny was rescued from another pub and the landlord would love to see it get more use (though you may have to take your own half pennies). Alternatively, there's a Devil Amongst The Tailors for skittles fans.

There's a sign in the bar of the Rose & Crown in Oundle promising 'Darts and Dominoes Every Wednesday Night'. Sadly the rattle of Dominoes is no longer a weekly feature, but the Darts Board is still in situ and available to play.

Cribbage Boards, old and some not so old. The Pleasantime 'Once Around' Two Lane Cribbage Board on the left is American and from around the 1950's. It comes complete with a lovely set of wooden pegs, and a folded sheet giving the Basic Rules of Cribbage. The Crown and Anchor board has the look and simple charm of a homemade affair. The holes are huge for a crib board, and the pub name has been simply added using a letter punch of the type commonly used to mark woodworking tools.

Another well maintained, clean and tidy, yet cosy and full of character back-street village local. The Railway Inn at Ketton, Rutland, bucks the trend for upmarket, food driven, and largely characterless pubs which are becoming all too common in my experience, particularly in rural areas. I've lost count of the number of times a historic pub exterior merely dresses up a bland, stripped out interior. All blond wood laminate flooring and late 20th century brown leather sofas, more Swedish furniture store than traditional British pub in character. Thankfully, there are still pubs like the Railway, which along with the village shop is the true hub of the community. It's quite small within, which presumably accounts for being a drinkers pub rather than one noted for food. Despite its diminutive size, league Pool, Darts, Cribbage and Dominoes are all played at the Railway. Quite an achievement for a pub of any size these days.

Silver Medals like the one shown below were once quite a common reward for success in league and cup games play. I've seen examples for everything from Dominoes to Quoits and Skittles, sometimes hallmarked, occasionally even featuring a gold element. All I know about this one is that it was presented in 1949 to an F. Souster for some measure of success in Darts. It's a shame there's not a little more information about the league/competition, and what exactly the achievement would have been that the medal was presented for.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Three Tuns, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Old established family brewers like Elgoods seem to value their pub estates that much more than non-brewing pub companies. Pubcos (and sadly this includes some of the very large brewers) are so divorced from the business of brewing and selling ale, that their estates are merely there for short-term cash flow, or medium-term property investment. A brewery which owns its own pubs has a vested interest in their success since they act as a shop window for the brewers craft. Time and again, if it's the best of unspoilt traditional British pubs you're looking for (and a genuine, well-run Free House is not available), those owned by the old established family brewers are the ones that seem to deliver the goods more often than not.

A good many beer enthusiasts don't seem to value these more traditional boozers very highly though. The choice of beers not nearly exciting enough, the conversation not nearly 'beery' enough. Novelty, extreme hop rates, and unusual flavours are what beer enthusiasts favour, all of which can be more commonly found in a shiny new beer bar, no matter how dull and impersonal the interior. Even a Wetherspoon has more value to the beer enthusiast than a pub which has developed and grown within the local community for generations. The beer range is better you see, which for some seems to be all that matters.

Pubs like the Three Tuns are not for beer geeks though, they service the needs of people who perhaps have a better understanding of what makes the great British pub so unique and envied throughout the world. People, conversation, and the sense of belonging to a community that a true local engenders. Entertainment, games, and perhaps even drinking good beer, but without feeling the need to spend all night talking about it!

The Pool Table has now gone from the Three Tuns, but Darts, Shove Ha'penny, and a very good Dice Set are available for play in the comfortable front bar.

The bar itself benefits from a fairly typical set of Elgoods liveried stained glass windows, the small panes and sparse decoration giving the bar a slightly subdued lighting level which really suits the traditional decor, and very well suits an afternoon pint.

The dice is a good quality Abbot Ale set, containing a Shut The Box, Poker Dice, and Crown & Anchor amongst others. The Shove Ha'penny could do with a good polish and a bit more use.


Thursday, 2 May 2013

Brunswick Arms, St Johns, Worcester

The first sight to greet you at the front entrance of the Brunswick Arms is this unusual timber construction, a coin tossing game called  Grenuoille, more commonly found in French or Belgian bars. Lovingly homemade by the licensee, it's just one of the dozens of traditional pub and bar games which form licensee Chris Hankins extensive collection.

The Brunswick is a kind of one-stop-shop for traditional pub games. The collection includes just about every game you can think of, including the once popular local game of Indoor Quoits or Dobbers, as well as more common examples such as Shove Ha'penny and Shut The Box. The thing about the Brunswick is that these games are not just for show. Chris is keen for all the games in his collection to be played and enjoyed by his customers, and like myself, sees games as an important part of the social pub-going experience.

Total games immersion includes the twice monthly meeting of the local Subbuteo Club at the pub.

From right:  A rare and unusual Shove Snooker board. The Canadian game of Crokinole. A Carrom table, Asian in origin. A nice Mahogany Shove Ha'penny (see below).

The Quoits Board is a Jaques model, including the floppy rubber quoits, white on one side, which are traditional to the game. The other ring-flinging game at the Brunswick is the Rings Board shown below. This is the standard 13 hook design as played in Ireland. The game was once quite widely played in England, particularly in the north, but is now only rarely seen outside of the Isle of Wight where the game is still played in the Ventnor & District Rings League.

The Shove Ha'penny is a good quality board with brass lifters. Note that the bar comes equipped with several Shut The Box games, and a Put & Take is also available, though presumably not for the purposes of gambling! Even a humble formica-topped table has been converted to a Shove Ha'penny at the Brunswick.

The 'Shoving' format of pub games spawned many different games during its heyday, most of which have now effectively disappeared, not only from pubs but more generally. I've already featured a slate Shuv Billiards game on here, and I've also seen a Cricket version as well as many variations on the theme of propelling coins up a smooth surface.

This Shove Snooker game would presumably have involved 'flicking' coins rather than shoving, but like many of these unusual and largely obsolete variants, the rules are very hard to come by, so there will always be a certain amount of guess work involved when it comes to how it was played. One thing's for sure, I can't see a full set of snooker balls being represented on a board of this size.

The Dutch game of Sjoelbak is located in the garden of the pub, and gets well used on warmer days apparently. The idea is to slide wooden 'pucks' up the board, scoring by getting them to slide through the four numbered slots at the top of the table.