Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Collection of Billiards & Snooker Images

Very many of the grand urban pubs built around the turn of the century would have included a dedicated Billiards Room in their layout. The game was enjoying a surge in popularity prior to the war years, and breweries were keen to include the game in their pub designs. Almost all of these have subsequently been converted to more profitable use, with Snooker and to a lesser degree Billiards, almost exclusively club games now. A full size Billiards Table is therefore a rare thing to find in a pub these days, and it's perhaps even more surprising to find a fully functioning vintage table in a 1930's estate pub.

Northfields in Stamford, Lincs, is quite a large pub, and like many similarly located estate pubs has struggled for trade in recent years. Sadly, being surrounded by housing is no guarantee of custom in the 21st century, but under new management the Northfield is making good progress in getting back to where it should be. The various pub game teams are being re-established, and there are even plans to reinstate the old Skittle Alley at the rear of the pub in time.

In common with other manufacturers, Burroughes & Watts ceased production of Billiards tables during the war years. Materials became increasingly hard to come by, and with so many men enlisted for the war effort, the game would presumably have been much less played anyway. They continued to refurbish tables until the closure of the company in 1967, making it hard to date Billiards tables like this even when bearing an original label. Old Billiards tables like the one at the Northfield are predominantly used for Snooker these days. The older game of Billiards has largely retreated from view, though it's still played at the amateur level.

The windows shown in the image above are located on the first floor of the currently closed Bush Inn, Worcester. This pub's closed status is all the more sad since it has been listed on CAMRA's Inventory of Heritage Pubs due to its largely unspoilt interior. The Billiards Room was functioning as a large dining area up until the pub closed in 2010.

E.J. Riley were one of the longest lasting of all the British Cue Sports manufacturers, which presumably explains why there are still so many Riley branded items such as this Billiards Scoreboard still to be found, including many still being used in Snooker halls and clubs.

Billiards as a game has been largely superseded by Snooker (and latterly Pool), but has never entirely disappeared at the amateur level. It's perhaps hard to fully appreciate how good a game of Billiards can be in skilled hands, given that only three balls are used on such a large table. For a good understanding of how the game is played I would recommend this 30 minute video of an exhibition match on the English Amateur Billiards Association website.

I'm not aware of any pubs in Leicester which still house a full size Billiards Table. This is hardly an unusual situation. In most parts of the country the games of Snooker and Billiards are firmly rooted in the club scene where the space and funds are more readily available to maintain what are often vintage tables.

Snooker in Leicester is played in two divisions of the Leicester & District Institute Snooker League, split between specialist Cue Sports clubs such as Rileys and Willie Thorns, and the larger trades, social and political clubs, including the tables shown below at the Nottingham Oddfellows Club on Belgrave Gate, Leicester.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Skittles On The Green - Thrussington, Leicestershire

The many attractive villages of the Wreake Valley could be said to lie at the very heart of the Leicestershires Long Alley Skittles tradition. Pub and club alleys in Ashby Folville, Hoby, Melton Mowbray, and on into Syston are still going strong, though certainly many more have been lost in recent years. The village of Thrussington has a very special place in the Long Alley tradition, and yet neither of the two village pubs have an alley these days. The Star Inn on the village green was given an extensive makeover in 2011, and is now highly regarded principally for its food offering. The nearby Blue Lion is a much more traditional affair. Home to lively Darts and Dominoes matches, and with several teams 'chucking' in the local 1990 Pétanque League, but the original Long Alley which would have existed at the rear of the pub is now long gone.

What marks Thrussington out as a skittling hotbed is the unique annual tradition of Skittles on the Green. On two evenings in June, villagers and skittlers from near and far compete for various team and individual trophies in the Leicestershire version of Long Alley Skittles. It's a marvellous community event, enjoyed by men, women, and children equally, and an important fundraiser for the upkeep of the village hall. It's also unique as far as I can tell in that the twin alleys used for the games are located not at a pub or club, but on the village green. Of course outdoor skittle alleys are not in themselves unusual, most of those found in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are located in the car parks and beer gardens of pubs. But a 'municipal' long alley, set up as these are on the village green, is something I've not come across anywhere else in the Midlands, though I'd be delighted to learn of other examples should they still exist.

The two 'alleys' on the green are laid to concrete, complete with the usual sunken foot hole and nine metal rings for locating the pins. Straw bales, a sturdy wooden return chute, and steady stream of willing competitors complete the facilities. A decent run of good weather helps too!

Mandy Gisborn, licensee of the excellent Blue Lion, very kindly allowed me to photograph the trophy and shield ahead of the start of play on Friday evening. If we assume that the presentation of the Crowden Cup marks the beginning of this unique village tradition, it can be seen that Skittles on the Green has been going for over 50 years, with the Black Swan, Melton Mowbray the very first winners, and Syston Social Club the current cup holders.

Of course skittles may well have been played in a similar fashion in the village well before 1961, either on the green as it is now, or in one or more of the pubs in the village. More recently, the skittling has been shortened from the original three evening sessions to a Friday and Saturday event. Support from local teams has not been as strong as in previous years, perhaps not helped by the run of poor Summer weather we've had recently. This year the weather held good though, with the Friday evening session particularly warm and pleasant, so hopefully the suggestion that this could be the last year for Skittles on the Green will prove to be premature. It would be a great shame to see yet another wonderful social tradition disappear along with the many similar events that have already been lost.

The all important men in the 'Woodyard', without whom the setting up of the pins and the return of cheeses would be a lengthy process during a game. It's a job which doesn't come without some element of risk, both from the unpredictable bounce of the hardwood cheeses, and the high probability of splinters when handling the pins. The two shown here are obviously old hands in the woodyard, and presumably still sprightly enough to avoid any serious injury during the heat of competition.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Beacon, Aspley, Nottingham

Located a few miles out from the centre of Nottingham, in what might rather fancifully be considered the 'Long Alley Skittles Zone', the Beacon is a fairly typical suburban community pub with a strong gaming element. With one or two notable exceptions, you generally have to travel this far out of town to find the traditions of pub game play still being observed. This is certainly true for league play, and even in the suburbs the Nottingham skittles tradition is becoming much harder to find.

Afternoon Skittles matches are played at the Beacon in the Arnold Sunday Skittles League, with league matches also played on Monday evenings. The alley is a fine indoor one located at the rear of the pub, it's quality and overall size giving a good indication of how important the game of Long Alley Skittles would have been to the Nottingham pub and club scene at one time.

The rear bar of the Beacon adjoins the skittle alley and plays host to league Pool and Darts matches. The vaulted ceiling has some of the appearance of a Billiards room. The bar counter has the look of a later addition so perhaps there would have originally been more space for a Billiards table or two.

This is the first time that I've come across both an indoor and outdoor Long Alley at a pub. Which came first I wonder.

The outside alley is a typically spartan affair, laid to concrete, with a thoroughly functional plastic pipe for the ball return, and large concrete slabs to contain the game. It doesn't appear to get a lot of use outside of the warmer Summer months, which is hardly surprising given the availability of the more comfortable indoor alley.

The 'Horseshoe' foot stop, on which the players back foot must remain during a throw, is an interesting feature. I can imagine a day when this outdoor alley might finally be decommissioned, and people will wonder what this piece of metalwork was originally for!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Bell Inn, Murrow, Cambridgeshire

There are many factors which can make the difference between success and failure in the licensed trade. Some a licensee may have little control over, whilst other aspects will be very much in their own hands. Sadly not every pub can thrive on hard work and ingenuity alone, but it's sad and disappointing to see a pub fail which may well have succeeded in better hands.

No-one could accuse the licensees of The Bell Inn of neglecting their duties to make a success of the pub. This really is one the very best examples of what can be achieved when a committed team take the helm of a relatively isolated, and slightly neglected village local. Clearly a great deal of work has been put in by licensees Andy & Dawn in the three years since they moved to the pub, and all with the full approval of the locals by all accounts. Sounds obvious doesn't it, but so often the locals are the last to be considered when it comes to change at the pub.

It's hard to imagine how a pub could be more at the heart of its community than the Bell, and it really shows when you walk into the bar, even on a weekday afternoon. The place just feels so welcoming and right. It's the kind of local that most people would want, but particularly those with a desire to get involved in their community, which is surely what village pubs should be about rather than merely upmarket foodie destinations where the locals are barely tolerated.

Needless to say, games play an important role in the success of the Bell Inn. Perhaps the jewel in the pubs gaming crown is the immaculately maintained Bowling Green at the rear, overlooked by a smart patio and a positively plush smoking shelter, furnished with the original banquet seating from the bar. Bowls is played on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the season, and I can't think of a more pleasant place to spend a Summer evening, following all the action with a pint of something good from the nearby Elgoods Brewery.

Inside it's Snookerette (otherwise known as Bar Billiards) which provides the gaming interest, with a vintage 'Sams' table available to play whenever a match in the local Gedney Hill & District League is not in progress. The pub is proud to field both the current winning team in the Winter League, as well as holding the Wooden Spoon for the up-and-coming 'B' team. A good mahogany Shove Ha'penny is also available in the bar, though you may need to provide your own coins. All in all, it's a very fine pub, go play!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.17

The smiling chap in the Monks Habit on these Playing Cards is a reference to the Benedictine Monks who reputedly discovered Burton-on-Trent's highly regarded Gypsum-rich brewing waters. Marston's Brewery also used the image for their strong Merrie Monk Mild, as well as for a number of pubs including the now closed Merrie Monk in Dunton Basset, a former Leicestershire Table Skittles venue.

A well used brass Put & Take, a game which was very popular with servicemen during the war years, and seemingly purpose made for surreptitious gambling in pubs thereafter. The idea of Put & Take is that a Banker holds the stake, and depending on the fall of the spinner, either pays out or takes money from those playing. Needless to say the odds are always in the bankers favour so this role would be rotated throughout play. Put & Take pieces like this one can still be bought today, though it's hard to say just how much play goes on in the pub or elsewhere, given the relative ease of all manner of gambling pursuits nowadays.

Medals for Dominoes and Northamptonshire Table Skittles. Like most medals, cups, and shields, these are made from base metal these days rather than the Silver or Silver Plate of earlier, more handsome trophies. The skittles medal has quite a nice rendering of the game, the table located in the corner of a bare-boarded bar, as most indeed are. It was originally presented to a gentleman who played the game in pubs throughout Northampton town, for success in either the 'Pepper League' or 'Pepper Cup' competition. The Pepper family have a long association with the game, John Pepper being the last known maker of the traditional Boxwood skittles and cheeses of Northamptonshire Table Skittles.

These 'Darter's Luck' cards were printed for the Darts Club of the Alexandra Arms in Kettering in the 1950's, a pub already featured on this blog for its fine Northamptonshire Skittles Table. These cards were used as fundraisers for the team, passed around the pub, and paying out Four Shillings for a minimum Two Pence stake. The system has proved to be very durable, with almost identical 'Football Cards' still doing the rounds at pub game matches throughout the country. Indeed I was lucky enough to win the modern-day Four Shillings (more like £10) on the Ladies Skittle Team card at the Queen Adelaide, Kingsthorpe last year.

The chances are, if you spend time in a pub which is still frequented by a diverse range of locals, you'll come across a game of Dominoes being played. The game is certainly not as popular as it once was, it's a 'thinking' game of a type which doesn't seem to appeal to younger drinkers, but the game persists nevertheless. The chances are that unless you're in the Bolton area, you're unlikely to see anything other than the common six-spot dominoes in play.

Of course there's no reason why domino sets shouldn't come in other denominations to the standard six, and anything up to twelve spots is known. The higher the number of spots employed, the greater the number of tiles in a set, and in theory the greater the number of players in any one game. In practise though, most leagues in the UK and beyond stick with the tried and trusted six spot option. All except those leagues which operate in the Bolton area, where nine spot Dominoes like those shown above are the norm.

This large Mahogany Pushpenny Board is certainly showing its age. Pitted, scratched, and with a significant crack at the top end of the board. Nevertheless, it plays very well indeed and is a good example of how even with this level of wear, ageing, and even damage, a good quality hardwood Pushpenny or Shove Ha'penny can still be perfectly serviceable.

This board has almost identical spacings to a Stamford Pushpenny board, and the two-piece construction and thick copper stop bar suggests this has been homemade locally from a redundant piece of furniture.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Horseshoes, Asfordby, Leicestershire

The village of Asfordby near Melton Mowbray is located towards the edge of the Leicestershire Long Alley area, barely a Skittle Throw away from the similar-but-different Notts/Derby version of the game. Having said that, and as I've seen elsewhere, there has been a fair bit of adaptation of the game throughout the area, particularly where a pub was originally run or built by a brewery from over the border but the local game is now played. The alley at The Horseshoes is a very fine one, and firmly in the Leicestershire mould as far as I can see.

The pub is also a fine one as village locals go. A thoroughly unpretentious single bar drinking pub, featuring a Darts Board and the occasional rattle of league Domino play. An otherwise unremarkable boozer, but then pubs as 'honest' and welcoming as this one are not nearly as common as they once were. Would that there were more 'unremarkable' pubs like The Horseshoes.

An alley as beautifully functional as this can only have been purpose built for the job, and I'm pleased to say that it's well used in various local leagues including the Syston & District, and Melton Mowbray Ladies. Each team have their own set of pins and cheeses, as can be seen in the image of the Ladies set below.

A traditional Cards/Dominoes table in the Skittle Alley, itself unremarkable except that they're becoming much rarer in pubs nowadays. The alcoves below would have been designed to take the pints during a game.