Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Skittles - Not Just A Pub Game

The current trend for all things 'Pop-Up', including shops, restaurants, and even pubs, is like most new ideas, simply an old idea renamed for a new generation. The fact is, Pop-Up pubs have been appearing at Village Fetes and other community events for generations, named simply, and in the parlance of the time, the Beer Tent. The traditional credentials of this age-old Pop-Up Pub phenomena are often enhanced by a range of traditional Pop-Up Pub Games, with Skittles in all its myriad forms being a particular Fete-day favourite.

There's a fair bit of gaming crossover between pub and Fete, with all manner of games making the transition to the village green on the day. It's perhaps surprising that traditional Fete games like Splat The Rat, Roll A Penny, and the Coconut Shy haven't made the transition from Fete to pub game in the same way. Though maybe not! Having said that, the pub game of Aunt Sally has much in common with the Coconut Shy, and originated itself as a fairground game.

Of course skittles play at Fetes is much less competitive than pub play, often with a more random element due to the terrain, and primarily for the purposes of fun and local fund raising. It can also be a great introduction to the game for youngsters who may never have encountered skittles in a pub environment before.

The table shown above is a small handmade version of a Northants/Leics Skittles Table which makes a regular appearance at Caldecott Fete. This is probably the only similar table in active use in the county of Rutland, where skittles has all-but disappeared from its increasingly upmarket and food-led pubs.

The game shown here is a lovely old 'Country Skittles' set, raising money and giving pleasure at Braybrooke Fete in Leicestershire. The 'cheeses' are similar to those used in the Leicestershire Long Alley tradition, making this an ideal trainer game for the local pub game! Setting pins like these, which are often top-heavy, can be difficult on an uneven grassy surface, but this set is purpose made for the job and come complete with a set of spiked metal discs which can be inserted into the turf for the pins to sit on.

For every Northamptonshire or Leicestershire Skittles Table still residing in a pub, and there are hundreds, it's likely that just as many are now in private hands, sometimes located in parts of the country which are very far from the games Midlands home. This W T Blacks table is in the ownership of a local resident of Little Bowden near Market Harborough in Leicestershire, and has featured at every one of the village Fetes in recent years. A similar pub table is still in active use at the Cherry Tree in the village.

Skittles at Barrowden Fete in Leicestershire is a mix-and-match of Ten Pin Bowling Alley pins and a set of old Lignum Vitae Bowls. The bias on these Bowls presumably makes for a more challenging game. The Fete takes place on the village green, and in the shadow of the Exeter Arms which is home to a brewery and the local league game of Pétanque.

The table shown here proved a popular draw with the youngsters at the annual Feast Day in Stoke Albany, Northamptonshire. I've no idea where this table originally came from. Certainly the Fox Inn at the adjacent village of Wilbarston still has a well used table, so maybe this example came from Stoke Albany's pub, the White Horse which underwent an extensive refurbishment some years ago.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Plough, Little Downham, Cambridgeshire

At first glance, the Grade II listed Plough might appear to be the kind of village local which has been largely untouched by the passage of time. The interior of the pub is certainly 'unspoilt' and thoroughly traditional in appearance, but the fact is the Plough will have seen many changes over the years. Any village institution which has managed to weather more than a hundred years of changing customer taste, and an occasional change of ownership, simply has to change or face almost inevitable decline. It all comes down to how sensitively that change is managed whether a pub can juggle the often conflicting goals of tradition and staying 'on-trend' as it were. The Plough succeeds where many similar village pubs have failed in this regard, indeed I think you'd have to be a regular of long-standing to see the joins at all.

Perhaps the most significant change at the Plough would have been when the front Tap Room (see image below) was extended into what was originally the cellar (image above). I wonder how much grumbling emanated from the locals when this idea was first mooted, though it's hard to imagine how the pub would have survived to this day without the subsequent doubling of trading space which resulted.

The history of the Plough is written large on the walls of the pub, a fascinating photographic journey through several generations of locals, licensees, and their many sporting and gaming pursuits. Currently, it's Shooting which seems to plays a large part in the activities of both the village and the pub, though Darts and Dominoes are also popular if the stack of Cribbage Boards and Tiles seen below are anything to go by.

The Plough of the 21st century remains thoroughly relevant to both villagers and visitors, with an excellent reputation for beer, cider, and Thai food.

This fabulous image is reproduced with the kind permission of John Clarke of the Little Downham Community Archive, and features George Green in front of the Pitch Penny bench in the bar of the Plough sometime around the 1940's or 50's. Sadly, as with the vast majority of pubs where this simple bar-room game was once played, the bench is now long gone and the game all-but forgotten. A good example of a Pitch Penny bench still in use can be found at the Jackson Stops Inn, Rutland, and another fine bench at The Bull in Essex is featured on the Pints & Pubs blog.

A set of Steel Quoits sit rusting by the stove. The game of Quoits was once played throughout the country, and still clings on as a league game in nearby Ipswich. Note the Yard of Ale behind, a pub game which has never to my knowledge been played at league level! The trophies are for Shooting.

The last date for the winner of the Little Downham Conker Championship appears to be around the mid 90's. Sadly, it doesn't take much for a village tradition like this to come to an untimely end, or for a defunct tradition to be successfully re-booted for that matter!

This photograph, which hangs above the stove in the bar, shows a game of Dwyle Flunking (or Flonking) in progress on the green opposite the Plough. Perhaps the least said about this particular drinking game the better, since as traditions go this one has the distinct whiff of pastiche about it. A raucous amalgamation of Morris Dancing and school playground game, it is widely believed that this Suffolk pastime was invented in the 1960's, during the height of interest in all things Goon-ish or Monty Python-esque. The game is listed amongst many other examples of British eccentricity on Montegue Blister's Strange Games blog.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Hole In The Wall, Long Eaton, Derbyshire

The Hole In The Wall in Long Eaton is a real gem of a pub. A proper town centre local that's been in the same safe hands for almost 30 years. Continuity of ownership like this is becoming increasingly rare in the pub trade. It's sometimes obvious from the moment you walk into a pub whether the licensees are there for the long-term, or as is increasingly the case now, until the next upward rent review torpedoes their business plan and puts the pub back on the market.

There's little doubt in my mind that the Hole in the Wall is a long-term labour of love for the owners. Popular with the locals, yet equally welcoming to the many visitors who make a beeline to this fine back-street boozer. It's one of the very best pubs in town for beer, crammed with a fine collection of breweriana to keep the beer buffs amused, and which also contributes to a thoroughly cosy and welcoming feel throughout the pub.

It's a pub strong on games play too, with a very tidy covered Long Alley for the local game of skittles which adjoins an equally well maintained enclosed garden at the rear. There can't be many better pubs in the area to watch a hotly contested Summer League match than the garden of the Hole in the Wall.

The trough at the end of the Long Alley shows the original red brick surface of what was once stabling for the pub. The metal frame for locating the pins is set into a particularly durable aggregate, suitable for many years of  hard impact from the Applewood or more usually Sycamore balls. The balls thrown in this version of Long Alley are becoming harder to source now, so much so that perhaps they'll eventually be replaced by some form of composite ball similar to those which are increasingly seen in Western Skittles play.

The Hole in the Wall team are currently about mid-table in the 2013 Long Eaton & District Long Alley Skittles League, but as this piece of framed memorabilia shows, the pub team went unbeaten in 24 games to win the 1998 league (with only one draw apparently). Now a good team might expect to win all their home matches, but to also play so consistently well away is certainly an achievement worthy of a recording.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Horseshoe, Wilby, Northamptonshire

If ever there were an example of how pub skittles play can be a true force for good (bear with me, it's not as far fetched as it sounds), the hardy skittle players of The Horseshoe in Wilby might well be it. Of course team games like skittles come with inbuilt social benefits, and often play a crucial role in the success (or even survival) of many community pubs, but players and customers can also be involved through pub games in numerous charitable events, a point not lost on pub and beer campaigners CAMRA and Pub Aid in this recent press release.

When I visited The Horseshoe in April this year, a 24 Hour Charity Skittles Marathon had just taken place involving 25 players chucking through the night in a bid to raise funds for Prostaid. The eventual total raised from the overall event was a magnificent £5,000, and was such a success that it's hoped this could become an annual event. Not surprisingly, the pub itself is a real cracker, and I was made to feel very welcome by licensee Eve Jackson and the regulars at the bar.

The Northamptonshire Skittles Table is located in a separate games room adjacent to the front bar, an entirely necessary precaution given the noise generated during a lively game. I believe the black board on the left can be removed during a game creating an additional bar counter, particularly handy for those working up a thirst setting pins up in the 'Woodyard'. The skittles are set up and ready to play whenever you are and were being used for a casual game by a group of visitors to the pub when I was there.

The 'Oche' for the skittles can be seen leaning on the left-hand side of the table, an essential part of the Leicester skittles game where it is known as the Mott and usually made from steel, but an optional extra in Northamptonshire it seems.

Many venues for Northamptonshire Skittles indicate the position where the thrower needs to stand with a simple line on the floor, sometimes a brass or other metal strip. Where an Oche like this is used, it's usually the case that both feet must be within the area defined by its three wooden sides. This restricts how far to the left or right a player can stand, which is important in Northamptonshire Skittles because it's often necessary to bounce a cheese off the padded side panels in order to down a tricky pattern of pins.

The Horseshoe play their skittles in the Wellingborough & District League, with two teams currently throwing in the 1st and 3rd divisions of the Summer League.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

A Pair of Pubs in Milton, Cambridgeshire

Waggon & Horses

The village of Milton lies to the North of Cambridge, and seems unusually well served with pubs for its size. The Cambridge area, and Milton in particular, is one of several minor hotbeds of the game of Bar Billiard.

This is perhaps a legacy of the city's large University population, since Bar Billiards (and of course Table Football) were once very popular with students. Indeed a good few of the tables now found in other parts of the country will have originated in Students Union Bars or pubs which were popular with students. The Bar Billiards at the Swan & Rushes in Leicester is an example of a table which had previously been played and serviced in the university town of Oxford.

The Waggon & Horses and White Horse in the village come fully equipped with Bar Billiard tables, and field teams in the two divisions of the Cambridge & District League.

A Devil Amongst The Tailors at the Waggon & Horses is small by pub standards, but of good quality and probably made by Jaques as it resembles their larger 'League Brand' table in all but size. These tables were available to licensees as part of an initiative to 'Bring Back Pub Games!' by the then owners of the Ruddles Brewery brand. Three games were available, including a brewery branded Shove Ha'penny which occasionally crops up in pubs, and a garden Quoits set, more of a family amusement than a true pub game.

Dominoes, fine Elgoods Ales, and Cassels Cider are also available at the pub, as is a Shove Ha'penny, though the licensee couldn't track it down on my visit.

The White Horse

Friday, 5 July 2013

Blue Bell, Hoby, Leicestershire

In CAMRA's 1979 publication 'Real Ale in Leicestershire & Rutland', the 18th Century thatched Blue Bell has a brief description which makes mention of the pubs 'Excellent Skittle Alley'. That was almost 35 years ago, and despite an extensive restoration following a devastating fire in 2004 (the description also mentions a '...blazing winter fire'!), the skittle alley remains, and I'm pleased to say is still truly excellent.

The pub itself is also a pretty good one, though obviously changed somewhat since the fire. A refurbishment on the scale which the Blue Bell underwent will inevitably divide opinion. People quite naturally form deep attachments to historic buildings, even more so when it's the local you've been drinking and socialising in for many years, and this can make even the slightest change difficult to bare.

Given that I can't recall ever visiting the Blue Bell in the past (though may well have, I've been to so many pubs over the years), I can approach this attractive village pub without the baggage of previous experience. I found the Blue Bell to be warm, cosy, and welcoming, and still very much a village local. It's certainly more open-plan than it would have been in the past, but still with enough distinctive areas and genuine historical features to be largely in keeping with the Grade II listed exterior. I like it, and I particularly like the Skittle Alley, which from photos of the fire-gutted pub seemed to have escaped the worst of the devastation.

The alley is a classic purpose built Leicestershire Long Alley. Beautifully maintained, and very well used for both league play, and the all important social functions which help maintain the financial viability of alleys like these in Leicestershire.

The return shute seems to have some genuine age, another indication that the alley must have escaped the worst of the fire. It's interesting to note that the skittles scoreboard includes a section for 'Misses'. I'm not entirely sure why these are recorded, though I do know that the local Syston & District League has a 'Wall of Shame' for scores of zero throughout the season. The alley also doubles as the venue for league Darts matches.

Pétanque is also played at the pub throughout the Summer months. The four Pistes must be some of the most beautifully sited in the area, set as they are in a beautifully tended garden overlooking the Wreake Valley towards Rotherby village. The game is played on Wednesday evenings in the local 1990 Pétanque League.