Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Headland, Northampton

Modern single-story pubs like The Headland, located as they most usually are in the suburban hinterland between rural and urban living, are often well and truly off the radar for all but the most local drinkers. Lacking the genuine heritage of many urban pubs, and with little in their appearance that would sit well on the front of a chocolate box, we generally pass these pubs by, rarely considering what might lie within.

If I'm honest, the purple/blue brickwork and flat roof exterior of The Headland reminds me just a little too much of a 1970's comprehensive school, never a good thing for a person of my age! It's a classic example of the late 20th century trend for robust functionality over the unnecessary expense of the aesthetic. This is probably just the kind of pub the editorial team of the risible Good Pub Guide were referring to recently when they suggested that 4,000 more pubs should close post-haste to make way for more of 'their' kind of pubs.

I wasn't going to let the somewhat utilitarian exterior put me off though, because it's what's inside a pub that matters, and because all too often it's pubs like The Headland which alone continue to offer a truly 'social' drinking experience within their community. In fact it's pubs like The Headland that are the truly 'good' pubs in my opinion, rather than the gastro-exclusivity promoted in guides like the Good Pub Guide.

When I visited The Headland on a midweek lunchtime, the comfortable lounge bar was busy to bursting with local veterans enjoying a regular lunchtime function. This is exactly what I'd expect to find in a pub still firmly rooted at the heart of the community it serves. The lounge bar is the comfortable retreat for dining, drinks and chat, whereas the public bar is principally reserved for that other thing I'd expect to find in a community local like this, the wide range of games and sports which the pub supports.

In common with many Northampton town pubs, the local game of Table Skittles has sadly fallen out of favour with the locals. The table is a very fine one, and it would be a great shame if The Headland went the way of so many town centre pubs and finally consigned the game to a store room or eventually sold the table off. Go to The Headland, have a pint or two, throw a few cheeses while you're there.


One of the many pockets of Bar Billiards interest in the country can be found in pubs located in and around Northampton. Around ten teams compete on tables located in half a dozen venues locally, with a Summer league and various cup competitions played for in the Northants Bar Billiards League. Darts and Pool also feature at The Headland, but it's the very active Golf club which is perhaps the pubs main competitive focus.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Heathcote Arms, Croft, Leicestershire

The Heathcote Arms and myself are drinking partners of old. The pub was a regular haunt and favourite of mine when I lived in the nearby village of Littlethorpe, Croft being just a short bus ride or pleasant enough walk from home. The pub was also a favourite with nascent beer enthusiasts in those days, mainly because the licensee at the time was known for getting a special weekend guest beer in for the regulars. This was at a time when a guest beer in a tied house like the Heathcote would have been virtually unheard of, so it felt like a bit of a naughty treat! The pub was an attractive venue in itself, traditional, unspoilt, and with a terrific sun-trap terrace to the front overlooking the village.

It also had a bit of a rugby following, and could always be relied on to show the annual Five Nations tournament. I have fond memories of drinking in the packed bar during an England match, the Domino players grumbling but rattling on regardless in the corner below the television. The Heathcote has also played host to the Camaraderie Cup challenge, an annual skittles match held between teams from Everards brewery and the local CAMRA branch. I've photos of one such match, though from the Plough in Littlethorpe, not the Heathcote.

The Heathcote of the 21st century has been expanded and modernised a fair bit since then, but the front bar remains pretty much as I remember it, and the front terrace just as popular. The beer range has also expanded, with Everards becoming one of the pioneers of guest beer provision through their Old English Ale Club in the 90's. With so many of the old skittle alleys disappearing in recent years, it's particularly pleasing that the Heathcote's alley is still a prominent feature of the pub, and in regular use by the Croft Casuals and visiting teams in the local Tom Bishop Memorial Skittles League. The alley is also available to book for skittles evenings or functions throughout the year.

The alley is a classic Leicestershire Long Alley, laid to concrete with large rubber sheets to protect the walls from the Lignum Vitae 'bombs' which players launch at the pins. The Pins and Cheeses shown here are for practice or casual play, the match day set would be locked away for safe keeping. Note the foot hole followed by a series of grooves. During a throw the player must keep his leading foot in this foot hole, sometimes known as the 'Mott'. However, it's perfectly acceptable for a player to launch themselves down the alley once the cheese has left their hand, and presumably the grooves provide a good non-slip surface for occasions where players may have acquired wet soles on regular trips to the bar.


In addition to the skittle alley and the pub games listed on the blackboard below, the Heathcote has one of the most challenging Shove Ha'penny Boards you're likely to find. The homemade board seen to the left of the blackboard is a 17 bed monster which is apparently popular with younger visitors to the pub.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Three Pubs for Shove Ha'penny

Fox & Goose, Ilston-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire

Atmospheric and unspoilt village local the Fox & Goose has featured briefly on this blog before. It's a pub worthy of a repeat though as the licensee has recently added a fine pair of Shove Ha'penny Boards to the more obvious attractions of good beer and conversation. Both boards are solid and weighty, only needing a little additional polish through regular use to be worthy of serious afternoon competition. The pub also has a small Devil Amongst The Tailors, ideal for children to play, as well as Darts, Dominoes, Cards, and Table Tennis! Traditional pub games will also feature at the Fox & Goose during the annual Onion Sunday event on the 1st September.

The Ship Inn, March, Cambridgeshire

Thatched, Grade II listed riverside pub the Ship Inn is all chocolate box loveliness on the outside, yet smart, modernised, and open-plan within. It still retains a good deal of its original character though, and remains a lively and popular venue with an excellent reputation for its range of real ales. The games corner has numerous sets of Dominoes and associated Crib Boards, as well as this well-played and well-worn old Shove Ha'penny Board.

The Exeter Arms, Easton-on-the-Hill, Lincolnshire

It's unusual to find a Shove Ha'penny Board in any pub these days, but perhaps even more so at the Exteter Arms. Firstly, the Exeter is quite an upmarket and foody 'destination' pub, though not exclusively so as a proper bar area has been retained. The other factor is the pubs close location to Stamford, home of the similar but really quite different game of Pushpenny. Perhaps the owners couldn't find a Pushpenny for the pub. Whether this board has been located in the bar simply as an attractive bygone I couldn't say, but it's a perfectly serviceable playing surface, in need of a bit of a polish for sure, but nice to see anyway.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Evesham Crib League

I recently spent a day exploring the pubs in the Worcestershire town of Evesham. The day was a simple pleasure trip for the most part, but I was also hopeful that if I went a little bit off the beaten track I might be lucky enough to find that most rare of pub games, an Evesham Quoits or Dobbers Board. Sadly, that goal proved fruitless, it really does seem that the once popular game of indoor Quoits has disappeared entirely from the pubs of Evesham, though it's quite likely a few boards might still be in situ gathering dust in the loft. The only pub in the town listed in the current Good Beer Guide had nothing interesting to offer this blog, it is a Wetherspoon after all. I do wonder whether there are any Wetherspoon bars in the country with even so much as a Darts Board to play. Perhaps someone will tell me if there is, I don't make a habit of drinking in this chain of bars to be honest.

What I did find in Evesham, still thriving, particularly in those pubs located a little way out from the town centre, was the card game most strongly associated with pubs and clubs, the game of Cribbage. Crib is not an easy game to master. It's a game where you really have to keep your hand in to play at anything like league level, and that involves a level of time and commitment which many people simply can't give these days. It's therefore one of the traditional pub games which is perhaps most likely to struggle or even disappear in the near future. I've only very rarely seen the game played by younger pub goers, and the recent trend for Poker in pubs and clubs is likely to put even more pressure on the survival of Cribbage as a league game.

You have to venture a short distance out from the town centre, over the river to Port Street to find The Bear, a popular multi-roomed corner pub. The multi-room bit is important, it means there's a space for everyone at The Bear. There's a smart, recently refurbished corner lounge bar, a more basic but tidy front bar (below) where the Ashes cricket held sway, and a larger lounge bar (above) which is where the locals gather to throw Darts or play Cribbage. The image above shows a Saturday afternoon game in progress.

The Angel Vaults, also on Port Street, is the kind of unassuming single room corner local you might easily pass by, but I found it one of the friendliest boozers in the town and well worth popping in for a pint. The trophy shown below is for Cribbage, as indeed are most of the trophies on display in the town. This one is the Bill Harris Secretarys Cup, which is played for in the Evesham Crib League. There's a Pool Table in the front part of the tidy traditional bar.

The Railway Hotel (below) close to the station has recently been given a sensitive refurbishment after several years of neglect. Sunday afternoon is Cribbage time, and as can be seen from the blackboard in the bar, lessons are available for beginners.

This trophy cabinet at the Coach & Horses, Harvington near Evesham, has all manner of cups, shields and engraved glasses on show, but once again they are mostly for Cribbage. This pub is one of the few in the area which still has an active Skittle Alley, and this will feature in a future post on the pub.

Some more examples of the limitless variety to be found in Crib Boards.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Bat & Wickets, Northampton

The current licensees of the Bat & Wickets have recently celebrated their first year at the helm of this traditional back-street local. I'd have to say that the last time I passed this way, the pub looked pretty uninviting from the outside, but a lot has changed since then. A fresh paint job, new bespoke frosted glass windows, and attractive new signage, all of which are thoroughly in keeping with the age and traditional character of the pub. The landlord has even sourced a couple of vintage Burtonwood Brewery pub lanterns for the frontage of the pub, conveniently liveried 'BW' to match the pub name.

Work is also progressing at a steady pace inside the pub, sensitively refurbishing and modernising the neglected interior without destroying any of the essential character of the place. The patio beer garden at the rear has also been given a freshen-up, and is now a delightful space for a Summer afternoon drink. Pub games still play an important role at the Bat & Wickets, and I'd highly recommend a visit to the pub if only to give the Skittles Table a work-out. This traditional Northamptonshire game has become very scarce in pubs this close to the town centre.

The games area is very well appointed, with Darts, Pool and a fine W T Blacks Skittles Table tucked into the corner. The locals are active in a number of leagues, including Ladies and Mens skittles, and a Thursday Pool league. The pub also supports local football, and hosts a very active Golfing crowd.

The pub's slightly unusual name apparently derives from its close proximity to the Racecourse Public Park, where Cricket and other team sports have been played since the post-war years. The main sporting interest at the Bat & Wickets now is the game of Golf. Several competitions and trophies are competed for at the pub, which includes the largest collection of Wooden Spoons I've ever seen in one place! One corner of the bar, shown below, is devoted to numerous golfing trophies and a series of wall plaques which record individual honours dating from the late 80's.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Three Horseshoes, Warham, Norfolk

Living, as I do, in land-locked Northamptonshire, the rare heat of a hot Summer weekend often sparks a yearning for the seaside. I think it's a common affliction, this desire for a Summer sea view, but sadly in my experience the reality of an English seaside resort rarely lives up to the rose-tinted promise. Too busy, too hot, too much eye-popping kitsch and unhealthy fried food. This was my recent experience of Wells-next-the-Sea, a pleasant coastal resort in many ways but all of the above and more on one of the hottest weekends of the year. Pretty soon my yearning for the sea turned to the more pressing need of a cool, calm, quiet retreat, and the Three Horseshoes in the lovely village of Warham provided it in (buckets &) spades.

Unspoilt heritage pubs like the Three Horseshoes, particularly when located in such attractive and popular tourist areas as the Norfolk Coast, can all too often end up being little more than busy tourist traps on fine Summer weekends. Not so much the wrong crowd (I'm a tourist here myself after all), as just a little too many of them all at once. The Horseshoes was certainly busy enough when I visited, yet happily it still retained an air of calm efficiency, and a proper 'locals' feel befitting such a fine example of an English village pub. In fact it was a real pleasure to spend time there, particularly after the hectic 'pleasures' of the seaside.

The tidy gas-lit bar is the heart of the Three Horseshoes (as well as the equally tidy garden in the Summer months). Local beer and cider are stillaged in the deep servery which was originally a snug adjoining the bar area. The pub has expanded a fair bit since then, but everything is thoroughly in keeping with the original unspoilt bar area. You can find more details of this pub on CAMRA's Heritage Pubs website.

It's in the bar area that you'll find the pubs one and only traditional game, and unusually it's neither a Darts Board nor a Pool Table. What the pub does have is something local and really quite rare in the form of a Twister, otherwise known as a Twizzler or Norfolk Wheel. These unusual 'wheels of fortune' are found almost exclusively in the Anglian region, and you'll usually find them located on the ceiling in the handful of pubs where they still survive. It's believed this is to help reduce any chance of players cheating during a game. By mounting the wheel on the ceiling, where it's only playable at full stretch and in clear view of every player, it would be very difficult to 'rig' the spin in any way. This would have been an important feature in the days when wagers on the game may have been that much higher than today.

The wheel at the Three Horseshoes is one of the simpler examples of those which survive, and possibly one of the oldest. Some have more numbers and may also be embellished with various symbols used for forfeits or variations on the basic game of chance. This one is simply numbered 1-12, and therefore most closely resembles a simple Roulette style of game. I understand you're welcome to a 'twizzle' with your pint, but like all games of chance in the pub, low stakes only would be the accepted rule.