Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Compendium of Darts Images

Whether played casually between friends, or more competitively at league and cup level, Darts is still probably the most popular game played in Britain's pubs and clubs. It's certainly the one most widely found and undoubtedly the game most strongly associated with the pub. But even Darts has followed the more general decline in pub games, and is not nearly as popular as it once was.

There seems to be an increasing number of pubs where the Darts Board has been unceremoniously ousted from the bar, often in favour of an extra table for dining, or simply because a Darts Board just doesn't fit with the clean, bland lines of the most recent off-the-peg refurbishment. I must say, I find it hard to warm to a pub without a Darts Board. Removing a sociable game like Darts from the bar seems to send out the message that customers are welcome to eat and spend, but the old-fashioned pastimes of social drinking and games play are not what this pub is about. That's not my kind of pub, and in many cases it pushes the limits of what I consider a pub to be!

Thankfully there are still plenty of pubs where the Darts Board is still an integral part of the bar furniture. Where the importance of a social game has not been forgotten, and 7 feet 9.25 inches of clear space has been set aside for the Arrows and Oche.

The wood panelled Smokeroom tucked away at the back of of the Seven Stars pub in Derby is a space largely devoted to the game of Darts. There's really only room for a single table in this diminutive room, because anything more would get in the way of the Darts throw, and after all, there's plenty of other seating in the pub. The walls are home to the various fixture lists, and an array of silverware displayed higher up on shelving.

The Olde Hare & Hounds in the village of Anstey, Leicestershire, features regular quiz nights, and is a real hotbed of local rugby support. It's also a thoroughly traditional local, and features the traditional gaming interests of Darts, Dominoes, and Cribbage. The Ladies Darts Team play in the Whitwick Winter League, whilst the men play a mostly social game on Tuesday evenings. In-house competition includes the coveted Duck Award for an individual who has failed to win any matches throughout the season!

The Malt Shovel Tavern in Northampton is perhaps best known for beer, bands, and huge collection of Breweriana. The pub stands in the shadow of the massive Carlsberg beer factory, which itself stands on the original home of the Phipps Brewery, soon to be resurrected at a nearby site in the town. A Darts Board is squeezed in amongst the fascinating collection of brewery memorabilia.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Three Cocks, Kettering, Northamptonshire

When a pub changes hands the new licensees will inevitably want to stamp their own personalities and ideas on the business, often in the form of a makeover. At best a good refurbishment can revitalise a previously moribund business, maybe even turn around a pub on the verge of closure and eventual loss. At worst the makeover can go too far, removing all vestiges of 'pubiness', and effectively turning the place into little more than a licenced coffee house.

This latter style of pub has become much more common in recent years, particularly in rural areas and villages. Bland, inoffensive, and often stripped of character and heritage by designers who seem to get all their ideas from glossy magazines, often in partnership with licensees who neither understand or even seem to like pubs and pub culture. None of which would be so bad if these pubs were ultimately successful, but more often than not it seems that one heavy handed refurbishment simply leads to another as the locals fail to warm to the latest interior decor fad.

The Three Cocks in Kettering is an excellent example of the sensitive refurbishment of a previously neglected town centre pub. Rather than imposing an off-the-peg style straight out of an IKEA catalogue, the pub has simply been given a bright, clean and welcoming makeover which comfortably strikes the balance between modernity and the age-old traditions of social drinking.

Owners Rob Seymour and Andrea Barham are an experienced, and CAMRA award winning team, and have naturally brought their enthusiasm for beer and cider to the pub from their previous venture in Essex. It's proving to be a welcome addition to the local beer scene, and the pub has already achieved a place in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide for the quality of the ale on offer.

The revitalisation of the Three Cocks doesn't stop at the decor and beer range though, and it's particularly pleasing to see the return of Northamptonshire's most traditional game to the pub in the form of a fine old Skittles Table.

The removal of the ubiquitous Pool Table from the games area, and the return of Northamptonshire Table Skittles alongside the Darts is a good indicator of the direction Rob and Andrea see the pub moving in. The Three Cocks now field teams in both the Kettering & District Skittles League and Kettering Darts League, and are on the lookout for more players to make up a 'B' team in the skittles. The return of traditional gaming to the pub has also been marked by the return of several old trophies to the pub, kept for safe keeping by a local and now on display in the games area.

Rob & Andrea have also brought a good Shove Ha'penny with them to the pub, available from the bar and currently awaiting the rediscovery of the half pennies so you may have to take your own.

We took our own coins for a game during the recent Autumn Blind Tasting Beer Festival, attracting a small crowd of spectators for the 'Live Sport'! The board plays pretty well, even if we didn't on the day!

Friday, 20 September 2013

Long Alley in Long Eaton, Derbyshire

The Derbyshire town of Long Eaton has for many years been at the very centre of the Long Alley Skittles tradition. Until relatively recently, Tuesday evenings would have been alive with the clunk and clatter of highly competitive skittling, such was the popularity of the game with the (mostly male) locals. From my own observations in the town, practically every pub and club must have had an alley at one time, indeed most still do, though sadly many are no longer in regular use. Even so, there is still an active Long Alley Skittles league centred on Long Eaton, with perhaps half of the towns venues hosting games in the Summer league.

One of the unique features of Long Alley Skittles as played in the north Midlands is that it's predominantly an outdoor game, often played on alleys which double as car parking outside of match nights. It's this durable and semi-permanent aspect to the alleys which has helped preserve many of them from loss, in stark contrast to the many indoor alleys and other traditional pub features which continue to be lost following changes of ownership, or over-zealous refurbishment.

The alley shown above is at the rear of the New Inn, a lively, fully modernised bar in the centre of town. It's a typical outdoor 'Summer League' alley of a type found throughout Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Despite being very well maintained, this alley doesn't appear to be in league use at the moment (the skittles shown here are my own). The New Inn team are still active, but appear to have moved up the road to Brennan's. This is quite a common occurrence in league play, sometimes the result of the home pub closing, or simply a change of ownership mid-season. Note the sectional concrete return chute on the right. Built to last, thoroughly functional, and yet somehow a more elegant solution than the modern plastic pipe returns commonly seen.

Meanwhile, the alley at the rear of the Tiger Inn (right) could do with a good sweep, and the return chute has certainly seen better days. A neglected skittle alley like this one is quite a sad sight, but at least it's still there, and it wouldn't take too much to bring it back into use at a future time.

The Corner Pin is a typical town centre bar, popular with a younger crowd and not noted for its skittles play, though presumably it once would have been. There are many Corner Pins dotted around this part of the Midlands (and a few elsewhere), the name usually referring to the local skittles game.

The alley shown below is another neglected example, this one at the rear of the currently closed Royal Oak. The pub stands on a large plot with an extensive car park and Long Alley area. The feeling in the town is that the Royal Oak is unlikely to escape the developer, so this alley may well be lost along with the pub in the near future.

The Stumble Inn has a Long Alley at the rear of the pub, but as can be seen in the image above, it is no longer in use. The 'throw' for this alley is now home to a tidy new decking area, so is unlikely to come back into use any time soon.

It's not all pub game archaeology at the Stumble Inn though, with active Pool, Darts, and Domino competition in evidence. There's even the relatively rare sight of a Pinball in the games area, a game which has ebbed and flowed in popularity over the years, mainly I think due to the high maintenance costs of the tables. It's also a game which has been around long enough in this country to be tentatively considered a traditional pub game!

Monday, 16 September 2013

Pushpenny and a Government Issue Shove Ha'penny!

The Shove Ha'penny Board shown here was a recent inexpensive acquisition from a vintage stall in Gloucestershire. No information on its origin was forthcoming from the dealer, which is a shame but usually the case.

At first glance it appears to be little more than a cheap homemade board, very similar in appearance to another inexpensive board which has already featured on this blog. Both are constructed from three planks of tongue and groove timber, and both have a similar three piece end stop arrangement. In fact the timbers are thinner and longer on this board, and it's probably made from a better quality hardwood, but nevertheless, the design is essentially identical.

The main difference between the two boards, and what makes this one slightly more interesting than most, is only noticeable on closer examination of the edges and underside.

The stamped mark shown above can be found on one edge of the playing surface, and seems to me to represent most of the lettering of London games manufacturer Jaques. As you can see, there is more lettering above this, but it's position on the very edge of the board makes it too indistinct to read. If we assume this is a Jaques board, it suggests that the company would have made a whole range of different models, from their usual top of the range Mahogany and Brass boards, down to this cheaper, more workmanlike version. Interesting? Well maybe not. Jaques have been around for a very long time, so it's hardly surprising they would have made numerous different models for different markets. There may have been another explanation for a cheaper model like this though, which brings me to the other, much clearer mark located on the bracing baton underneath.

The symbol shown on this image appears to be a Government property stamp with an associated number 56, the purpose of which is not entirely clear but could have been a stores number. Known as a Broad Arrow, this mark was stamped onto all manner of items, military issue equipment and sundries in particular. At first it might seem strange to find a government property mark on a Shove Ha'penny board, but in fact the game seems to have been very popular, and very widely played in the forces at one time. Not only have I seen one or two supposed ex-RAF Shove Ha'penny boards for sale online (for appropriately sky-high prices it must be said), but there are also several photographs from the second world war era showing RAF personnel playing the game as a way to relax between missions (see here and here for example).

Quite whether this board is ex-military issue, or for how long the government would have continued to list Shove Ha'penny boards in its extensive store inventory is hard to say. My best guess is that this board formed part of an order placed by the government to Jaques of London, possibly some time around the second world war. Perhaps this was a special 'war standard' Shove Ha'penny, explaining the cheap and cheerful construction of the board by a company usually noted for the high quality of its numerous games.

Update (23/09/13) - I've now had confirmation from Jaques that this board was indeed a government issue Shove Ha'penny, dating from some time around the second world war. The board will now be joining Jaques own games collection.


The Pushpennys shown here include a small homemade board (left) which is now part of the fixtures and fittings of The George in Ashley, Northamptonshire. The larger board (right) came in a job lot of junk at an agricultural auction in Melton Mowbray. It was in very poor condition, missing its end-stop, and as can be seen in the image below, had suffered from the attentions of Wood Boring Beetle at some point. I thought it was worth a few quid and set about treating and restoring it to active service. Although similar in most regards to a classic Stamford Pushpenny board, there are a couple of crucial differences likely to preclude this board from serious league play.

The playing surface of a Pushpenny Board is usually made from a tight grained hardwood such as Mahogany, sometimes with a softer wood used for the scoring and end pieces. The board shown here is unusual in that the timber for the playing surface is a fairly smooth softwood (possibly Pitch Pine), with a deep brown, tight grained hardwood used for the scoring strips. A matching piece of hardwood also forms the start of the playing surface. A good deal of work has gone into the construction of this board, including beautifully inlaid hardwood strips to mark each of the nine beds, so it's perhaps surprising that a more suitable wood wasn't chosen in the first place for the playing surface. After some work with fine sandpaper and steel wool, the playing surface has come up to be quite smooth, but I don't think it will ever be as 'fast' as a hardwood board. Maybe it needs a bit more work, or maybe it will get better with a bit of play. It's also worth mentioning that the spacings on this board are a little wider than other Stamford boards I've seen.

Detail of the end stop and side bars on the Pushpenny Board at the George, Ashley.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Stag Inn, Kimberley, Nottinghamshire

The village of Kimberley to the north of Nottingham was perhaps best known for being the home of Hardys & Hansons Kimberley Ales, brewed at what was then the county's oldest working brewery. Sadly, and in common with many of the older regional and local brewers, Hardys & Hansons sold out their brewing interests along with the associated pub estate to the predatory Greene King brewery of Bury St Edmunds, who almost immediately closed the brewery. Genuine Nottinghamshire brewed Kimberley Ales therefore no longer exist, and local feeling towards the replacement beers from Suffolk, whenever you can find them, is often lukewarm at best.

The Stag Inn on the edge of the village is one of the few genuine Free Houses in the area, and has therefore gained an excellent reputation for its beer, offering as it does a wide range of real ales which often include genuinely local beers from small micro breweries. When a national brewing giant has effectively destroyed a local brewing tradition, it's little things like this that make a difference when choosing where to drink. The Stagg is also a tidy and attractive two-room pub, with a genuine welcome from the owners and regular drinkers. If you should find yourself in the area, maybe in the shopping hell of the nearby Swedish furniture store, I strongly recommend popping in for a well-earned refresher.

The pub was receiving the final touches to a sensitive refurbishment when I visited, so don't be surprised if the place looks even better than it does in these images in the near future. For games enthusiasts, the right-hand bar features a fine old Devil Amongst The Tailors table, donated to the pub by a regular many years ago and still a popular pastime with both locals and visitors.

The presence of the skittles table, slap-bang in the middle of the room, seems to leave an impression on visitors, and is often remarked upon in print or online sources. It has the unmistakable patina of age, and from the many years of play which it's no doubt seen. Notice also that it also has a 'net curtain' line attached to the pole. This is to prevent sideways delivery of the ball, a stipulation of local league play and a feature which seems to be unique to the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire area, and Newark in particular.

There's also a small collection of vintage coin operated games in the smaller of the two bars. The wall mounted machine shown to the right is known as an Allwin, and it's the second such game I've spotted in as many weeks, another example existing at the Gardeners Arms in Evesham, Worcestershire. These simple games of skill and chance were once widespread and extremely popular, though certainly not confined to pubs. The idea was to propel a ball bearing around a circular chute, with the aim of landing in one or more scoring slots, harder than it sounds and hugely addictive I'd imagine. The wide variety of forms these games originally came in has made them very collectible now. This one certainly looks the part on the wall of a pub like the Stag Inn.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Coach & Horses, Harvington, Worcestershire

Pubs in the Evesham area have already featured on this blog, an area noted for that most traditional of pub and club games, Cribbage. The Coach & Horses at the nearby village of Harvington is no exception, and the contents of the trophy cabinet in the lounge attests to the pubs success in local Crib competition. It's somewhat rarer to find a fully functioning Skittle Alley in an Evesham pub now, which is not to say the game is no longer played at league level in the area, just that most of the remaining alleys are to be found in clubs not pubs.

This longstanding trend for converting pub skittle alleys into the more prosaic, and presumably profitable use of dining is widespread, though perhaps more so in attractive rural areas where the creation of additional dining space is often seen as the only way for a pub to survive. So the survival of a skittle alley at a pub like the Coach & Horses is to be celebrated, particularly as the pub itself is such a very good example of a true village local.

In fact the Coach & Horses is the kind of pub that most people would love to have as their local, and yet sadly so few these days are willing to show the kind of commitment necessary to support a community pub like this. You can't have a great, welcoming, well-run local pub like the Coach & Horses, but only visit once in a blue moon. Thankfully, the Coach & Horses appears to be well supported by its locals.

Like all the best village pubs, it's the smart, unfussy, and thoroughly traditional bar which is at the heart of the pubs success. The solid wooden furnishings include an attractive drilled-hole bentwood bench seat, once common in pubs like this, and similar to the ones Marston's Brewery ripped out of one of my own regular drinking pubs, the Plough Inn at Ratby in Leicestershire. Of course there's a Darts Board above the open fire, and when I stopped by for a pint, the excitement of Saturday afternoon Horse Racing on the telly, though nobody appeared to be winning much on that day!

The Evesham & District Skittles League has recently kicked-off for the 2013/14 season. There are currently four league divisions which along with the various cup competitions and finals make for a busy schedule Monday to Thursday. The Coach & Horses hosts the Hit & Miss, as well as a team from Harvington Cricket Club. Almost all of the alleys in the four leagues are located at clubs in the area, making this pub alley quite a rare survivor.

The chunky solid wood pins used in the Evesham & District League are generally known as Gloucester Pins. The painted lines on three of the pins are purely to help with a players aim. The balls appear to be Lignum Vitae, and the return chute features a couple of small batons to help slow these heavy balls as they reach the end.