Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Chequers, Swinford, Leicestershire

A welcome respite from the rush-hour queues and frustration of the infamous Catthorpe interchange can be found in the nearby village of Swinford. Here you'll find the cosy and welcoming Chequers, a village local noted for its real ales, and a regular in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. The pub is also noted for the traditional south Leicestershire game of Table Skittles, with league play on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Other games on offer at the pub include Dominoes and card games including Cribbage.

The dedicated games area of the main bar is to the right as you enter. You'll know it by the sturdy skittles table which is the main feature, and less obviously by the numerous framed pictures on the wall which should be familiar to anyone in possession of the book Pub Games of England by Timothy Finn. These include fascinating vintage images of games such as Daddlums, Ring The Bull, and Shove Ha'penny. The games area has the added attraction of a wood burning stove for the winter gaming months.

The pub is currently represented in the Dunchurch & District Skittles League, which straddles the divide between Warwickshire and Leicestershire in the Lutterworth and Rugby area. There's a ladies team, and both 'A' and 'Z' teams in the mens league. The 'Z' team presumably feel they know their place (currently mid-table in the mens 'B' league), and don't want any lower level upstarts taking it!

The table is a well maintained W T Blacks model, with the regulation yellow plastic pins and cheeses found throughout the south Leicestershire and Warwickshire area of Table Skittles play.

Tucked in an alcove of the games area is a well-worn table which has been augmented with raised edging for games play, specifically Dominoes. On the wall above is the trophy cabinet, which combines a homage to Leicester City FC, and the spoils of success in the local game of Table Skittles.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Skittles In Warwickshire

The label 'Western Skittles' is one that has been applied to a broad church of the skittling tradition, albeit one found mostly in the western counties of England and parts of Wales. It's a catch-all term which encompasses a wide variety of local rules, alley lengths, and several different styles and sizes of (mostly) wooden pins and balls. The fact is, Western Skittles is simply a useful label for writers and enthusiasts to hang a description on, and in common with most areas with a skittles tradition, the game is known simply as 'Skittles' to those who play it.

This form of skittles is characterised by the 'bowling' of balls, wooden or otherwise, down smooth timber floored alleys at nine sturdy, but slightly top-heavy pins set in a diamond formation. This might sound a little obvious, but the fact is that not all skittle games (Long Alley and Table Skittles for example) are played this way. It's predominantly a league or knockout team game, with most of the alleys located at pubs and clubs. From the name it would be easy to conclude that this style of skittling is confined exclusively to the West of the country, which is for the most part true, but there are one or two notable exceptions.

Western Skittles is found throughout the West Country, West Midlands, and Wales; but also extends along the south coast and well into more central areas of England. The Masons Arms at Long Marston in Warwickshire (above) has quite a small alley by the standards of many in the West Country, but this is definitely Western Skittling, just not located in the west.

The alley doubles as one half of a smart function room, and is covered with a long roll of carpet when not in use. A wooden side rail slots into the floor on the left, and there's a choice of hardwood or composite balls to aim at the sturdy Gloucester style pins. Skittles appears to be very popular at the Masons Arms, with three teams playing out of the pub in the local Stratford League. Popular it may be, but the area contained by the Stratford League is on the very edge of this skittling tradition. Only a short distance away in the direction of Oxfordshire, Aunt Sally is the dominant pub game, a form of skittles in itself, but not one a Western Skittler would recognise as such.

The next village on from Long Marston is Pebworth, and there's another Masons Arms with a strong skittles following. This friendly village local boasts one of the longest alleys in the area, and hosts four teams in the Stratford League. The alley forms an annexe to a games room which features Pool and Darts, and which is itself adjacent to the main bar area. It's a good pub for a casual game with friends, though the fixture list for league play must be pretty busy, so perhaps an afternoon game would be a better bet than the evening.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Some Leicestershire Long Alley Skittles Images

Even though an increasing number of alleys are now being covered against the elements, Long Alley Skittles in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire area remains essentially an outdoor summer game. The Leicestershire version by contrast is exclusively played indoors, and other than the two alleys on Thrussington village green, I can't think of a single example which isn't housed in either a purpose built indoor alley, or a later adapted part of the pub. It's an interesting regional distinction, the origins of which must surely be found in the very earliest development of the game.

Perhaps players of the more northerly game consider Leicestershire players a less hardy bunch, not up to skittling in the cold or rain! Maybe the 'southerners' of Leicestershire view the outside alleys of Notts and Derby as being below their standards. Whatever the reason, it's simply another example of the wide and fascinating diversity to be found in what is essentially the same nine-pin game.

The alley shown here is at the Carington Arms, Ashby Folville, a former Everards Brewery pub if memory serves me well. Note the heavy wear and tear where the pins stand, the result of repeated strikes from the hard and heavy hardwood 'Cheeses' used in the Leicestershire game. The game of Long Alley has much in common with the very earliest forms of skittles such as Cornish Kayles or Keels, where the 'balls' are delivered full toss at the pins rather than being 'bowled' on a smooth wooden surface. Because of this, only the immediate area where the pins are standing needs to be prepared for play, in this case laid to concrete, the rest of the 'alley' can be quite rough and ready.

The Carrington play in the Syston & District Skittles League, but the alley is available for functions and casual matches outside of match nights.

The photograph above features Leicester CAMRA branch chairman Keith Williams presenting an Everards Brewery team with the Camaraderie Cup in the skittle alley of The Plough in Littlethorpe, Leicestershire. This was the inaugural match in July 1993 of what has become an annual event between the branch and brewery. Everards are custodians of probably the largest number of traditional Long Alleys in the county, though sadly there has been talk of converting the alley shown here at the Plough into a dining space. This years match, the 21st by my reckoning, was played at the Black Horse in Aylestone, Leicester (some pics of my old local and its alley can be seen here). The Everards team were the winners on this occasion too.

This alley is located in the basement of the Newfoundpool Club in Leicester, a former Labour Club which supports a wide range of sports, games, and other activities, including Long Alley Skittles, Leicester Table Skittles, Darts, Snooker, and Billiards.

This is a good example of how skittle alleys would have been included in the plans of many newly built clubs in the post war era. Often, as in this case and the now defunct alley at the Nottingham Oddfellows Club in Leicester, located in the basement, well out of earshot of the main club. The Long Alley shown here is subject to minor flooding on occasion, hence the sawdust strewn floor.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Foundrymans Arms, Northampton

Putting aside for a minute the unique and special attributes we're all looking for in our 'local', it seems that most pub goers prefer to stick with the thoroughly 'safe and predictable' when out and about. Often it's the pubs you and your friends always go to, or maybe the ones recommended in the guide books. High street chain bars rely for much of their success on this safe familiarity, where you know exactly what you're going to get wherever in the country you might find yourself. No surprises, pleasant or otherwise, and perhaps entirely understandable given that people are visiting pubs less often now anyway.

Of course going off the beaten track and exploring the backstreet nooks and alleys of a town will inevitably lead to some disappointments, and for some it can be a scary business crossing the threshold of a strange pub. But how else are we going to find the hidden gems which don't make it into the guide books. The truly different, and the genuine diversity of independently run pubs which often come with a customer base slightly different to what we're used to. One of the great strengths of pubs is their individuality, but with every closure and bland refurbishment this cultural diversity is being lost at a rate of knots. So it's good to explore a little, step out of our comfort zone, and be surprised, sometimes even delighted with what we find.

The Foundrymans Arms is a little off the beaten track, though not so if you're a Northampton Saints Rugby fan as the pub is almost opposite the mighty Franklins Gardens stadium. It's also a very short walk across the railway and river bridge at St James, making it handy for the rail station, but this is not strictly speaking a town centre pub.

When I visited, the interior was in the final stages of a high quality redecoration ahead of the busy rugby season. It's still quite easy to see from the general layout and numerous doorways, some now blocked up, how the pub would have been made up of several separate rooms originally. The now open-plan drinking area wraps around a central island servery, though each side of the bar still retains an element of its original distinct character. It's a terrific locals pub, beautifully maintained with comfortable leather upsholstered bench seating. Needless to say it's a very busy pub on home rugby match days, but well worth the short walk from town for a pint and natter at other times, or maybe to throw a few cheeses on the fine old Northamptonshire Skittles Table upstairs.

The Games Room at the Foundrymans is located on an upstairs Mezzanine off the bar area. The Skittles Table has an orange Pepper's label, and is sensibly positioned in the corner farthest away from the windows. The pub fields teams in the towns most active league, the Northampton Ladies Skittles League, but in common with most of Northampton towns pubs which still have a table, there doesn't appear to be a men's team in action at this time.

The small group of gentlemen drinking at the bar had all played the game competitively at one time, indeed there are numerous trophies dotted around the pub from these glory days. Talk to anyone of a certain age in Northamptonshire, and the chances are they played for a team, but why so few still play now is hard to say given that age is no bar to the throwing of boxwood cheeses.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.18

A modern Bar Billiards Table at the historic Rowell Charter Inn, Rothwell, Northamptonshire.

This wonderfully un-PC guide to the rules of Long Alley Skittles can be found in the basement Alley of the Embankment in Nottingham, as featured on this blog already. Very 70's/80's in appearance, but a good summation of the rules of the game. I wonder who the cartoonist was.

The two off-season Skittle Alleys below are in Belper, Derbyshire. The Astro Turfed Alley on the right is at the Devonshire Arms, the other at the rear of the Nags Head. Both are active in the Belper & District league. Note that even though this is a Summer game, both of these alleys are floodlit to prevent the chance of fading light prematurely ending a league match.

Darts, Dominoes, and Table Skittles are played at the Polhill Arms in Renhold, Bedfordshire. Tuesday is Skittles nights in the Beds & Roberts Skittles League, with Darts played in the Bedford Darts League.

Old tobacco advertising Cribbage Boards used for decorative purposes only at the Wheatsheaf in Oakham, Rutland. Not a venue strong on pub games, though quiz nights are held, and the pub has strong connections with local Cricket.