Saturday, 28 December 2013

A Compendium of Nottinghamshire Pubs

Even now, in the midst of perhaps the biggest crisis pubs have encountered in a generation, it's easy to get the impression when visiting Nottingham that the town centre pub scene is doing well. Visit at the weekend and you might be forgiven for thinking it's thriving. It certainly helps that Nottingham has always been considered to be a step ahead of the East Midlands competition in many regards, and it's vibrant pub and bar culture is certainly no exception.

Venture a little further out from the bustle of the centre and it soon becomes apparent that it's a story of very differing fortunes for different areas. The Sneinton side of town for example has it's share of good and seemingly successful pubs, but cross the ring road to Carlton Road and the picture soon changes. The number of closed and boarded up pubs in this area comes as quite a shock, though perhaps unsurprising given the neglect of the nearby market place. The reasons behind so many closures in an area so close to the town centre are complex, but what is certain, is that it's hard to see a future for many of these businesses until some serious money and ideas are thrown at the area in general.

What makes this state of affairs particularly sad is that many of the pubs in this area appear to have some historic or architectural merit, indeed some are still adorned with placards detailing the fascinating history of the buildings and the area in general.

With closures such as these comes the inevitable loss of even more of Nottinghams pub gaming traditions, as can be seen in the images above. The Earl Howe certainly seems to have had a chequered recent past, nevertheless it's sad to see the loss of a skittle alley so close to the town centre. Further up the Carlton Road, another alley has been lost in recent years at the Coopers Arms (now redeveloped as a residence), and you now have to go as far as the New Engine House to find a functioning pub skittle alley on this side of the town.

It's not all bad on the Carlton Road though, and any visitor to the area would be well advised to visit the March Hare on their journey up the hill. Possibly not to everyones taste, but this largely unaltered late 50's community local is beautifully maintained throughout, and the tile-floored bar is a homage to the pub game staples of Darts and Pool, decorated with numerous trophies won in local competition.

Other than the excellent Plough Inn, already featured on this blog, the opposite side of the city around Old Radford has seen a similar decline in its pubs, with the local game of skittles just as hard to find. The image above shows all that remains of the outdoor skittle alley at the Colonel Burnaby, though the pub itself is welcoming, and still supports the games of Darts, Pool, and Dominoes. The nearby Pheasant Inn (below) still has an indoor alley, though whether it's still in use is not clear, and the website sadly makes no mention of it.

Even the outlying strongholds of Long Alley Skittles to the north of the city have shown a marked decline in recent years. Bulwell appears to be entirely free of the game, as indeed is Hucknall now that The Seven Stars has closed, future uncertain. The Seven Stars is a large pub sitting on a substantial plot, ripe for development in the wrong hands! The skittle alley is a purpose made indoor one at the rear of the building.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Butchers Arms, Mickleton, Gloucestershire

Mickleton village lies at the very northern edge of Gloucestershire, a county strongly associated with the pub and club game of Skittles. A Gloucestershire village it may be, but this far-flung part of the county is closer to Stratford-on-Avon and has more in common with the 'Shakespeare' villages of Warwickshire than the West Country proper. And yet the skittling tradition here is firmly rooted in the West Country tradition.

It's an attractive village, bisected by the surprisingly busy B4632 which forms one of the main routes from the Vale of Evesham and Cotswolds to Stratford-on-Avon. Most traffic through Mickleton would miss the Butchers Arms entirely, tucked away as it is in the heart of the village on Chapel Lane. This would be a great shame, as the pub has much to recommend it, not least a very cosy bar and a good 'Western' style Skittle Alley in the aptly named 'Nine Pin Lounge'.

So the heart of the Butchers Arms is undoubtedly the public bar, where a fine open fire dominates proceedings in the very best way. Settle in front of this fire on a cold winter day, a pint of something local in hand, and you really won't want to leave in a hurry, it's that kind of pub. The bar also features a Darts Board, as all bars should in my opinion, with fixture lists for this, Dominoes, and Skittles on the adjacent notice board.

It's the nearby river Avon which gives its name to the local skittles league, played in the 'Western' style found throughout the West Country, and featuring as it does a healthy ten teams in an area stretching from the Vale of Evesham to Stratford-on-Avon. It's very much in the tradition of skittles in the West (as well as some Long Alley play in the East Midlands) for teams to choose a name somewhat in the style of a pub quiz team. Thus we have 'Hodges Boys' playing out of the Butchers Arms, with games split between Monday and Tuesday evenings to take account for the fact that some venues field more than one team in the league.

The scoreboard above shows the aftermath of what appears to have been an epic game of 'Killer' in the Nine Pin Lounge, with Alan finally taking the spoils. In common with many pubs, the skittle alley at the Butchers Arms serves many functions other than the nine pin game. A Pool Table and Darts Board is also available, and as can be seen in the image above, even the alley itself doubles as space for dining at busy times. The fact is, a dedicated pub skittle alley has a rateable value which is often far in excess of its use for the game, so it's crucial that a licensee can use the space in a more flexible way, even if only for the odd function or overspill to the pub. In this way skittle alleys can be preserved where otherwise they might be converted to other more profitable use.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Three Crowns, Wymeswold, Leicestershire

The Long Alley at the Three Crowns could be said to represent a triumph of skittling ingenuity over the apparently insurmountable issue of there being no existing alley at the pub! Even more so given that there appears to be nowhere convenient to create one, the tidy Pétanque terrain in the garden being well and truly ruled out.

Skittlers, and those from Wymeswold in particular, are nothing if not tenacious in pursuit of their game though. Confident in the knowledge that all they required was some 30 feet of clear space, ideally free from obstacles such as tables and customers, the skittles team set about creating something from nothing in what is now the well appointed upstairs games room.

An upstairs alley like the one shown here at the Three Crowns is certainly not unique. I've seen a similar, much lengthier and roomier alley at the Old Kings Head in Belper for example. The skittles players at the Three Crowns were certainly up against it though, their ingenuity pushed to the limit due to the fact that the upstairs games room falls short of the full alley length by a few crucial feet. Even this wasn't considered an insurmountable problem though, with players forced to throw from outside the room to achieve the minimum distance required for league play. That's what doorways are for I guess, and it's on the landing at the top of the stairs that you'll find the line on the floor indicating the throwing point for the game. A sturdy caged safety door contains the action during a match, and an arrangement of rubber sheets protect the walls from damage at the business end of the alley. Thankfully, drinkers and diners in the cosy bar area are not inconvenienced by the match-day clatter of hardwood, since the games room is located in a separate building to the main pub.

The games room also houses a Pool Table and Darts Board, and the alley is usually available for play outside of match nights, just ask at the bar.

The impressive trophy collection is crammed onto the mantelpiece of the bar. It's no surprise there's so much silverware on show, the pub field teams in numerous local leagues, including Darts, Pool, Long Alley Skittles, and no less than four teams in the Leicestershire Pétanque Association summer league. Pétanque is strictly a summer game in the UK, which at the Three Crowns saves players from the fear of falling Bramleys during the Winter off-season.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Leicester Table Skittles

The Skittles Table at The Tudor pub in Leicester
The Leicester version of Table (or Hood) Skittles is unique and almost entirely local to the city which gives it its name. This makes it very much rarer than the more widespread Northamptonshire game, which is found in several counties adjoining Northamptonshire (including Leicestershire itself), and which it resembles in many ways.

One of the great attractions of a pub game like skittles is the wide variety which exists within its basic form from one region to another. Table, Long Alley, and Western Skittles all have in common a diamond formation of nine skittle pins, with three 'throws' allowed to demolish them, but that's where the similarity ends. Every other aspect of skittles play, from the alley, pins, balls or cheeses, and of course the minutiae of rules and conventions of play, vary widely from one region to another, sometimes even from one village to another. It's this variety which fascinates enthusiasts like myself, and can also perplex players when encountering a version of 'their' game being played to entirely different rules!

So variation is good, and certainly adds interest to pub games in general, but when a version of a game is local to just one town or local area, it can also represent a serious weakness, maybe even jeopardise its long term survival. In the case of Leicester Table Skittles (and the Stamford game of Pushpenny is another good example), it wouldn't take much of a decline from its current parlous position for the game to disappear entirely, certainly in a league form which is predominantly supported by older players, and in the kind of traditional locals pubs which continue to close at an alarming rate.

So what is the difference between the Northants game of Table Skittles and the very similar game found only in the Leicester area?

The appearance of the table itself, as seen in the example above at the Newfoundpool Social Club in Leicester, is distinctly different to the standard Northants tables as built by Blacks, Pepper, Pinckard and others. The playing surface is longer, with the pins arranged significantly further back from the front edge than in the Northants game, somewhat in the manner of a Kentish Daddlums Table. The sides are lower, less deeply padded, and don't seem to play as important a role as they do in the Northants game, where bouncing a cheese off the side to down a tricky pattern of pins is common. I've no idea who fabricates these Leicester tables, some of which have a more home-made appearance than others, as I've yet to see any sign of a nameplate on them.

The two tables shown below are in regular use at the Nottingham Oddfellows Club on Belgrave Gate, Leicester. It's unusual to see two Leicester tables sitting side-by-side like this, but the Oddfellows have teams playing in all of the local leagues so far as I can tell, and the club may well have had even more tables in years gone by. Note the canvas used for the 'hood' at the rear of these tables. Northants skittles tables have a combination of leather (or carpet), and a fairly wide netting to catch the chunky pins and cheeses. The much thinner pins used in the Leicester game would probably slip too easily through netting, so a single piece of canvas is the solution. Note also the steel 'Mots' sitting on the tables, more of which below.

The pins and cheeses are a very obvious difference between the Leicester and Northants game. Boxwood or plastic are the most commonly found materials for pins and cheeses in the Northants game, although I've also seen darker hardwoods used in certain areas. The Leicester game uses exclusively hardwood. The pins are much thinner and possibly a bit taller than the stubby Northants skittles. Similarly, the cheeses are smaller, and this seems to make for a lower scoring game, where a 'Whack-Up' (downing all pins on the second throw) or 'Nine-a-Ball' (downing all pins in one throw) are less common. Even an experienced player of the Northants game would find it difficult to compete in a Leicester league without a fair bit of practice first, the skills involved are really quite different for such similar games. There is also a King Pin in the Leicester game, usually set in the centre of the diamond formation. It doesn't appear to have a scoring function, and other than the fact it stands a little taller than the surrounding pins and therefore slightly easier to hit, it's presence seems to be merely traditional, possibly copied from Leicesters other skittles tradition, Long Alley.

The image above shows a set of Leicester Table Skittles pins sharing storage space with the Long Alley skittles at the Star & Garter in Wigston, Leicester. In common with many venues for the Leicester game, the table is also used with a set of plastic Northants style pins and cheeses for play in county leagues. The pins and cheeses shown below are at the Foresters Arms, Frog Island, Leicester.

The game follows very similar lines to the Northants game, with the full team throwing to set a score which the opposing team aim to beat. Any downed skittles which remain on the bed of the table during play are not removed, but curiously, the cheeses are. The rules regarding removal of 'Dead Wood', as it's known, varies from league to league throughout most forms of skittles. The throwing of cheeses is always underhand, in common with all forms of the game.

A word about the 'Mot' (or Motte). There is a fair bit of variation with regard to where you stand in the
Northants game (and even how you're allowed to throw in some areas), but the standard for the Leicester game is to throw with both feet within the area defined by the Mot. This is usually fabricated from steel, and as shown at The Tudor (right), fixed to the floor giving a 9 foot throw to the front pin, .

Though there are certainly much fewer venues with a Leicester Skittles Table than there are for the Northants game, there are still several leagues in operation in and around the city. This includes the Leicester & Leicestershire CIU Ladies Table Skittles League, Leicester City Mens Table Skittles League, Leicester Mixed Table Skittles League, and the Notts Table Skittles League. Even given this number of active leagues, the long term future of a game as local and unique as this one is far from certain, and inexorably linked to the equally uncertain future of the community pubs and clubs where this and games like it are still played.

Leicester Table Skittles can be seen played on these two videos: LTS 2012 Pt.1 LTS 2012 Pt.2

Friday, 6 December 2013

Cherry Tree, Catthorpe, Leicestershire

The Cherry Tree is a warm pub in every sense of the word. The welcome from licensee Phil Cartwright was certainly warm when I popped in on a Saturday afternoon recently. The open fire in the cosy bar was if anything a little too warm, but welcome nevertheless on a cold Winter afternoon. Another fire was being set in the games/function room as I snapped off a few of these photos, ready to help warm up the local 'Shoot' along with a few pints of local Dowbridge Brewery Ale. The shoot tend to settle in for the afternoon when they visit the Cherry Tree, and I can see why, this is as good a place to spend an afternoon as any you'll find.

The shoot represent welcome additional trade on a Saturday afternoon, a time when many rural pubs experience a lull in custom, or may even close for the afternoon. But it's the holy trinity of Darts, Dominoes, and Table Skittles which are the Cherry Tree's day-to-day lifeblood, with several teams playing in local leagues throughout the week.

This view through the trophy cabinet to the bar (below) was taken from the function room which houses the venerable old skittles table. Skittles is a noisy game, not ideally suited to an open-plan pub layout, so it's as well that this separate room has been maintained. The Cherry Tree field both ladies and mens teams in the Dunchurch & District League, with play on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Darts is played in the Lutterworth & Welford League.

Two aspects of Skittles play which are specific to the Warwickshire and South Leicestershire (and possibly Bedfordshire) area are shown in the images below. Plastic pins and cheeses are the norm throughout this part of the traditional table skittles area, and are in fact a requirement for league play. Plastic pins and cheeses like the ones shown above and below have been around for a good few years now, indeed I recall playing with them some thirty years ago in many Leicester and Leicestershire village pubs. But they would certainly have been wooden at one time, and my guess is that over the course of several years, many pubs replaced their worn out wooden pins with the cheaper and more durable plastic alternative, such that a tipping point was reached where it was decided that all league venues should adopt the newer plastic alternative. I can only imagine the strong feelings which would have been expressed at the meeting where it was finally decided to abandon the age old tradition of wood.

Notice also the steel square (below) used to define the throwing point, fashioned with a cut-out entry point on the right-hand side. Steel 'Oches' or 'Motts' similar to this are occasionally seen in the Northamptonshire version of the game, and seem to be obligatory throughout Leicestershire and Warwickshire, but this is the first example I've seen which seems to define both the minimum and maximum throwing distance, as well as the all important sideways movement available for tricky 'off the cushion' throws.