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

1 comment:

John Penny said...

Thanks for posting this Mark, and for the links. Good to see the game alive and well.