Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Volunteer, Hereford

Of all the pubs I visited in Hereford over the course of a hot weekend in summer 2014, it's perhaps the Volunteer that I'd most heartily recommend to fellow visitors to the town. Whilst all of the pubs I spent time in had something to recommend them, some being very good pubs indeed, few were quite so all-round attractive to me, such the complete pub package as the Volunteer.

Tucked away on a quiet back-street a short stroll from the town centre, the pub sits unobtrusively amid tightly packed housing. The multi-room interior is bright, attractive, tastefully modernised, and yet still retains all of its essential pub character. There's a tidy beer garden to the rear, as well as a couple of tables to the front, ideal for watching the world go by over a pint. The kind of pub most people would regard as warm, welcoming, beautifully maintained, difficult to leave!

The Volunteer is also popular for the food, Sunday lunches in particular. The beer was good too when I visited, and it's easy to see why the bar areas and cosy snug can get very busy at times, and great to see a pub where the locals still appreciate having a proper community pub on their doorstep.

This bright and attractive aspect of the bar extends to the excellent skittle alley at the rear of the Volunteer. The pub host two teams for winter play in the thriving Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League, the Rustlers, and Evans Social Club which still bears the name of a long-since closed cider works in the town. A Summer League is slightly less popular, as is often the case with pub games when holidays and other pursuits hold sway over peoples time. A Ladies league also play through the winter season, though details are harder to find than the mens league, and it has been reported as struggling for players a little in recent years.

Hereford is perhaps unique in pub and club skittles in that whilst the alleys are entirely traditional, the nine pins used in the game are the same as those found in ten-pin bowling alleys. As you can see above, the pins are often stripped of their plastic coating, but how much the different shape impacts on the game is hard to tell. The balls shown below are the rubber-coated variety favoured by many skittlers now. These may not have the traditional look of a set of Lignum Vitae balls, but the big advantage of the softer coating is that the timber slats of the alley tend to last longer, and presumably so too do the pins. The expense of repairing and replacing an alley floor is surely just one of many reasons that skittle alleys have been removed from pubs in recent times.

In common with most skittle alleys which are still in regular use, the one at the Volunteer serves the dual purpose of a function room. Note the tables which fold down from the wall on the left of the alley. The old pub sign hanging in the alley bears the badge of the Herefordshire Light Infantry (formerly the Herefordshire Rifle Volunteers, hence the pubs name), and is dated 1964, just three years prior to the regiment being disbanded. The Herefordshire Light Infantry Museum is located across the road at Suvla Barracks, available to view by appointment only.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Plough, Prestbury, Gloucestershire

First impressions of The Plough are that this is surely the quintessential village pub. Located on a quiet backstreet opposite St Mary's Church, neatly thatched and beautifully maintained, this is certainly every tourists dream of a traditional English village pub.

Of course all too often the idyllic setting and chocolate box exterior gives way to just another thoroughly bland interior, stripped of character and opened out to squeeze a few more tables in for the diners. Thankfully the same can not be said for the interior of The Plough, being every bit as traditional, attractive, and unspoilt as you'd hope. In fact so much so that it is regarded by CAMRA as having an interior of regional importance on their inventory of Real Heritage Pubs.

A quarry tiled corridor turns right to a small hatch servery, and onwards to a very attractive orchard garden at the rear of the pub which is very popular in the summer months. A lounge to the right also has a servery, the beer drawn straight from stillaged casks, with cider from Westons a feature too.

The flagstone floored room to the left is where the locals congregate when they're not enjoying an outdoor drink, and yes, this is still very much a locals pub even though it also attracts visitors from near and far. It was in this room that the local game of Quoits was played until quite recently, though sadly the board has now been retired. Only the unusual scoreboard for the game remains, a metal version here where most are made of wood, screwed to the wall on the right hand side of the fireplace.

In this version of the game, players aim to score as many of the numbers from 1-10 as possible, claiming each number as they achieve it, and in so doing preventing the opposition from scoring that particular score by closing the appropriate flap. Other examples of this kind of scoreboard can number as high as 15.

It's not obvious at first glance where the Quoits Board would have sat, but a careful examination reveals the remnants of a line on the floor at the end of the long table on the right-hand side of the room. Presumably this would have been moved sidewards out of the way for a match. The Quoits Board is still resident at the pub, perhaps the licensees could be persuaded to bring it out for a group wanting an afternoon game.

Meanwhile, Dominoes and Cards can be found on the windowsill, as is a Shut The Box, which seems to be a very popular game in the Cheltenham area for some reason! Outdoors at the far end of the garden is a good Boules Piste which sees action throughout the summer months.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Long Alley Skittles

New Inn, Enderby, Leicestershire
Long Alley Skittles is a game of the East Midlands, specifically the counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire. The game differs from many skittle games found in the UK (and similarly many of those found throughout Europe), in that the balls (or Cheeses) are not 'bowled' along the smooth surface of an alley, but thrown full-toss, or to land just before the front pin. This is perhaps the most ancient form of skittles still played at pubs and clubs today, harking back to the game's humble origins where it would have been played over rough ground not suitable for the accurate rolling of finely turned wooden balls.

An interesting feature of Long Alley is that the term encompasses not one but two quite distinct forms of the game. At first glance they may appear identical, but there are a number of subtle yet significant differences between the game as played in Leicestershire, and the version found in the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire area.

Black Bulls Head, Openwoodgate, Derbyshire
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the location of the alley itself. In the Notts/Derby area almost all alleys are located outdoors and exposed to the elements (left), perhaps in a yard as shown here, garden, or even the pub car park. In Leicestershire the alleys are predominantly indoor affairs (above), in buildings which may have been purpose built for the game. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, particularly with those alleys located in the areas bordering the two skittling traditions such as pubs in the Wreake Valley and Vale of Belvoir. Thrussington for example is a Leicestershire village, yet the twin alleys here are located outdoors on the village green, and a good few alleys further north have been covered in recent years to permit Winter play, or relocated to a suitable outbuilding such as the one at the New White Bull, Giltbrook (the original outdoor alley still remains).

Outdoor alleys usually come equipped with an iron frame sunk into the aggregate, whereas in Leicestershire there is usually no permanent frame. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but it may be that the dense Lignum Vitae 'Cheeses' thrown in the Leicestershire game are more likely to loosen or damage a frame from the surrounding aggregate of the alley, the softer 'Balls' used in the more northerly game impacting with less damaging force. A permanent frame may also be desirable for an alley exposed to the elements as they usually are to the north.

So the Leicestershire game usually has no frame, the pins either sitting on metal discs sunk into the floor or as in the case shown above at the New Inn, Enderby, no permanent markers exist at all. Hence the home-made wooden template seen hanging on the wall of the alley, used to mark the pitted surface with yellow paint at regular intervals throughout the season.

A major difference between the two regions comes in the shape of the Balls, or Cheeses as they are generally known in Leicestershire. The ones shown above, and in the alley below, are the barrel shaped Leicestershire variety, turned from the extremely dense wood Lignum Vitae and therefore a heavy proposition in play. This set originally saw service at the now defunct Coleman Social Club in Leicester. The shape of these Cheeses have a dramatic effect on how they bounce at the business end of the alley, and in skilled hands can achieve angles which might be otherwise impossible with a regular ball. However, the lighter wooden Balls of the Notts/Derby game (right) can also be made to 'turn' in skilled hands through the application of spin when throwing.

The Skittle Alley shown above is located at the rear of the Royal Oak in Great Glen, Leicestershire, and is still in regular use for functions and casual games, though not as far as I'm aware for league play. The Royal Oak was my own local for a few years, a cosy drinkers pub tucked away down a side street, and a rare survivor in a village which had five pubs when I lived there (four now), most of which were food oriented and benefited from a good passing trade before the village was bypassed in 2003.

Compare the almost straight-sided skittle pins of the Leicestershire game at the Royal Oak to the more curved examples shown below. The pins shown below are used at the Black Bulls Head, Openwoodgate near Belper in Derbyshire, an award-winning alehouse which has been revitalised since Greene King relinquished ownership in 2012 to the current freeholders.

The alley, a traditional outdoor one, is floodlit and benefits from the shelter of an enclosed courtyard to the rear of the pub. When not in use for Skittles this makes a pleasant sun-trap beer garden during the summer months. Note the embellishment to the head of the King Pin, an unusual (dare I say phallic??) flourish by the wood turner. Whether the more curvy pins of the Notts/Derby game affect play to any degree seems unlikely. The steel brackets which share this crate with the pins hold the removable return pipe which can be set up in the yard during play.

A feature of the more northerly game which you won't generally see in Leicestershire is the steel sheet located a few feet ahead of the front pin (right). In the Leicestershire game the Cheese must bounce once before hitting the pins, and this must be past a point on the alley which is usually marked by a line or change of surface. In the Notts/Derby version the ball needs to clear a point some 42 inches ahead of the front pin, and this is marked with a loose steel sheet. A ball pitching too short will rattle the sheet making it easy to determine a foul throw.

The alley shown here is also in Belper. Arkwrights Real Ale Bar is a modern speciality beer bar associated with the members only Strutt Club above. The club field a team in the local Long Alley league, and the alley itself doubles as a covered patio drinking area for the bar when not in use. Note also the permanent Frame set into the surface of the alley.

Rules of the game of Long Alley Skittles, as displayed at the Royal Oak, Great Glen, Leics. Note that the image used actually shows a game of Old English or London Skittles, a very different game, though also one where the 'cheeses' are thrown down the alley rather than bowled.
Variation like these in what is essentially the same game are certainly not uncommon outside of Long Alley. The West Country skittling tradition for example is characterised by numerous different sizes and styles of skittle pin, alley length, and subtle variations in the rules. My view is that this is probably evidence of a time when each town or cluster of villages would have played the game to their own local rules, and where the equipment would have been made locally to no particular standard or pattern. Indeed I've seen photographs of Long Alley teams from the early 20th century where the pins are different again to those seen now. Some measure of standardisation would have come later as travel became easier, and local or regional leagues became established.

So it seems most likely to me that what we see now with the two distinct versions of the game is likely to be the result of two separate 'local' traditions meeting as the game became standardised throughout the counties, rather than a single traditional game which has somehow split into two distinct regional forms.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Golden Cross - Clee Hill, Shropshire

Should you ever find yourself in the lovely Teme Valley area in search of a pint with a view, the Golden Cross at Clee Hill should fit the bill perfectly. I wouldn't particularly recommend the trip when snow is forecast though. The roads are steep and winding, particularly the one from Tenbury Wells that I chose to drive up, and I'd imagine the village can become somewhat isolated when the weather turns nasty.

The view from Clee Hill is certainly impressive, but if you like a good game with your pint, you may find it difficult to drag yourself away from the bar and take it all in. That's because the Golden Cross is home to one of the most impressive collections of traditional games your likely to find in a pub. Acquired by licensee and pub games enthusiast Aaron Jeffs over the course of several years, there's hardly a category of game which isn't represented at the pub.

The first item to meet your gaze on entering is a fine old Bar Billiards Table, covered when not in use and therefore in excellent playing condition. It's a John Bennett & Co table, a Billiard table manufacture which held a Royal and War Office warrant at one time, this table dating from around the 1950's judging by the London address on the name plate.

From my perspective, the most important gaming item at the Golden Cross is also one of the most humble in form. A simple, unpainted concrete Quoits Board sits solidly below one of several Darts Boards at the pub, again covered when not in use to prevent stray Darts Arrows damaging the surface. Quoits is of course the local game for the Shropshire/Herefordshire area, and league matches can be seen at the pub throughout the summer months, Darts and Pool taking precedence in the winter. Rubber Quoits and all the other paraphernalia of pub game play are available from the bar on request.

Note the unique handmade scoreboard to the left of the Darts Board. Outside of the Hereford Town League, where Quoits is a straightforward scoring game along similar lines to Darts, most leagues play a game where each team or player aims to accumulate specific scores, maybe from 1-12 or 1-15. Four Quoits are thrown and if for example 8 is scored, that panel on the board is claimed and becomes closed to your opponent. The board here goes up to 20, but given that this would require a full house of 'Pegs' (which score 5 points), perhaps the full board is reserved for 'expert' matches rather than regular weekly league play. Or maybe players in the Clee Hill League are far better than I give them credit!

Rare and unusual games are represented at the pub in the form of a fine Pitch Penny bench (left), possibly the only example in use outside of the East of England. This is a genuine and original bench acquired for the pub by a family member, the leaded backing added by the licensee to help preserve the wood from damage.

Other games available for play include Ring The Bull (below), Shove Ha'penny, Devil Amongst The Tailors, and Shut The Box, as well as the usual selection of Card games, Dominoes, Pool and of course Darts which is very popular at the pub.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Orange Tree, Baldock, Hertfordshire

The main bar area of the Orange Tree, Baldock, a traditional multi-room pub with a great reputation for its Beer and Cider.
The world of the pub games enthusiast is, it has to be said, quite a small one. Which is not to say that the many thousands of enthusiastic 'gamers', shoving, chucking, or indeed tossing on a regular basis in leagues and more casually, lack enthusiasm for their chosen game. Simply that these players take their gameplay largely in their stride. A game of Dominoes or a midweek Skittles match is to them just a part of day to day life. Nothing to get too excited about, and certainly nothing to warrant writing about!

The more finely tuned interests of enthusiasts like myself, often reflect a deeper cultural fascination with the subject, in my own case it's a wider interest in pub culture in general. This is often underpinned by a strong sense that if the very best of our traditions are to survive, someone needs to champion them in a way that simply wouldn't occur to those of us who merely participate, enjoy, and thereby help preserve our traditional pastimes.

One of the original pub games champions of recent times was Timothy Finn. A writer and keen Northants skittler, Finn was probably the first to treat the subject of pub games as a distinct subject in itself, rather than a sub-set of the much wider childrens and 'parlour' game tradition. His 1970's book, Pub Games of England, was at that time the most complete work on the subject, and is still a useful reference, particularly the listings of pubs where the games featured might be found. It's also an interesting book in the context of this blog post in that he caught the last vestiges of a game which has now almost entirely disappeared from pubs.

The game of Daddlums might be considered a slightly smaller regional version of Northamptonshire Skittles, and was once as common in the south-east of England as the Northants game still is in the East Midlands. The game has some similarities with the even rarer game of Old English (or London) Skittles, which by contrast is the most weighty example of the skittles tradition surviving to this day, and may represent yet another example of a game miniaturised and brought indoors for play during the colder winter months.

In Daddlums three small hardwood cheeses are thrown at a formation of nine stubby, somewhat top-heavy pins (above), which sit toward the rear of quite a long table. The technique for toppling the pins seems to be to land the cheese some way ahead of the diamond formation and slide into them, unlike the Northants game where the cheese generally hits the front pin full-toss. Whilst the game which is known as Daddlums seems to have been confined primarily to the South East of England, small table skittles games like this are understood to have been played much further afield, and certainly up the eastern seaboard through Anglia and into parts of the East Midlands where several examples have been recorded.

The decline of Daddlums and other small table skittle games can best be illustrated by the fact that only one original table is now known to exist. The Daddlums table at the Vigo Inn, Fairseat in Kent, is therefore an important survivor, and has provided the template for at least two newly built tables which help keep the tradition alive in the area. The Vigo Inn table has also provided the inspiration for the most recent revival of the game in the town of Baldock, Hertfordshire.

The Darts Room at the Orange Tree features this ingenious space-saving board which swings out from the wall for play, folding back flat against the wall when the room is required for other less competitive uses.
A Shove Ha'penny set up in the old Inglenook fireplace, now a cosy seating area. The licensee has more than one board available at the pub, as well as a Devil Amongst The Tailors, Shut The Box, Cards and Dominoes.

Licensee Rob Scahill is surely a pub games enthusiast himself, or at the very least a real champion of the pub gaming tradition. Why else would he have chosen to install the little known and rare as hens teeth game of Daddlums at the Orange Tree in Baldock, alongside a host of more common pub games.

The Daddlums table itself has been crafted in the style of the rare Vigo Inn example, and is the first of what will eventually be a pair of tables in the town, the other being installed at The Cock. In this way it is hoped to establish inter-pub competition, essential for this small but important revival to take hold and maybe one day thrive in Baldock. The pins and cheeses came c/o James Masters of Masters Traditional Games, who also tipped me off about the Orange Tree and it's many attractions.

More pub gaming ingenuity. The Daddlums Table, which is located in the opulent covered patio/smoking shelter to the rear of the pub, swings up and away to reveal a recently refurbished Bar Billiards table.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Four Pubs for a game of Shove Ha'penny

Considering how few people there are that actually play Shove Ha'penny now, or even know what the game is for that matter, there are still an awful lot of boards out there, some of which can even be found in their natural home of the pub.

Like almost all traditional pub games, Shove Ha'penny is a game you have to make time for, but most people these days seem to have already accounted for their time before they walk through the door of a pub. Dining, watching sport on the telly, focusing fully on the beers, or just catching up with and chatting with friends that we see less often now. All good reasons to visit the pub of course, but it's perhaps rare now for a group of drinkers to arrive at the pub without the day planned out in fine detail, which leaves little free time for the pleasures of a casual afternoon or evening game.

This of course is a large part of the reason pub games have declined so much in recent years. Few have the time, or are prepared to make the time for them. It's also why those games which have survived, and in some cases continue to thrive, are usually played by older, often retired pub-goers who find it easier to take a couple of hours out from the day to shuffle Dominoes or shove a coin up the highly polished surface of a Shove Ha'penny. Sadly all the boards shown in this post are rarely if ever used, but at least they're still in situ at the pubs where they rightly belong, and available for play should time and a willing opponent permit. The one on the left, a fairly modern laminated board supplied as a promotion by the now closed Ruddles Brewery, can be found at the Dukes Arms, Woodford, Northamptonshire.

This venerable old slate Shove Ha'penny (above and below) is firmly bolted to the top of one of those old treadle sewing machine tables that started appearing in pubs in the 80's. It provides a solid and weighty base for a slate which has clearly seen good service over many years at the National Trust owned Fleece Inn in the village of Bretforton in Worcestershire. Until recently the Shove Ha'penny resided in the Games Room of the pub, but sadly both it and the Darts Board have been retired from use to provide more space for diners at this very popular historic pub. With its protective wooden cover on, the board now lives in a corridor and is used as a table for cutlery. The licensee of the Fleece has a keen interest in many aspects of English tradition. A Morris Dancer and Cidermaker in addition to being custodian of two of Worcestershire's most important heritage pubs. I'm reasonably sure that he would be happy to see the Shove Ha'penny polished up and played during quieter times at the pub, though whether the Ha'pennies remain is unclear, so you may have to bring your own.

One of the very first of the new-wave of Micropubs which are springing up throughout the country was Just Beer in Newark, Nottinghamshire. The single bar-room at Just Beer is a little larger than some of the micro's that have opened in its wake, there's even room for a Darts Board, and the layout lends itself well to games such as Dominoes which are available in a vintage Watney Mann box in the bar. A good solid-wood Shove Ha'penny hangs on the wall ready for play, though how much use it gets and whether a well-polished set of coins is available I couldn't say, it's just great to see it in the bar. Either way, Just Beer has a superb reputation for its beer and cider, and is well worth a visit when out for a pint in Newark.

The people behind the Thurlby group of pubs must have a bit of a soft spot for the shoving and pushing tradition of games. The Tobie Norris in Stamford has a very good example of a Pushpenny board in the cosy snug area, and the nearby Exeter Arms at Easton on the Hill had an old Shove Ha'penny as part of the furnishings the last time I visited. The latest addition to this growing collection is a modern laminate Jaques Shove Ha'penny at the Lord Nelson (above and below) in the Rutland market town of Oakham. Whether it gets a great deal of use at a pub which is noted more for its food offering than the (admittedly very good) beer and wine selection, I've no idea, but it seems unlikely to be honest. All the same, it's a nice addition to the pub, and the lovely tile-floored snug where I photographed the board would lend itself well to an afternoon game, though once again you may have to take your own coins.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Three Horseshoes, Ecton, Northamptonshire

Thirsty travellers on the old Wellingborough to Northampton road might reasonably assume that the village of Ecton has just the one pub, the Worlds End on the busy main road. Indeed rural villages the size of Ecton are often lucky to have a pub at all, so the Worlds End is certainly a welcome local amenity as well as a useful venue for business travellers or a family looking for a meal. I've not been inside the Worlds End but the website gives all the clues I need to determine that this is probably not my kind of pub.

Take a turn off the main road and into the village itself, negotiating the narrow High Street for a pub more to my own tastes. The Three Horseshoes has been extended over the years, but the original pub dates to 1757 and is believed to have been the location of a blacksmiths business run by Benjamin Franklin's grandfather! The Franklin family connection means that Ecton receives a good few American tourists throughout the year, and I'm sure that many of these visitors must be delighted to find such an authentic and relatively unspoilt hostelry in the very heart of the historic village.

The pub recently became free of brewery or pubco tie, and the current owners have taken this opportunity to invest in the business with a sensitive refurbishment of the historic interior. The traditional multi-room layout has been retained, a separate bar and games area meaning the pub can continue to serves the needs of a diverse range of locals, visitors, and of course the resident games teams which include Northamptonshire Table SkittlesDarts, and Cribbage. I wonder what the tourists make of the unique local skittles game!

Skittles at the Three Horseshoes is played in the Dave White Skittles League, which follows the same format as that played in my own neck of the woods. Two teams of seven, playing man-on-man over seven legs. The winning team is the one with the highest total number of legs over the course of the match. A memorial trophy is also played for at the pub, the roll of honour having pride of place in the smart games room.