Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Bluebell, Bedford

Bedfordshire is one of several counties which maintain a strong association with the game of Table Skittles. It's in the area to the north of the county, and adjoining the game's original home of Northamptonshire, where tables are still relatively common, though Bedford town itself is now almost entirely skittles-free. You have to venture out to the leafy suburbs and surrounding villages to find a table for play these days, but where the game is still found it remains a popular fixture in the bar and games room, and happily there are still several leagues active in the area.

The Bluebell is a pub which serves the needs of a suburban population to the north of Bedford town. A busy and popular pub, decked out in all its Christmas regalia when I visited in December. It was a cold day but the welcome was warm, and well worth the half hour walk out from town for a pint.

It's been a while since I came across a pair of skittles tables in a pub, both well maintained and positioned for regular play in the games area. These two tables are entirely necessary given that the The Bluebell currently field three teams in the Bedford & District Skittles League. Any less would inevitably lead to home fixture clashes on Tuesday match nights.

A Bluebell 'C' team was recently added at the pub following the closure of The Anchor to the south of Bedford. The displaced team are now well and truly settled at the Bluebell, this despite the recent re-opening of the Anchor, though whether the skittles table remains at the pub is not clear.

A good set of boxwood pins and cheeses were produced for an afternoon chuck, and a local team member gently disabused me of the notion that Bedfordshire skittling is now all plastic.

Whilst it's certainly true that plastic pins and cheeses are the norm throughout much of the Table Skittles areas, and a stipulation for league play in parts of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, boxwood still rules in the various Bedfordshire leagues. Outside of competition though, the more robust plastic alternatives are more common in Bedfordshire, and for how long this admirable preference for traditional wooden pins and cheeses will continue, given the difficulty and expense of obtaining them, is really anyones guess.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Brown Jug, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

I must have walked past (and occasionally drank in) the Brown Jug literally dozens of times over the last decade, and yet it's only recently I've noticed the pub comes equipped with a very fine skittle alley. In common with many similar skittling pubs, there's little to give the 'game' away from outside, and even from the bar it may not be obvious that skittles is a popular game at the Brown Jug. Unless a game is in progress of course!

In mitigation, I'd have to say that I'm rarely in town on days other than at the weekend, which is altogether the wrong time to catch the highly competitive business of league play. Skittles is largely a Monday to Thursday pastime in Cheltenham, and more often than not you simply won't find an alley in use on a busy Friday or Saturday evening. Also, the alley at the Brown Jug is tucked away to the rear of the pub, an entirely necessary precaution given the noise generated during a hotly contested league match.

I sometimes feel that skittles (and traditional pub games in general) could benefit from being 'advertised' a little more at the pubs where they are played. I wonder how much more interest there might be in our great pub gaming traditions if their custodians shouted a bit more about them. If there's one thing that my own interest in pubs and pub games has revealed with some measure of certainty, it's that even the healthiest local gaming traditions can quickly and irrevocably decline without a steady take-up from interested newcomers, and new blood is always needed for a game to thrive. Clearly skittles has already seen a marked decline in Cheltenham, as it has almost everywhere. The question is, will this decline continue to the point where alleys like the one at the Brown Jug are just a memory.

Right now though, the game of Skittles is a major part of what the Brown Jug is all about, with league matches played at the pub most weekday evenings. As can be seen from the number of skittle sets under lock and key in the alley, there are currently several teams playing out of the Brown Jug, including some which have been exiled from their original homes.

Norwood Arms 'A' are a good example of a team now playing in exile. The team are presumably well settled at the Brown Jug, and yet they've retained their original name in the league. This seems to be entirely normal, and probably traditional throughout league skittles, but can be a little confusing for an outsider like myself. Put simply, a pub team playing under a particular pubs name is no guarantee that the game is still being played at that pub, or even that the pub is still standing! The Norwood itself is still trading, located as it is only a stones-throw from the Brown Jug. But it's now a pub without an alley following extensive refurbishment and a focus on the more prosaic business of dining.

The best seats in the house?

A print now adorns the wall where the Darts Board was once found. A recent smart refurbishment has prioritised seating over the game, though the front bar is still above all a space for drinks and chat. The 'Oche' can still be seen fixed to the floor boards (above).

Friday, 17 January 2014

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.19

This interesting old skittle set appeared for sale in a Leicestershire antiques centre recently. They're very similar in appearance to a set of Leicester Table Skittles which I've already featured on this blog at the Dog & Gun in Syston. Beautifully turned, showing the deep patina of age, and the many dents and dints acquired through years of pub use. The Cheeses are very tactile and have fared much better than the pins in play, made as they are from a closer grained and therefore harder wood. Yours for the asking price of £125. A desirable collection of perfectly playable vintage skittles which simply require a matching Leicester Skittles Table. Ideally, located in a good pub.

© John Penny
The traditional pub game shown here is a Twister, sometimes called a Norfolk Twister or Twizzler. Unusually, this example is located in Dorset, the game being most strongly associated with the south-eastern counties of England. Having said that, who knows how widespread this simple game of fortune may once have been. The survival of original old Twisters in Norfolk and Essex pubs may have as much to do with the relative isolation of the area from gambling enforcement than any firm indication of geographical origin.

This handsome wooden example of the game was made especially for the Mitre Inn, Sandford Orcas by fellow pub games enthusiast John Penny, and is modelled here by licensee Allen Page. Note the numbering of the segments, also augmented by a chalk zone for when names are required as shown here (I wonder who JP was!). This is one of five such Twisters that John has made, though only four survive, and of these only three remain in their original locations. One Twister didn't survive a fire at the pub, and another went travelling with the outgoing landlord. I aim to feature the other two survivors in a later post on this blog.

The Horse & Jockey (above) is idyllically located overlooking Rutland Water in the pretty village of Manton. A favourite destination of walkers and cyclists, the pub has a reputation as a rural 'destination' venue, and certainly it's the lunchtime food trade which dominates the pub during the busy summer tourist season. It's the kind of pub, in the kind of location, that could quite easily have left behind its more 'pubby' origins, but I'm pleased to say that the Horse & Jockey is also highly regarded for its beer, and remains a vibrant village local at heart. This includes that most traditional of pub games, Dominoes, with regular and successful play in the South Luffenham Domino League for which the trophies shown here are proudly held.

The latest addition to the Steamin' Billy Brewery Co pub estate is The Three Crowns in Oakham, Rutland. Tucked away on a back street, the former Griffin is now trading under its original name, and has been extensively refurbished to the usual high standards of this traditional pub company.

Certainly the revamped beer range will gladden the hearts of CAMRA members and other beer enthusiasts, but what pleases me the most is how genuinely 'pubby' The Three Crowns remains. All too often a refurbishment like this is simply an excuse to erase all the character from a pub, imposing a bland style with little space remaining for the pub to grow and develop over time. The Three Crowns is a pub that thankfully hasn't been overdone, and I can see it developing a good local following in time. I'm also pleased to see that nine or so feet of clear space has been set aside for a Darts throw, an important yardstick of pubbiness in my view.

Wherever you find a traditional locals pub, you'll invariably find the locals throwing things about for sport and pleasure. In the village pubs of Rutland and North-East Leicestershire, the game of Pétanque is perhaps the most commonly found competitive throwing game, maybe even more popular than Darts, and certainly surpassing the much older tradition of Long Alley or Table Skittles. Above is the Pétanque scoreboard for the Black Horse in the tiny village of Grimston, Leicestershire. The Black Horse 'A' team have recently gained promotion to the Premier Division of the Rutland & District Pétanque League.

The image below shows an Aunt Sally backsheet at the College Arms, Lower Quinton in Warwickshire. The local game of Aunt Sally gives the locals something to throw sticks at on Thursday evenings throughout the summer, and is as popular in the Oxfordshire area as skittles is in the West Country. The sheet cushions the impact of thrown sticks, and the black circle helps frame the white painted 'Doll' which is being aimed at. The College Arms is a true village local, with teams playing in local Cribbage, Darts, Dominoes, and Pool leagues, in addition to fortnightly matches in the Illmington Aunt Sally League.

Friday, 10 January 2014

A Trio of Devil Amongst The Tailors

Devil Amongst The Tailors, sometimes known as Table or Bar Skittles, is one of the most accessible and fun of all the traditional pub games. It's a game I clearly remember playing as a child, albeit a relatively small 'toy' version of the type with a pull string to reset all the pins, and most people of a certain age, even if not familiar with the more regional pub games, will instantly recognise a Devils table when they see one. Sadly, and perhaps not surprisingly, younger people have often never come across Devil Amongst The Tailors, and have no idea how the game is played, which is not to say they're not interested. In my experience, when given the opportunity, children love to play skittles of all types. In an ideal world, Devil Amongst The Tailors is one traditional game that every pub should have, though they can be expensive to buy new, and difficult to source second hand. One option is to do what generations of local craftsmen have done before us, and construct your own table as I have (see below).

The table shown here is a vintage Oak example, purchased in a rather shabby state from an Antiques centre in Lincolnshire. It's unfortunate that dealers in the antiques and collectibles trade are rarely happy to reveal the source of their stock, so where this table originally came from I've no idea.

It's a full size 'league standard' table with slim but heavy-weight Lignum Vitae pins and what looks to be the same dense and durable wood for the swinging ball. The red painted swivel appears to have been purpose made for the job, and I'd say this was a manufactured table rather than home made. This table has seen a fair bit of afternoon skittling action in my local pub, The George at Ashley in Northamptonshire, but has now been sold.

Some of the better quality old Devil Amongst The Tailors tables come with a base which is 'upholstered' with padded leather or vinyl. This is not simply to improve the looks of the table, though many of these older tables are beautifully made. It's more that playing the game in a quiet bar can cause quite a disturbance as the pins rattle down onto hard wood, so padding like that shown above is often desirable if not essential. The table shown here is available for play in the Malt Shovel in Newark, Lincolnshire. Many of the pubs in Newark have a Devil Amongst The Tailors table, the result of a now folded local league. The Malt Shovel hosts a team in the still active local Long Alley Skittles league, with a covered alley to the rear of the building.

The images shown below feature my own home made Devil Amongst The Tailors table.

Most of the basic construction of a table like this is relatively simple given a few woodworking tools, and in this case a collection of assorted bits and bobs of finished wood. The body of the table is a 3x2' piece of ply, with the walls and plinth constructed from offcuts of Oak skirting board acquired from a local hardwood timber supplier. This is broadly in the style of several tables I've seen in the Newark area, including a fine example at the Royal Oak in the town centre. Instead of a drawer for storing the pins located below the scoring board, I created a pull out Crib Board from a scrap piece of wood which was originally a clock top. I've drilled out a few Crib Boards in my time, and without exception it's tedious work, particularly with an electric hand drill. Much easier and more accurate with a bench drill I'd say.

Unless you have the experience and tools for wood turning, the pins are always going to be a tricky job. In practice, it may be that this is the part that either needs doing for you, or buying 'off the peg' pins from one of the handful of suppliers online. If so, these could end up being the most expensive part of the whole game as good quality hardwood pins and ball don't come cheap. I was lucky enough to have some offcuts of Mahogany which have done the job, though strictly speaking the pins shown here are a little too stout for serious league play. The ball is equally tricky to fabricate, requiring a dense and heavy wood to be truly effective without being too large. The one I had was far too light for the job, but I got round this be filling the wide cavity with a generous quantity of lead solder.

I've used the same idea for the swivel as the one on another Devil's table I used to own, which is an old bicycle hub cut in half, and in this case mounted on top of a section of an old fishing rod. A Devil Amongst The Tailors is in essence a very simple game, but constructing one from whatever you have to hand requires a fair bit of ingenuity and experimentation, which is exactly the way these home made tables have always been made I guess.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Northamptonshire Skittles Pubs

The White Swan in the village of Holcot has only recently returned to the Northamptonshire Table Skittles fold following several years of unsympathetic management. The return of a previous licensee has seen the pub reinstated at the centre of village life, and the skittles table returned to the games room where it belongs. When I visited earlier this year attempts were being made to form a team for local league play.

The photo shown below hangs on a wall of the games room, and shows a successful trophy haul for team members in the league game of Bar Billiards. No table exists at the pub now, though the game is still found in nearby Northampton and Wellingborough where local leagues are active.

The Harlequin in Kettering (above) is a typical two room estate pub located a little way out from the town centre. This and a handful of similarly located estate pubs and town centre locals, help keep the tradition of Northamptonshire Skittles alive and well in the Kettering area. The Harlequin team are currently bumping along on the bottom of the 2nd Division of the Burton Latimer & District League, at around the mid point of the current winter season.

The Old Black Lion in Northampton (below) has recently received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, which should go a long way to securing the future of this historic building. The vintage skittles table seems a little out of place in the bar following a recent refurbishment, so let's hope it survives whatever future plans the owners have for the pub.

As unusually located Skittles Tables go, this one at the White Horse in the village of Old is perhaps one of the most interesting. The pub itself recently received an extensive makeover following a change of licensees, though sadly no room was found for games other than a monthly Quiz Night. The most striking feature of the White Horse can be found in the garden at the rear of the pub, where a tall red brick chimney gives a clue to the pubs former life as a steam powered flour mill.

Pub games don't seem to have been a feature of the pub for some time, and yet tucked away upstairs adjacent to the original millstone can be found this fine old Skittles Table. It's obviously been a feature of the pub for many years, but the table only gets occasional use from the locals, and seems to be largely unavailable for casual games by visitors which is a great shame. A careful examination of the boxwood cheeses shows that they were originally turned for the village pub, bearing the letters OLD.