Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ye Olde Cottage Inn, Chester

I've stated on several occasions here on this blog that in the rush to devote space to dining, or simply cramming more vertical drinkers in, town centre pubs are rapidly becoming Pub Game free zones. For example, venues for most forms of the game of skittles are now almost entirely located in suburban, or rural village locations, often making it hard to track down a game when visiting larger towns and cities. Even the humble Darts Board has become a rarity on the town centre circuit.

There are of course exceptions. Venues with Bagatelle Tables in the Chester area are refreshingly easy to find, in what is still a fairly compact city blessed with a good number of pubs. Most of the venues are located little more than a 15 minute walk from the town centre, and many are particularly handy for the rail station. There's even a solitary club venue located within the old town walls. A map giving the location of venues for Bagatelle is not particularly well sign-posted on the otherwise excellent Chester & District Bagatelle League website, but can be found here, and is I believe reliably up to date.

Ye Olde Cottage Inn is one such venue, located on the eastern side of Chester on the way out to the leafy suburbs of the 'Hotel Quarter' at Hoole. It is also very handy for arrivals at the nearby rail station. It's a terrific corner local, cosy and welcoming, with an open fire which pumps out more than enough heat to warm the whole pub through the Winter months. The pub is well supplied with, and has a very strong emphasis on traditional pub games. Darts, Dominoes, and Pool are all played in local leagues, as of course is the much rarer game of Bagatelle.

League Bagatelle play seems to have returned (?) to the Cottage in 2011. Since then the pub team have steadily crept up the league table, and at the time of writing are sitting fourth at the tail end of the 2013/14 Winter Season. Various cup competitions are also a feature of the league, including a recently introduced 351 Cup. In this competition, teams of four players play alternate 'sticks' against the opposing team, aiming to finish on exactly 351 points in the fewest number of balls. The Cottage were the winners of the current Winter season 351 Cup.

The sunken 'Cups' on a Bagatelle Table number '1-9', with the highest scoring located across the centre, and the central cup scoring '9'. A maximum score for a 'Stick' (a single players turn at the table) is 54, and requires all of the balls to be potted, with the Black (which scores double) in the central '9' pocket as shown above. I'm not sure how often maximum scores occur during a typical season. All I can say is that I've certainly never managed to get close to achieving the feat myself. I believe that scores in the 30's or 40's are more usual for a competent player.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


Wall of Bagetelles at House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey, Devon. This image has kindly been made available under a Creative Commons License by Glamhag.

I would hazard a guess that most people, if they recognised it at all, would be most likely associate the game of Bagatelle with a vintage 'parlour' game, many examples of which can be seen in the image above. This Bagatelle game was a kind of early pinball which came in innumerable different designs, and was principally a game of chance, and not especially associated with pub gaming.

It's perhaps only in the Cheshire city of Chester that a very different interpretation of the game of Bagatelle is more widely known. The game known as Bagatelle, which is still played at league level in Chester, is a much more skillful 'cue-sport' game than the colourful amusements shown above, and was once widespread and popular in pubs and clubs throughout the country.

This version of Bagatelle (right and below), sometimes known as Old English or Victorian Bagatelle, is believed to date back to the early 19th century. A game which seems to have developed alongside Billiards, and one which may have suffered the decline which makes it such a rarity today upon the introduction of Bar Billiards, which the game of Bagatelle superficially resembles. A comprehensive resume of the development of Bagatelle from its early days to the present can be found here, and I don't propose to repeat it on this blog. Sufficient to say that at one time Bagatelle was very widely played in Britain, and presumably much further afield throughout Europe and the wider British Empire. Indeed tables can still be found in North America where the game was also very popular.

Given that Bagatelle has now almost entirely disappeared from pubs and clubs in Britain, it's not surprising that so few people will have come across or even know of the games existence. A handful of antique tables can still be found in the Coventry area, and some form of competition is believed to take place in North Wales, but the current hotbed of Bagatelle play is Chester, where remarkably the game has seen some measure of growth in recent years.

The table shown here for example, which still bears its original J Ashcroft & Co label, was only recently installed at the Bawn Lodge bar following extensive refurbishment (detailed here). The table is now in regular use for league play alongside around a dozen more such tables in pubs and clubs, found mainly on the outskirts of the town centre. Outside of league play, all these tables are available for free play, and the friendly and enthusiastic members of the local league will often be on hand to offer advice on rules and technique.

The Chester & District Bagatelle League may well be the very last of its kind still operating in the UK. Eleven teams are currently listed on the excellent website, and the league also hosts an 'Open' competition in October.

Despite the apparent huge popularity of the game at one time, tables of the standard shown above are now relatively rare, and the league are always on the look out for examples which can be refurbished and brought back into use. Antique tables, often in need of extensive repair and renovation, occasionally surface at auctions or through the antiques trade, and it's also likely that other tables remain in clubs throughout the country, perhaps dismantled and lying unused like the one at the Nottingham Oddfellows Club in Leicester shown below. This table was refurbished and had its surface re-covered only recently, but was rarely used at the club and has now been taken out of service. The Mahogany frame is in storage, and the slate currently lies safely below one of the clubs two Billiard Tables, perhaps awaiting a revival of interest in the game by club members.

Numerous games can be played on a Bagatelle table, with league play a fairly straightforward scoring game for two players. The basic idea being to pocket as many of the nine balls in the numbered cups as possible to build a score. The black ball scores double, and therefore this would ideally be potted in the central '9' cup for maximum scoring potential. A good video detailing the rules of play can be seen here.

The Bagatelle Table shown above and below is my own 'Baby Bagatelle', a 6 foot long fold-out version for home use. These were also once very popular as 'parlour' games, and a good many still exist and appear regularly in the antiques and online auction trade in varying states of repair. This one is fairly typical of these smaller tables which were available in a number of sizes up to 8 foot long. Constructed within a polished Mahogany case, often furnished with a small lock, and with a lighter wooden bed rather than the smooth slate of full-size Bagatelle tables. The only significant difference in design is the provision of boxwood 'Cribbage' style scoring holes down each side of the table. This one plays well enough, though in common with practically all these old examples, the cushions have hardened with time, and the baize is showing signs of wear.

The wooden arched construction shown below was often included as standard with these tables. Many different games would have originally been played on a standard Bagatelle Table, including one called Mississippi which involved cueing balls off the side cushions and into these numbered arches to build a score.

I will be featuring a few of the Chester venues for Bagatelle in future posts on this blog.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Wharf Inn, Hinckley, Leicestershire

Over the years I must have had a pint at the very least in almost every pub in Hinckley. In the late 80's and early 90's, a pint in Hinckley invariably meant a pint of Marston's Pedigree (or perhaps a Mild from the same stable if you were lucky), such was the hegemony of the Burton-on-Trent brewer in these parts. Their presence in the town is now not quite as strong as it was, though there's still plenty of distinctive Marston's livery to be seen, including on the Mock Tudor exterior of the Wharf Inn featured here.

The Wharf is a notable exception to my previous drinking experiences in Hinckley. Located a good 20 minute walk out from the town centre, it was just never on the circuit, and of course the ubiquity of Marston's ales in Hinckley at the time would have made the journey slightly less desirable. Given that Marston's stranglehold on the Hinkley beer scene has now been relaxed somewhat, the town offers much greater variety in the beer stakes, and it's certainly a town that I'd recommend for a day of pub exploring. I'd also strongly recommend not leaving it as late as I did and taking a stroll out to The Wharf Inn, which is one of the best of several very good pubs in Hinckley.

It's the unspoilt, and beautifully maintained 1930's interior which most rewards a visit to the Wharf. The original layout is largely intact, and retains several separate rooms around the original central servery. Light Oak panelling predominates, and the wide central corridor with its warming open fire (probably a separate room originally) is the heart of the pub for locals and visitors alike.

A small games room is located to the left as you enter, served from a small hatch, once a common feature in pubs but now much rarer. This snug little games room features a very fine old Skittles Table, which is in as original a condition as you're likely to find anywhere. The brown leather playing surface and brass fixings appear to be original, as is the upholstery and battered woodwork to the sides. The pin-head circles which indicate where the skittles should stand are noticeably sunken in the leather surface from many years of play. This table has clearly seen plenty of action over the years (and I understand that the Wharf is not the tables first home), yet it's clearly been very well looked after.

The custard yellow plastic pins and cheeses used in the Leicestershire game look even more incongruous on a table of this vintage, particularly against the deep brown of the leather surface. But rules is rules, and you'll rarely find wooden skittles and cheeses this far outside of the game's Northamptonshire heartland. The 'oche' for the skittles table shares a space with one of the pubs Darts throws, so if you fancy a game it's probably best not to go on league Darts night.

Dominoes and Darts are played at the Wharf in local leagues, with plenty of silverware on display from both games. Teams playing in the Hinckley & District Domino League are well catered for at the Wharf, with half a dozen of the smartest looking new table toppers supplied for use during match nights.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Golden Eagle, Derby

The Golden Eagle in Derby is a pub which has recently re-appeared on the city's Real Ale Trail following acquisition by the local Titan Brewery, adding yet another speciality beer outlet to Derby's embarrassment of riches in this regard. The pub has had a somewhat chequered past of late, trading under names too numerous to mention, and with varying degrees of success. Now back to its original name, and also back trading as a thoroughly 'pubby' venue with the added bonus of great beer.

Sadly, not all micro-brewers approach the running of their pubs with such sensitivity and respect for the traditions of pub going. In their eagerness to ride the very crest of the current 'craft beer' fashion, the pub environment can often seem like an afterthought, or even worse, an ill thought out style statement where beer is king, often at the expense of the many social traditions which make pubs so unique and valuable. Often it's simply a case of 'over-engineering' a pub, stamping a rigid design and style on the space which leaves no room for the pub to develop over time as a true local.

The Golden Eagle has, in my opinion, been very well done indeed. Just the right blend of bright, colourful fixtures, set within an instantly recognisable pub interior. It's a bar which easily satisfies both the traditionalist like myself, and the more casual pub goer who perhaps baulks at the dark and unwelcoming interiors of some of our less well-managed drinking houses. I love it, and not just because space has been retained for a Darts throw. This to me is a great example of the kind of modernisation which many pubs clearly need, but without throwing out all the best of a pubs traditions and social heritage.

A recent feature in the Derby Telegraph gives a good insight into how the owners see the Golden Eagle's colourful past as an important part of its successful future. The locals are back, and they've brought with them many images and artefacts from the pubs heyday.

Perhaps this included the lovely little Shove Ha'penny shown here, a classic of its type, crafted from a thick slab of Mahogany which shows clear signs of previous use (note the cut-outs on the right), though what use that would have been is not entirely clear. Coins are available for play from behind the bar, though these would benefit from a bit of smoothing and polishing to realise the potential of the board.

The reading and games table is well stocked with local interest, as well as Cards, a couple of vintage Domino sets, the Shove Ha'penny shown above, and a Shut The Box.