Saturday, 21 June 2014

Bulls Head, Blaby, Leicestershire

Way back in the early 90's I visited the Bulls Head in Blaby for the first, and if memory serves me well, only time. Writing the experience up as part of a short real ale round-up of neighbouring villages Blaby and Whetstone, I described the Bulls as being '...a comfortable Allied (brewery) pub with Ansells Bitter, Tetley Bitter, and Burton Ale. Has a good Skittle Alley'. Not much to go on there then, but in my defence it was the kind of stock description common to CAMRA publications in those days. It was the early days of the beer and brewing revival, and most village pubs were still relatively unspoilt and therefore unremarkable. They were also reasonably well supported by a good local trade, the carnage of 21st century pub closures had yet to be seen in villages like this. Truly we were spoilt in those days, pubs and pub-going were a given, it was the beer that mattered.

How things have changed. Real ale, micro-breweries, craft beer, and even traditional ciders of a sort are now relatively commonplace, and it could be argued that CAMRA's original campaigning goals, the revitalisation of real ale, have been largely achieved. It's now unpretentious backstreet and village 'locals' like the Bulls Head which are the story now. Remarkable for their scarcity, and by far the biggest casualty of the 'fire sale' decimating pubs of all types in recent years.

The Bulls Head is an increasingly rare survivor, and exactly the kind of traditional village local which CAMRA and its members should be actively supporting and championing. Not just for the greatly improved beer range, but for the fact that this pub retains its traditional layout, and still functions as a highly sociable drinking venue rather than bland and impersonal theme bar or upmarket eatery. I'm pleased to say that the local CAMRA branch have recognised this, awarding their pub of the month for October 2013 to the Bulls Head, with the pub also finishing a very respectable 7th in the 2014 Pub of the Year competition for the Leicester branch area.

I hope this short post helps to expand on my original description of the Bulls Head. The Bulls is not only a 'comfortable' pub to drink in now,  it's also a positive pleasure to spend time in. It also retains a good Skittle Alley, a feature of all the very best South Leicestershire pubs in my view. Oh! and it sells a very good pint too.

The Skittle Alley at the Bulls Head has recently come back into use for the Leicestershire game of Long Alley, with a team from nearby Whetstone settling in for league play as well as regular social skittles evenings at the pub. The cheeses (left) are some of the most pristine examples I've seen, almost too good to chuck! In common with most alleys hereabouts, the Long Alley also doubles as a function room, though of course the two could just as easily be combined for groups and parties.

Sadly the traditional Leicester Skittles Table has fallen into disuse in recent years, standing on its end in a corner of the alley awaiting a team to bring it back into use. This table is the slightly longer, lower walled version of the game which is unique to Leicester and surrounding villages, though whether it was played with the slimline Leicester pins and cheeses or a more common Northamptonshire set is not clear.

Table Skittles is still played in the Blaby area, indeed the nearby Fox & Tiger sports bar in the centre of the village has a good old Northants table which sees regular use in local league play. There's every chance this table could come back into use in the near future, it's that kind of pub.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt. 21

The Bagatelle Table shown here has been squeezed into a room adjoining the main bar of the Royal Oak at Hoole in Chester. Hoole is a small village suburb of Chester, around 15 minutes walk out from the town centre, and very convenient for arrivals at the nearby rail station.

The Royal Oak is a friendly multi-room locals pub, a venue for conversation, good beer, and playing the local speciality of Bagatelle. The pub fields a team in the Chester & District Bagatelle League.

It's perhaps hard for us to appreciate just how widely played and popular the game of Quoits was in the pre and post-war years. Despite being played on Quoits Fields at pubs, clubs, and public recreation grounds the length and breadth of the country, little now remains to remind us of its importance as a game to the mostly working class men who played it. The Quoits Beds themselves are mostly all gone, and the trophies and records of the game have not endured in the same way that other pub and club games such as skittles have. Which is not to say that the game has entirely died out, indeed there are still several active, albeit much smaller leagues operating in parts of Anglia, Scotland, Wales, and the north of England.

A good indication of how widespread and popular the game of Quoits once was can be seen in the images above and below. This magnificent silver Boss, illustrating a Quoits game in progress, sits at the centre of a substantial trophy shield which acknowledges national Quoiting success in the small Rutland village of Ketton. Quoits was a very popular game in Rutland, no less so in Ketton which was home to at least four quoiting beds, and most impressive of all, a three times All England Champion in local cement works foreman Arthur Knox. The full shield, presented by the Peterborough & District Quoiting League, can be seen on the right of the team photograph below, and is now proudly displayed at the Ketton Sports & Social Club.

The last remaining Quoits Bed in the village was within the grounds of the club but is now tarmac'd over as part of the car park. The club is still very active within the village, with most modern games represented, including Bowls, Cribbage, Darts, Dominoes, and Rutlands current favourite throwing game, Pétanque.

The 'Skittle Room' at Leicesters Durham Ox is in truth more of a covered courtyard which serves the double function of a very well appointed smoking shelter. The kind of skittles played here is the thoroughly local Leicester version of Table Skittles, with its thinner pins, smaller cheeses, and slightly different table geometry to the better known Northamptonshire game. I'm not sure how often the table gets used these days, certainly the pub no longer fields a team in any of the Leicester Leagues, but it's good to see such a relative rarity of pub gaming survive in such good shape.

The pub itself is located in an area of the town which has been hit hard by changing demographics, and is one of the last of its type on this side of the city centre (see also the nearby Bridle Lane Tavern). The interior of the pub is very well maintained, and attracts a good local crowd for televised sport, Pool and Darts.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Northamptonshire Table Skittles Images

Pub games enthusiast and keen Yeovil & District skittler John Penny shows that he'll turn his hand to any form of the game given half a chance. This photo was taken a few years ago at the White Hart in Hackleton, Northamptonshire, and features John in the 'woodyard', counterbalancing the three wooden cheeses from the game with a pint of ale. The tell-tale orange label on the left-hand turned leg, as well as the upright 'hood' at the back marks this down as being a 'Pepper' table in all likelihood. This table is still in situ at the pub.

This wonderfully evocative footage of a Skittles game at the Rose & Crown is c/o the Cine Film Memories YouTube Channel. Clearly not a league match, this is the kind of afternoon skittles play that has been a feature of Northamptonshire pubs for generations. CFM suggest a date of the 50's or 60's for the footage, but the location of this particular Rose & Crown is not known.

The 'Pinckard' table shown here is located at the Cardigan Arms in Moulton, Northamptonshire. Described in the 1990 edition of the local CAMRA pub guide as being a '...very sporting pub, (with) two Northants Skittles Teams...', the pub seems to be more a venue for live music these days with no league skittles play. Though the table is in good condition, the skittles set is currently missing a pin. I've seen a good few Skittles Tables bearing the name of A R Pinckard, some of which indicating that the table was refurbished rather than constructed at Kislingbury. Whether this or other tables were actually made by A R Pinckard is not clear.

The skittles table shown below and left also carries a small brass plaque, this one recording that Pat Holt of Rushden had a hand in refurbishing the table. From the appearance of the base and legs it seems likely that these required replacing

Resident at the Old Three Cocks in the Northamptonshire village of Brigstock, this table sees regular action in the Islip & District Skittles League. Sadly there are no pins or cheeses available for a casual game on the table, the match day set kept safe from harm by the home team. I suppose you could bring your own!

This is the skittles room at the Royal Oak, Walgrave, Northamptonshire. The table, along with Pool and Darts, was originally located within the pub, but the Royal Oak is now heavily reliant on food trade, and presumably the rattle of skittles play was deemed unsuitable as an accompaniment to dining. It is to the credit of the licensees that skittles remains at the pub, and that league play is still supported when so many tables have been removed altogether from village pubs such as this.

Watney Mann Skittles League 'C' Section Runner-Up 1969
Trophies and prizes are a long standing and integral part of league pub gaming. These days individual success in league or knockout competition is usually rewarded with a cup, shield, or small monetary prize. The larger trophies and shields are held for a year, usually at the home pub. In the past it seems to have been common to award medals, occasionally hallmarked silver, some of which can be seen on this blog. The prize shown above, a folding travel clock, would presumably have been a highly regarded item in its time. The brewing empire of Watney Mann was created by the merger of Watney Combe Reid, and Mann, Crossman & Paulin, and became heavily involved in the Northampton area following the takeover of local brewers Phipps NBC in 1960. Phipps beers and branding were axed towards the end of the 60's, and to help the new brands along Watney Mann became sponsors of the local Northampton Skittles League.

Phipps NBC beers were revived in the 2008, with the beers brewed under contract at the Grainstore Brewery in Rutland. Brewing has now returned to Northampton following the acquisition of the old Albion Brewery in the town centre. A traditional skittles table has been acquired for the proposed onsite bar at the brewery site, and perhaps Phipps NBC may one day sponsor a local league.

These plaques are just two from a box full of similar trophies which may well have been consigned to landfill by now. The Hillmorton Club of the Royal British Legion in Rugby closed for good a year or two ago, the membership presumably now amalgamated into the larger Rugby branch in the town centre. Skittles seems to have been popular at the club from its inception, the Skittles Table dating from 1956 which is probably when it was installed as new. Teams competed in the local Dunchurch & District Skittles League, with the mens game popular enough at the time to have had at least five league divisions (now down to four). The Dunchurch Mens and Ladies leagues are still very active in the Rugby and South Leicestershire area, with several pubs and clubs in and around Hillmorton still venues for the game.