Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Vaga Tavern, Hereford

Alongside the extensive free-trade supplied throughout the West Midlands and beyond, Herefordshire's Wye Valley Brewery has a small but growing estate of excellent traditional pubs. Good news for anyone who, like me, greatly appreciate their pale, hoppy, and wonderfully refreshing Hereford Pale Ale (HPA) on a hot summers day, or the superb rich Dorothy Goodbody's Wholesome Stout when it's not so warm. I've been great a fan of Wye Valley ales since the brewery's early days when based in a stable block at the rear of the then Lamb Inn in Hereford. Subsequently re-named The Barrels, this is still essentially the brewery tap even though the brewery has re-located, and a must-visit ale house for beer fans and pub enthusiasts alike.

The Vaga Tavern is one of several recent additions to the Wye Valley estate, and another which is well worth seeking out for a pint in the city. Located a short walk from the centre of town, and perhaps best approached via a pleasant walk alongside the river Wye rather than attempting to negotiate the labyrinthine streets of the Hunderton Estate which the pub serves. It's a terrific community local, an ideal fit for the brewery who's mission statement includes a desire to champion '... pubs as important parts of local communities'. An excellent sentiment, and one worthy of raising a pint of HPA to when next you visit Hereford.

Local pub games are very well represented at the Vaga in the shape of a very tidy Skittle Alley projecting off the public bar. A Quoits Board is also in use, though currently only in the Wednesday night Womens League due to a mix-up with scheduling the mens game. League fixtures for Darts and Pool are also firm favourites with the locals at the Vaga Tavern.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Some Western Skittles Images

This fine old alley is located on the upper floor of an extension at the rear of the Black Lion in Hereford. The pub itself is a venerable 16th century inn, strategically placed near the older crossing of the River Wye, and despite having a strong focus on dining these days retains much of its character and charm as a drinking venue.

A slightly unusual feature of the nine-pin game in Hereford is the use of 10-pin bowling pins as opposed to the usual stubby skittles found throughout the West Midlands and West Country. Traditionalists may frown on this but they do the job perfectly well, and even look the part when stripped of their white plastic coating.

Why is it that the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League went over to this style of pin? On a day when I visited several pubs with alleys in the area, no-one I spoke to seemed to know the reason, and the league website gives no clues which suggests it's been this way for quite a good few years. Perhaps they were easier or cheaper to source than the expensive traditional pins, and it may be that modestly priced cast-offs from the ten-pin game are effectively 're-cycled' for skittle play in the area.

Thomas Fattorini (1864-1934) was the head of a Birmingham silversmiths which has a long association with producing medals, trophies and plaques, including many for league and cup pub game competition such as the one shown here. This sterling silver and gilded medal dates from 1930, and was originally attached to a short watch chain by the same maker. The game is of course nine-pin skittles of the type played predominantly in the South West of the country. Who it was originally presented to, and for what is not known as the back has not been engraved in this case. The company of Fattorini continues to this day, and still produces a range of trophies and medals for games and sport.

The alley shown above, carpeted for use as a function room when not in use for skittles, is located at the rear of the Somerset Arms in Cheltenhams Leckhampton area. The Somerset is one of the more traditional drinking pubs in Cheltenham, located on a backstreet near the Bath Road, and as such needs a little searching out. You'll be rewarded with a very welcoming locals pub and a decent pint of ale, as well as the now rare sight of a working Pinball Table at the rear of the bar area.

The eight lockable doors at the rear of alley (right) hold the skittle sets used by the various teams which play from the pub, currently numbering over half a dozen in the Cheltenham Skittles League. The alley record of 69 (below), held by Wayne Hyde, is recorded on a beam over the alley.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Sir Frank Whittle, Lutterworth (closed!)

In the current climate of rapid change and decline in the pub market, it's inevitable that I'll occasionally feature pubs on this blog which have subsequently gone on to close, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for good. It's not often I feature a pub which has already closed though. I always try to accentuate the positive in a pub whenever possible so what would be the point of that!

By posting about the Sir Frank Whittle, a pub sold to the Midlands Cooperative Society by brewers Marston's, and subsequently closed despite strong local opposition, it's perhaps hard to find the positives in yet another example of market forces riding roughshod over local feeling. But I feel it's important to accentuate the positives of what is essentially a sad, if all too common tale. That way people might have a better understanding of just what it is we're losing when community locals like the Sir Frank Whittle close forever.

Because sadly there are still far too many people who consider themselves 'campaigners' for the traditions of beer and pub-going who just don't see the value of pubs like the Sir Frank Whittle. Pubs which don't offer a bewildering array of rare micro-brewery beers, or the latest novelty craft keg specialities, but simply deliver the goods for the locals who use them in an unfussy and unpretentious way. A pub like the Sir Frank Whittle may not be the most exciting proposition for drinkers who view pubs as just mini-beer festivals, but in my view it's pubs like this which represent the very best of our traditional drinking culture. A culture where the beer is the tasty alcoholic lubricant of a good social experience, an accompaniment to a good night out, not the whole point of it.

The Sir Frank Whittle was a two-room 1970's new-build estate pub of a type which was once so common in England as to be utterly unremarkable, even (or particularly) to those who called themselves 'locals'. Originally named The Balloon, the interior was typically clean, modern, and functional. No-frills, a pub very much of its time but certainly none the worse for it. Built for a purpose, and that purpose was as an important social hub for the extensive new-build housing which surrounds it, and which even now continues to be built on the north side of Lutterworth.

The Sir Frank Whittle would have been a true drinking, socialising, and gaming pub. The 'public' equivalent of the many private members social and political clubs which were once also at the heart of working class communities. It's pubs like this which brewery owners Marston's built their Midlands empire on, but sadly Marston's have fallen out of love with community drinking pubs. For many years now they, and many other large-scale brewers and pub owning companies like them, have abjectly failed to invest in the fabric of pubs like this, and in so doing failed to look after the trade which would maintain them as viable businesses. Marston's quite obviously see little future in pubs like this, instead preferring to milk their ever declining trade whilst building new family dining venues to replace them. These soulless pseudo-pubs are springing up everywhere now, often on the side of retail parks, and at the expense of hundreds of historic locals and community pubs like the Sir Frank Whittle. It's the total-shopping/leisure future apparently, but not one I have any great appetite for.

As an aside, it's hard to imagine where a traditional brewery like the one Marston's run fits into this bland new pub future, where the family dining experience is the primary focus, and parents are increasingly frowned upon for having an alcoholic drink in the presence of their children!

The interior of the Sir Frank Whittle was extensively refurbished by the last licensees just a few years ago, and whilst obviously lacking the olde-worlde charm of pre-war buildings, the result was an attractive and comfortable pub which most people would enjoy drinking or dining in. Sadly, Marston's refused to do a similar job on the exterior of the pub, a necessity which would have gone a long way to attracting new or lapsed trade, and possibly even securing the future of the pub. But that was clearly not Marston's intention. As I've already said, this once proud and highly regarded brewer has fallen out of love with pubs.

When I visited, the beer was in excellent condition and the pub beautifully maintained. This was of course a skittles pub, the table equally well-maintained and only recently retired from league play. The licensee was sad but resigned to the closure of the pub, and had already made plans for the future. It was particularly sad to enjoy such a good pint in an attractive pub knowing the builders would be along within days to rip it all out, another good pub lost.

Not the last time it will see service, plans were already in hand to relocate the skittles table elsewhere, but certainly one of the last 9's at the Sir Frank Whittle before the pub closed forever.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Quoits in Herefordshire

In common with other pub and club games such as the various indoor skittle variants, and the now extinct Suffolk version of Quoits, it's likely that Indoor Quoits developed directly from, and was probably played alongside the hugely popular outdoor version of the game/sport. Quoits was once played throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, and can still be found to this day in a few areas of northern and eastern England, and parts of Wales. A strenuous outdoor pursuit which involves the hurling of heavy iron rings over varying distances to land as close to, or ideally over a short spike projecting from a 'bed' of clay. Not a game that lends itself to the chill of Winter then.

Hence the development of a number of indoor versions, a way to keep your hand in and satisfy the urge for competition when the outdoor game held no appeal. The only version of the indoor game which can still be found in pubs and clubs to this day is the one played in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and the Welsh Borders. Known variously as Step Quoits, Table Quoits, Dobbers, or just plain Quoits, this game can still be found in the more traditional pubs and clubs of the region. Quoits is still played at league level throughout this area, but with most players tending to be in the upper age-range, and ever more of the traditional locals where the game finds a natural home closing for good, the game's future is far from secure.

The Quoits 'board' shown above is resident at the Rose & Crown in the leafy suburbs of Hereford city. This pub is now one of Greene King's 'Meet & Eat' venues, and could quite easily have lost its games area entirely during the recent refurbishment. This concrete 'board' is entirely typical of those found throughout Hereford and further afield, although wooden boards like the one featured here are also common. The colour scheme is traditional, though not every board follows this pattern, indeed the board I have is made from plainly varnished ply wood. The welded steel frame which the board sits on is also a standard feature of the game in Hereford, the netting designed to prevent too many errant Quoits landing on the floor.

The basis of the game is very simple, and lends itself well to both mens and womens leagues. Four rubber Quoits (above) are thrown from a distance similar to a Darts throw, the aim being to land the Quoits either directly over the Peg or Hob (5 points), fall squarely in the sunken inner ring (2 points), or outer ring (1 point). The Quoits have a black side and a white side, and they must land white-side up to score. In play, men seem to go for the risky peg shot (more likely to flip onto the non-scoring black side, or bounce off the board entirely if missed), whilst women prefer a more steady accumulation of points by landing their quoits in the rings. A major part of the skill in this game is using subsequent throws to nudge previously thrown quoits out of the outer ring and into the higher scoring inner zone.

Scoring indoor quoits takes many forms, but in the Hereford league it is similar to the game of Darts, ie. run down from a starting score of 101. Singles and Doubles games are played as part of a league match, with the usual array of cup knock-out matches and competitions for individuals running alongside the league.

The Hereford City Mens League runs through the Summer months, and is now down to just six participating teams. The Brewers Arms (which will feature in a future post on this blog) is the most recent addition, the Quiots Boards and team originally resident of the now closed, and much loved Cotterell Arms in the city.

These images show a Wednesday night Quoits match in the Hereford Womens League. The frosted glass window (above) looks in on the unspoilt Golden Lion pub on Grandstand Road. This pub is a friendly two bar local on the edge of the city, and comes complete with Aviary, Fishpool, and a fine old Skittle Alley at the rear. It's the kind of pub that's hard to see staying unspoilt forever, so I recommend a visit sooner rather than later, though there is no real ale, just cider.

Scoring the game whilst a baseball hatted Golden Lion (one of many in the bar) looks on from the Pool Table. With the match finished (the home team won), and a supper delivered to the ladies, the licensee has a few throws to keep her hand in (below). World Cup Football takes second place on the television tonight.