Sunday, 31 August 2014

Robin Hood and Little John - Arnold, Nottingham

In the current climate of serial pub closures, and the chronic mis-management of many that do survive, it's always a relief when a passionate micro-brewer takes on a previously struggling pub and helps turn it around for the local community. Where the giant pubcos and larger regional brewers see pubs as just another retail outlet to be squeezed, or property investment to redevelop or sell to the highest bidder, the newer entrants such as micro-brewers are that much closer to pubs and the pub-going tradition. They still see the value of pubs to their local communities, because invariably they visit these same pubs frequently, and are of course discerning customers themselves.

Lincoln Green Brewing Co of Hucknall joined the vibrant Nottinghamshire beer and brewing scene in May 2012. The development of a small local pub estate seems to have been part of the business plan from the outset, which is of course entirely sensible for smaller breweries given the long-standing difficulties of selling into the tied pub market. The first of these pubs, a business partnership with Everards Brewery under their innovative and award-winning 'Project William' concept, has now opened in the Nottingham suburb of Arnold.

The people at Lincoln Green were quite clear from outset what they wanted from their pub, but also took the seemingly obvious, yet highly novel step of asking potential customers for their opinions too. Much of the feedback from this exercise, along with their own well-formed ideas on pubs, have been included in the refurbishment of the Robin Hood and Little John.

The separate bar (above) and lounge areas have thankfully been maintained (have we finally moved on from the knock-it-all-through 90's? I do hope so!), with a smaller 'Snug' off the bar (left). There's even an Off-Sales at the front of the pub, a much more civilised alternative to the supermarket take-home. The interior is fabulously traditional, decked out with memorabilia from the long-closed local Home Brewery, yet bright, welcoming, and thoroughly inclusive to the community it serves in a way that some speciality ale houses fail to achieve.

Traditional pub games are part of the appeal of the Robin Hood and Little John, and it's in the snug that you'll find a Dominoes table topper and Shove Ha'penny board. The Dominoes available in the bar could be a bit better quality to be honest, but the Shove Ha'penny is a good one, though be warned, the beds are quite tight, it's not an easy board to play! A set of nicely polished Ha'pennies are available from the behind the bar.

To the rear of the pub is a small patio garden area, a sun-trap enclosed on all sides, one side of which constitutes the pub's original Skittle Alley. Arnold is one of the last bastions of Long Alley Skittles play in Nottinghamshire, though now exclusively played in local clubs. The town also gives its name to the local Domino & Table Skittles league, again, now mostly played in the clubs of the area.

The alley at the Robin Hood and Little John was until recently carpeted and unused for the game, but this has helped maintain the building and iron skittles 'frame' in very good condition. There are plans to bring the alley back into use in the near future, with a couple of teams expressing interest in playing from the pub.

Pub skittle alleys like the one at the Robin Hood and Little John are becoming increasingly rare in the Nottingham area, and it would be to the credit of all concerned if this one could be preserved and rejuvenated through through regular play. One of the final phases in returning this excellent traditional local back to it's community.

Oh, and by the way, the pub serves a fabulous range of traditional ales and ciders too. But then you'd probably guessed that already!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Oadby Owl, Oadby, Leicestershire

I made brief mention of the Oadby Owl in a previous post on this much-expanded Leicestershire village, and wrongly suggested that the original Skittle Alley may not have survived recent changes at the pub. In fact the alley remains, is in very good condition, and still in regular league use, though you'd be hard-pressed to know it without asking, as it's existence is not advertised even in the pub!

The Oadby Owl is described in the 1979 edition of CAMRA's Real Ale Guide to Leicestershire & Rutland as being an 'Impressive 1930's 'International Style' building...' '...with no fewer than four bars and a skittle alley'. Built alongside the then newly opened bypass, it served the needs of travellers on the busy A6, and residents of the extensive housing which continues to grow along this stretch of road. A classic Deco-ish roadhouse, it's still an impressive looking pub from the outside, though now entirely knocked through from the original four rooms, and with a strong emphasis on dining under Greene King's Hungry Horse concept. Nevertheless, the front bar area features a games area, and still attracts a local crowd for televised sport and the like.

Alterations to a pub, like those which have occurred at the Oadby Owl, often spell the death-knell for a Skittle Alley, but a couple of factors may have worked in its favour. Firstly the alley is entirely separate to the main body of the pub (the single story red brick building seen to the right of the frontage in the top image). Given the size of the pub and extensive car parking available, there would have been little pressure to create more usable space by converting such a small outbuilding.

Regular weekly Long Alley Skittles play in the Tom Bishop Memorial Skittles League seems to have continued for many years at the Owl, essential for the survival of alleys like this. Local team the Oadby Owls play in summer, winter and knockout competitions, and presumably the alley is available for casual games and functions at other times.

From the sunken 'mott' to the cast iron 'frame' and heavy rubber sheets at the business end of the alley, it's clear that this has always been a skittle alley and not a conversion of an already existing outhouse. Many breweries in the East Midlands included a skittle alley in their new-build pubs as standard, such was the popularity of game throughout most of the 20th century. The practice 'cheeses' (below) seem to be marked for the Black Dog, a recently refurbished Oadby pub with its own alley, though currently not in use for league play.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Barrels, Hereford

Some people will tell you that what makes a pub 'good' is the availability of good beer, ideally a wide variety of it from small and obscure breweries. Some might even say that beer alone defines the quality of a pub and that everything else is secondary, maybe even detrimental to their singular enjoyment of malt & hop. Food, families, televised sport, youngsters, dogs, locals treating the place like it's their local! These are all reasons that people give for pubs being less 'good' than they'd like. Trust me, I've heard them!

Each to their own of course, and pubs at their best may even succeed in being all things to all men, but I'm certainly not one of those who judge a pub purely on the quality and/or variety of beers available. For me, the essence of a good pub is not to be found in a row of bewilderingly labelled handpumps dispensing a lottery of beer styles and novelty flavour. For me it's more likely to be the row of locals propping up the bar, the quorum of drinkers shuffling Dominoes on a Sunday afternoon, the licensee with the time and inclination to chat with a stranger rather than spend the evening cultivating an impenetrable local clique. It's these things that make for a good pub in my opinion. These and many other things, and good beer of course.

Without the sociable chat and shared experience that comes with people who are prepared to engage with us over a pint, a pub can be little more than a functional and impersonal drinks retailer, a restaurant, a mini-beer festival, a 'geeky', mono-cultural experience. Which is not to say that these are in any way bad experiences, just different, not pub experiences in my view.

Some of the best pub-going experiences I've had in recent years have been those where I've popped in for a Guinness in a slightly dodgy but warmly welcoming back-street boozer. Pubs which may be entirely bereft of real ale or craft beer. Pubs which may be a little bit rough and ready, yet brim-full of vibrant, interesting, often slightly drunk locals, happy to talk and laugh, happy to share, maybe even happy to sing! It's this easy, sociable mix which is often missing from pubs in the 21st century in my experience. An optional extra rather than the main feature of pub-going.

Of course when a pub is at it's very best, the beer and bonhomie come together as a perfect package. The kind of perfection in pubs like the award-winning Barrels in Hereford. The cosy front bar of this flagship Wye Valley Brewery pub is the kind of place you're unlikely to escape from without being drawn into the conversation. For enthusiasts of proper pubs like myself, it's how all pubs should be, the local we all wish we had on our doorstep. Run with great care and more than a little love by both the brewery owners and licensee, and loved in turn by the eclectic mix of locals and visitors who beat a path to the Barrels and help make it not only one of the best pubs in Hereford, but certainly up there with the very best in the country. It also sells a very good pint of beer.

Like all the very best pubs, the Barrels hosts a wide range of activities in addition to the basics of offering a great pint. This includes regular music sessions, and a strong line-up of traditional games, including Cribbage, Darts, Pool, Skittles, and Table Football, with representation in several local leagues.

The fine Skittle Alley is located on the upper floor of outbuildings which overlooks a pleasant courtyard drinking area to the rear of the pub. Several teams call the Barrels home (left), with Winter and Summer competition in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League.

Note the use of 10-pin bowling 'skittles' at the Barrels, the standard for league play in Hereford, though slightly unusual for skittles in the South West of England.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

More Darts Images

Vintage Darts medal by Pinches Medallions of London (Est. 1840)
In common with most of the more traditional pub games, the bar-room staple of Darts is undoubtedly in decline. Whilst this mirrors the more general decline in pubs and pub-going of the late 20th century onward, the game is also disappearing from those town centre and rural pubs which survive, and in some cases thrive. This is particularly so where food has taken over from drinking as a pubs main focus, and it's also probably true that pubs and bars in the very centre of town are wary of having sharp objects thrown about at the weekend!

This situation would have been hard to believe only a few decades ago, at a time when Darts had made a very successful transition from pub to televised sport, and a pub's Darts Board would rarely have been out of use. It's worth remembering though that Darts itself would have usurped other once popular pub games such as Indoor Quoits and Shove Ha'penny. Indeed for younger drinker like myself in the 80's and 90's, Pool was the game of choice, the cool tinge of Americana being far more attractive than the native Arrows.

Darts clings on though, and is as popular as ever in the more traditional, though sadly dwindling backstreet boozers and social clubs. The strong association which many feel between Darts and proper pubs mean that a board may still be considered an essential part of an otherwise radical modernisation of a struggling pub. The Three Crowns in Oakham underwent just such a refurbishment last year, but in common with most of the Steamin' Billy estate, space for a Darts Board was found, shown here reflected in an old Shipstones Brewery mirror.

The original Steamin' Billy pub was a conversion of farm buildings near the village of Stoughton in Leicestershire. The Cow & Plough quickly established itself as the premier real ale pub in Leicestershire, and gave owners Barry & Liz Lount the opportunity to display some of their extensive collection of pub and brewery related ephemera. The Cow & Plough has evolved over the years, extended to the front from the original core, and now as popular for the attached restaurant as the traditionally styled tap room.

The original bar area has been brightened up in recent years (above), and includes a Darts Board and a pair of vintage Automatic Darts Scorers (below), probably manufactured by Bissets of London. This type of scorer is still quite common in pubs, though more often a modern(ish) electronic version. By dialling in your score, the three numbers above count down automatically from 365. Simple enough arithmetic on a chalk board, but it's surprising how many people are put off playing the game seriously because of the tricky subtraction involved.

The Darts Board at the White Lion in Oakham, Rutland is set at a slight angle due to the shape of the building and the location of a piano. The pub was once a hotbed of Darts play in the county, with several boards dotted around the bar area. They were certainly well-used at the time when the pub team became the National Darts Association Champions for 1970 in a competition sponsored by The People newspaper.

An assortment of 'Arrows', including an older style of chunky Brass bodied Marksman Super League Dart, and the thinner modern equivalents formed of Tungsten alloy. Tungsten Darts are the norm for play now, the thinner bodies being easier to 'stack' in the treble 20, whilst maintaining the weight required for a good throw. Brewers were as keen to advertise in the Darts arena as any other pub game, and the two branded Darts sets featured here are adorned with the famous harp logo of Guinness, and the Red Squirrel of the long closed Ansells Brewery in Aston, Birmingham (formerly the logo of Birmingham's Holt Brewery).

One of several Darts Boards in the Function/Games room of the Herdsman pub, Hereford

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Two Gloucester Pubs

The Plough Inn is a welcome survivor in an area which has lost many traditional boozers in recent years. Walking out to the Plough from the town centre you can't help but be impressed and saddened in equal measures by the impressive tiled exteriors of the Vauxhall Inn and Robin Hood Inn, both long since closed and converted to alternate use.

The Plough has a much humbler exterior than these two, a simple rendered brick corner local on a back-street of a typical terraced residential area. The kind of pub which is being lost to the pressure for development and changing public tastes at a truly alarming rate throughout the country. It's a fine pub for the old-fashioned pastimes of drinking, conversation, and perhaps a game or two But sadly it's a little off the beaten track, and very much off the radar for many drinkers as there's no real ale, no craft-keg specialities, only traditional cider from Somerset producer Thatchers. That's a great shame as it's well worth spending time in pubs like the Plough Inn, even if it means taking a short break from your hobby.

The Darts Board is the main gaming feature of the Plough, viewed above through the servery (and reflected in a mirror) in the main bar area at the front of the building. On Sunday lunchtimes it's the Shove Ha'penny which comes into play, the fine smooth slate of a type common to the West Country taking pride of place in the smaller back bar. The highly polished and smoothed coins are available from behind the bar, and an angle-poise lamp provides the illumination needed to determine accurately the lie of the Ha'pennies during a game.

Summertime is the off-season for Skittles in Gloucester and elsewhere in the West Midlands and West Country. With holidays booked and outdoor pursuits to the fore, it's much harder to get a team up in the summer so most leagues leave the alleys to private functions and corporate team-building events. As a result skittle alleys in the West Country are unusually quiet in the summer, but still often available for a casual game with friends.

The chances of a game are increased twofold at the Englands Glory pub in Gloucester, which has the slightly unusual distinction of having a very fine double alley. The Gloucester City Skittles League remains well supported with close to 200 teams competing in the various divisions and regions of the league.

The view from the Sticker Up's end (above) shows that these alleys are all timber in construction. Many skittle alleys in the area are either painted or resin covered concrete, or feature an iron or steel 'frame' for the pins to sit on at the end of the wooden floored alley itself. A refuge exists between the two alleys for the Sticker Up, the lads and lasses who perform the all-important job of re-setting the pins and returning the balls down the integral side-chutes (below).