Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Volunteer, Hereford

Of all the pubs I visited in Hereford over the course of a hot weekend in summer 2014, it's perhaps the Volunteer that I'd most heartily recommend to fellow visitors to the town. Whilst all of the pubs I spent time in had something to recommend them, some being very good pubs indeed, few were quite so all-round attractive to me, such the complete pub package as the Volunteer.

Tucked away on a quiet back-street a short stroll from the town centre, the pub sits unobtrusively amid tightly packed housing. The multi-room interior is bright, attractive, tastefully modernised, and yet still retains all of its essential pub character. There's a tidy beer garden to the rear, as well as a couple of tables to the front, ideal for watching the world go by over a pint. The kind of pub most people would regard as warm, welcoming, beautifully maintained, difficult to leave!

The Volunteer is also popular for the food, Sunday lunches in particular. The beer was good too when I visited, and it's easy to see why the bar areas and cosy snug can get very busy at times, and great to see a pub where the locals still appreciate having a proper community pub on their doorstep.

This bright and attractive aspect of the bar extends to the excellent skittle alley at the rear of the Volunteer. The pub host two teams for winter play in the thriving Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League, the Rustlers, and Evans Social Club which still bears the name of a long-since closed cider works in the town. A Summer League is slightly less popular, as is often the case with pub games when holidays and other pursuits hold sway over peoples time. A Ladies league also play through the winter season, though details are harder to find than the mens league, and it has been reported as struggling for players a little in recent years.

Hereford is perhaps unique in pub and club skittles in that whilst the alleys are entirely traditional, the nine pins used in the game are the same as those found in ten-pin bowling alleys. As you can see above, the pins are often stripped of their plastic coating, but how much the different shape impacts on the game is hard to tell. The balls shown below are the rubber-coated variety favoured by many skittlers now. These may not have the traditional look of a set of Lignum Vitae balls, but the big advantage of the softer coating is that the timber slats of the alley tend to last longer, and presumably so too do the pins. The expense of repairing and replacing an alley floor is surely just one of many reasons that skittle alleys have been removed from pubs in recent times.

In common with most skittle alleys which are still in regular use, the one at the Volunteer serves the dual purpose of a function room. Note the tables which fold down from the wall on the left of the alley. The old pub sign hanging in the alley bears the badge of the Herefordshire Light Infantry (formerly the Herefordshire Rifle Volunteers, hence the pubs name), and is dated 1964, just three years prior to the regiment being disbanded. The Herefordshire Light Infantry Museum is located across the road at Suvla Barracks, available to view by appointment only.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Plough, Prestbury, Gloucestershire

First impressions of The Plough are that this is surely the quintessential village pub. Located on a quiet backstreet opposite St Mary's Church, neatly thatched and beautifully maintained, this is certainly every tourists dream of a traditional English village pub.

Of course all too often the idyllic setting and chocolate box exterior gives way to just another thoroughly bland interior, stripped of character and opened out to squeeze a few more tables in for the diners. Thankfully the same can not be said for the interior of The Plough, being every bit as traditional, attractive, and unspoilt as you'd hope. In fact so much so that it is regarded by CAMRA as having an interior of regional importance on their inventory of Real Heritage Pubs.

A quarry tiled corridor turns right to a small hatch servery, and onwards to a very attractive orchard garden at the rear of the pub which is very popular in the summer months. A lounge to the right also has a servery, the beer drawn straight from stillaged casks, with cider from Westons a feature too.

The flagstone floored room to the left is where the locals congregate when they're not enjoying an outdoor drink, and yes, this is still very much a locals pub even though it also attracts visitors from near and far. It was in this room that the local game of Quoits was played until quite recently, though sadly the board has now been retired. Only the unusual scoreboard for the game remains, a metal version here where most are made of wood, screwed to the wall on the right hand side of the fireplace.

In this version of the game, players aim to score as many of the numbers from 1-10 as possible, claiming each number as they achieve it, and in so doing preventing the opposition from scoring that particular score by closing the appropriate flap. Other examples of this kind of scoreboard can number as high as 15.

It's not obvious at first glance where the Quoits Board would have sat, but a careful examination reveals the remnants of a line on the floor at the end of the long table on the right-hand side of the room. Presumably this would have been moved sidewards out of the way for a match. The Quoits Board is still resident at the pub, perhaps the licensees could be persuaded to bring it out for a group wanting an afternoon game.

Meanwhile, Dominoes and Cards can be found on the windowsill, as is a Shut The Box, which seems to be a very popular game in the Cheltenham area for some reason! Outdoors at the far end of the garden is a good Boules Piste which sees action throughout the summer months.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Long Alley Skittles

New Inn, Enderby, Leicestershire
Long Alley Skittles is a game of the East Midlands, specifically the counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire. The game differs from many skittle games found in the UK (and similarly many of those found throughout Europe), in that the balls (or Cheeses) are not 'bowled' along the smooth surface of an alley, but thrown full-toss, or to land just before the front pin. This is perhaps the most ancient form of skittles still played at pubs and clubs today, harking back to the game's humble origins where it would have been played over rough ground not suitable for the accurate rolling of finely turned wooden balls.

An interesting feature of Long Alley is that the term encompasses not one but two quite distinct forms of the game. At first glance they may appear identical, but there are a number of subtle yet significant differences between the game as played in Leicestershire, and the version found in the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire area.

Black Bulls Head, Openwoodgate, Derbyshire
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the location of the alley itself. In the Notts/Derby area almost all alleys are located outdoors and exposed to the elements (left), perhaps in a yard as shown here, garden, or even the pub car park. In Leicestershire the alleys are predominantly indoor affairs (above), in buildings which may have been purpose built for the game. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, particularly with those alleys located in the areas bordering the two skittling traditions such as pubs in the Wreake Valley and Vale of Belvoir. Thrussington for example is a Leicestershire village, yet the twin alleys here are located outdoors on the village green, and a good few alleys further north have been covered in recent years to permit Winter play, or relocated to a suitable outbuilding such as the one at the New White Bull, Giltbrook (the original outdoor alley still remains).

Outdoor alleys usually come equipped with an iron frame sunk into the aggregate, whereas in Leicestershire there is usually no permanent frame. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but it may be that the dense Lignum Vitae 'Cheeses' thrown in the Leicestershire game are more likely to loosen or damage a frame from the surrounding aggregate of the alley, the softer 'Balls' used in the more northerly game impacting with less damaging force. A permanent frame may also be desirable for an alley exposed to the elements as they usually are to the north.

So the Leicestershire game usually has no frame, the pins either sitting on metal discs sunk into the floor or as in the case shown above at the New Inn, Enderby, no permanent markers exist at all. Hence the home-made wooden template seen hanging on the wall of the alley, used to mark the pitted surface with yellow paint at regular intervals throughout the season.

A major difference between the two regions comes in the shape of the Balls, or Cheeses as they are generally known in Leicestershire. The ones shown above, and in the alley below, are the barrel shaped Leicestershire variety, turned from the extremely dense wood Lignum Vitae and therefore a heavy proposition in play. This set originally saw service at the now defunct Coleman Social Club in Leicester. The shape of these Cheeses have a dramatic effect on how they bounce at the business end of the alley, and in skilled hands can achieve angles which might be otherwise impossible with a regular ball. However, the lighter wooden Balls of the Notts/Derby game (right) can also be made to 'turn' in skilled hands through the application of spin when throwing.

The Skittle Alley shown above is located at the rear of the Royal Oak in Great Glen, Leicestershire, and is still in regular use for functions and casual games, though not as far as I'm aware for league play. The Royal Oak was my own local for a few years, a cosy drinkers pub tucked away down a side street, and a rare survivor in a village which had five pubs when I lived there (four now), most of which were food oriented and benefited from a good passing trade before the village was bypassed in 2003.

Compare the almost straight-sided skittle pins of the Leicestershire game at the Royal Oak to the more curved examples shown below. The pins shown below are used at the Black Bulls Head, Openwoodgate near Belper in Derbyshire, an award-winning alehouse which has been revitalised since Greene King relinquished ownership in 2012 to the current freeholders.

The alley, a traditional outdoor one, is floodlit and benefits from the shelter of an enclosed courtyard to the rear of the pub. When not in use for Skittles this makes a pleasant sun-trap beer garden during the summer months. Note the embellishment to the head of the King Pin, an unusual (dare I say phallic??) flourish by the wood turner. Whether the more curvy pins of the Notts/Derby game affect play to any degree seems unlikely. The steel brackets which share this crate with the pins hold the removable return pipe which can be set up in the yard during play.

A feature of the more northerly game which you won't generally see in Leicestershire is the steel sheet located a few feet ahead of the front pin (right). In the Leicestershire game the Cheese must bounce once before hitting the pins, and this must be past a point on the alley which is usually marked by a line or change of surface. In the Notts/Derby version the ball needs to clear a point some 42 inches ahead of the front pin, and this is marked with a loose steel sheet. A ball pitching too short will rattle the sheet making it easy to determine a foul throw.

The alley shown here is also in Belper. Arkwrights Real Ale Bar is a modern speciality beer bar associated with the members only Strutt Club above. The club field a team in the local Long Alley league, and the alley itself doubles as a covered patio drinking area for the bar when not in use. Note also the permanent Frame set into the surface of the alley.

Rules of the game of Long Alley Skittles, as displayed at the Royal Oak, Great Glen, Leics. Note that the image used actually shows a game of Old English or London Skittles, a very different game, though also one where the 'cheeses' are thrown down the alley rather than bowled.
Variation like these in what is essentially the same game are certainly not uncommon outside of Long Alley. The West Country skittling tradition for example is characterised by numerous different sizes and styles of skittle pin, alley length, and subtle variations in the rules. My view is that this is probably evidence of a time when each town or cluster of villages would have played the game to their own local rules, and where the equipment would have been made locally to no particular standard or pattern. Indeed I've seen photographs of Long Alley teams from the early 20th century where the pins are different again to those seen now. Some measure of standardisation would have come later as travel became easier, and local or regional leagues became established.

So it seems most likely to me that what we see now with the two distinct versions of the game is likely to be the result of two separate 'local' traditions meeting as the game became standardised throughout the counties, rather than a single traditional game which has somehow split into two distinct regional forms.