|New Inn, Enderby, Leicestershire|
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.