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.

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