Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Saracens Head, Worcester

Turn right out of Worcester's Foregate rail station and you'll find the road to Barbourne still has a good few pubs along its length. There's a Wetherspoon if you like that kind of thing, and a cluster of more traditional pubs on or near The Tything. These include noted alehouse the Dragon Inn, and the slim profile of the Lamb & Flag. The latter retaining its traditional two small rooms where so many similar pubs have been knocked through for convenience. The Lamb & Flag is famed not only for the quality of its Guinness, but it's also the home of the Worcester Backgammon Club and a World Conker Championships in October.

Another pub which retains a traditional multi-room layout is the Saracens Head, a busy locals pub on the Tything, and the only one on this stretch of road with a Skittle Alley (until you reach the suburb of Barbourne itself where the Swan Inn is also equipped for the local game). At first glance the Saracens Head looks barely big enough to house a Table Skittles set, never mind a full-size alley, but the modest frontage of the pub is deceptive, concealing a premises which stretches back quite some way.

The Saracens Head has a reputation as one of the more popular pubs in this area of Worcester, and was certainly one of the busiest when I visited over the course of a long weekend during the recent rugby world cup. Televised sport plays an important part in this popularity, and I was advised by locals that the pub could get very busy during major sporting events. This makes it all the more surprising that the pub had actually closed in April of this year, the previous licensees citing the excessive rent charged by the pubs owners. Thankfully the pub is open again, and hopefully a permanent fixture of The Tything, but this gives the lie to those who seem to think only badly run or poorly supported pubs close, the Saracens Head being anything but!

A long, covered cobble-stone yard to the right of the pub gives access to the front and rear bars, and leads eventually to the sizeable skittle alley/function room. The front bar (above) seems to be the main social and gaming hub of the Saracens Head, and this is where you'll find the pubs well-used Darts Board, with home matches played on Wednesday nights in the Worcester Darts League.

Whilst numerous alleys have been lost to pub closures and refurbishments in recent years (the Bridge Inn was in the process of closing when I visited), skittles is still popular and well supported in Worcester. The game is played at the Saracens Head in Division 1 of the Wednesday night Worcester Friendly Skittles League, and having spoken to several people involved in the game over the weekend, the alley at the Saracens Head is regarded as one of the best in the area.

The pub also plays host to a knockout competition in the summer, a time of the year when many players would prefer not to commit to league play. Invitation competitions like this offer the chance for skittlers to keep their hand in during the lengthy off-season.

Monday, 14 December 2015

General Elliott, Willoughby Waterleys, Leicestershire

I would guess that most people remember the occasion of their first pint in a pub. Often underage, probably buoyed by the company of friends, and something of a right of passage for many. For me it was a case of 'in at the deep end', a true novice amongst experienced drinkers, and a tentative introduction to what was then an alien and unfamiliar adult world.

As a boy, my only direct experience of the pub was on errands for cigarettes and chocolate, peering through the 'Off Sales' hatch of what would eventually become my local, the Black Horse in Aylestone. From there you could see the blokes propping up the bar, smoking, chatting, sinking pints. Couldn't miss the fug of stale beer and tobacco smoke. A strange and frankly uninviting environment it must be said.

I don't recall ever being taken inside a pub as a youngster, so when I started work as an apprentice at the tender age of 15, the regular work-time 'liquid lunches' in the company of adults were a new experience for me. I guess that's why that very first occasion, a long lunchtime boozing session with the men, the 3.5 tonner parked discreetly round the corner, sticks in my mind so clearly.

The General Elliott was the pub, Draught Bass the beer, and the tiny snug to the right of the front door the venue for two or three hours of solid afternoon drinking. A risky, dangerous, and quite probably sackable offence, and yet a common and regular occurrence at the time. Needless to say, I look back on those days with a mixture of horror (there was no designated driver!), and huge affection for what was probably a golden era of pub-going, the like of which we will undoubtedly never see again.

I recall visiting the General Elliott several years later as part of some cycling adventure or other. I can't remember whether the little snug still existed then, but apparently it's been gone for a good while. The pub now consists of a single L-shaped room. A snug-like area remains to the right of the entrance where the original separate room once was, the pubs traditional Skittles Table and Dart Board located at the other end. Though it's certainly changed a fair bit since my first visit, the General Elliot is still very much a traditional village local, and revitalised in the hands of enthusiastic new licensees when I visited in the summer.

A typically short entry in CAMRA's 1979 guide to Real Ale in Leicestershire & Rutland confirms the two room layout, as well as the existence of Table Skittles. The Northampton made W T Black & Son skittles table is probably in much the same location as it was back then, though whether the legs had been modified with a set of wheels as it is now, I couldn't say. It definitely didn't live in the smaller snug, and we didn't play a game back then in the early 80's.

The General Elliott currently fields two teams in the Dunton Bassett Skittles League, and a more general Games Night is held on Tuesdays.

In recent years the pub had kept somewhat limited 'rural' opening hours, but weekday lunchtime opening has now been restored by the current licensees, and an improved beer range to match. I'm pleased to say that the Draught Bass is still popular with the locals, and this lovely traditional village pub is a great destination for food, drink, maybe even a game of skittles.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Black Horse, Caythorpe, Nottinghamshire

Anyone who's ever wasted valuable time trying to find an open pub in a rural area, with or without the aid of an up-to-date guide, will know how increasingly rare it is to find a pub of any kind in the 'sticks' these days. This is particularly true of smaller villages and hamlets with their modest local populations and minimal passing trade. Chances are that when you do find one though it will be a pretty decent pub, albeit one with more of an emphasis on food than drink these days.

In the hour or two I spent at the Black Horse in Caythorpe, passing trade seemed to be almost non-existent. The pub presumably derives some benefit from its location close to the River Trent and the nearby fishing and boating lakes, but occasional visits from walkers, boaters, and fishermen alone can't keep a pub like the Black Horse open. For that it needs the enthusiastic support of its locals, and perhaps something a bit special to attract pub enthusiasts like myself. It also helps if you can offer a beer range which is slightly different, ideally better than the one that so many tied pubs are saddled with.

Being a freehouse and offering beers from the tiny Caythorpe Brewery, located in an outbuilding at the rear of the pub, certainly helps in this regard, although the bar room staple of Draught Bass is still popular with regulars, as it is with me. The beer is very good of course, and for some, this alone might make the detour from the main road worthwhile. For me though, it's the beautifully unspoilt interior that drew me to the pub, which along with the warm welcome from the licensees is presumably a large part of the attraction for the locals too. It has also been recognised by CAMRA, featuring on their list of unspoilt heritage interiors.

The pub has been extended in more recent years, and a lobby which links the two original rooms covers much of the red brick frontage. The slightly larger main bar is to the right of the entrance (above), featuring old fixed bench seating and a bar counter in the corner with the all-important handpumps, at least one of which dispenses a beer from the in-house brewery, best bitter Dover Beck when I visited.

It's the smaller snug to the left of the entrance that most appeals to me. The word 'cosy' is of course terribly overused in descriptions of pubs, I'm as guilty of that as anyone, but this really is a place to settle in for the night with friends and a few pints. A wood burner cosies things up even further in the winter, the diminutive size of the place conducive to the age-old tradition of a chinwag over a pint or two. This room also acts as the games room of the pub, home to a Darts Board as well as all the equipment needed for the rattle of Dominoes or the shuffle of Cards. There's even a Shove Ha'penny available, though little used these days.

The Black Horse keeps fairly traditional opening hours, which means a lunchtime and evening session, not all day, and the pub is closed Mondays. It's probably best phone and check if you choose to divert this way yourself. It's also a traditional adults-only venue, so don't bring the kids!

Friday, 27 November 2015

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.25

I'm indebted to my friend and fellow pub games enthusiast John Penny for the above image, which shows pub games writer and historian Arthur Taylor spinning one of Johns handmade Norfolk (or Dorset) Twisters in the bar of his local, the Rose & Crown, Bradford Abbas, Dorset. Arthur is accompanied here by Mary Ashby, licensee and custodian of this historic Dorset pub. Arthur Taylor is the foremost authority on British traditional pub games, and has written several books on the subject including the current definitive reference work, 'Played at the Pub: The Pub Games of Britain'.

The game of Twister is essentially a simplified version of Roulette, and in days gone by, the focus of illicit gambling activity in the Tap Rooms and Parlour Bars where they were installed. Quite a rare regional curiosity now, this and games like it were probably more widespread at one time, but given the nature of the game it's perhaps no surprise that they've all but disappeared from the licensed trade now. Only a handful of original examples survive in situ, mostly located at pubs in the Eastern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. Of course those that have survived are no longer used for their original purpose, more likely games involving forfeits, or perhaps deciding who's round it is next. John Penny has introduced (or re-introduced) the game to his native Dorset, where this and at least two other examples can be found.

Note the sign above the doorway for the pubs equally historic Skittle Alley. The Rose & Crown's alley features in possibly the oldest filmed record of a skittles game in progress, a 1936 British Movietone newsreel, pithily entitled 'Athletics' (below). In this wonderful old footage, four 'Lads of the Village', boasting a combined age of 357 at the time of filming, are seen delivering heavyweight balls down the pubs skittle alley. The 'Lads' are obviously old-hands at the game, achieving some measure of accuracy in the task if perhaps not the 'weight' of their youth. The commentary deals with the subject in a typically patronizing style common to these early newsreels, particularly when dealing with the everyday pursuits of ordinary working folk. But there's no doubting the authenticity of the game, which was probably only slightly staged for the cameras! In fact looking at this footage it's remarkable how little the game has changed in the intervening 80-odd years.

Whilst Northamptonshire Table Skittles, or Hood Skittles is almost unheard of outside of the East Midlands, it was a popular enough game in its post-war heyday to have spread to all the surrounding counties. This widespread popularity has certainly contracted in recent years. The game is still relatively common in the counties of Bedfordshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire, but in others such as Cambridgeshire, Huntingdon and Oxfordshire, Skittles Tables are thin on the ground and rarely supported by league play.

Buckinghamshire is not regarded as having any surviving skittles tradition as far as I can tell, and yet just over the border from Northamptonshire, a good 'Peppers' brothers table stands ready for play in the bar of the Fox & Hounds in Stony Stratford (above & below). Apparently another table exists at a social club in the town, and it seems likely that the game was once popular throughout the area, perhaps even further south and into Hertfordshire.

Green and Red seems to be the traditional colour scheme for indoor Quoits Board everywhere. The only exception to this universal convention is where the wooden or concrete boards have been left un-painted, and even the modern manufactured boards by Jaques have a green outer ring and red inner. I doubt whether anyone knows why this might be, but tradition counts for a lot in pub games, as indeed it does in many other pastimes.

This Quoits Board breaks the mould by having a pale blue surround, but everything else about it is entirely correct. Constructed from Pitch Pine, thickly painted, and with a chain attached for hanging up in the bar of whatever pub it originally came from. I purchased this Quoits Board from a dealer, and needless to say he claimed to know nothing of its history!

This standardised design, in both colour and dimensions, is slightly unusual for a regional pub game based almost entirely on locally hand-made equipment. Some of the boards I've seen, this one included, are quite old and clearly homemade, and I would have expected some measure of variation from league to league, particularly given that the rules of the game do indeed vary significantly across the games current heartland of the Three Counties and Welsh Border area. Such is the nature of 'lowly' pub games like these that very few records exist from their earlier days. Pub gaming being so commonplace and taken for granted even now, that written accounts are scarce.

Of all the many different Cribbage Boards that have been fabricated over the years, it's the homemade examples that particularly fascinate me. Most are fairly rough and ready it's true, knocked-up from an offcut of wood, no fancy embelishments, simply designed to do a job. Others are pieces of real craftsmanship, often made from exotic and expensive timbers, beautifully inlaid and bearing a deep patina acquired from many decades of use. For my taste, manufactured Cribbage Boards lack this indefinable 'social' heritage, the human touch of an object knocked-up in a shed by a pub regular.

What manufactured boards lack in simple rustic charm, they make up for in build quality, design, and finish. The Cribbage Board shown here for example is a fairly simple board, a cheap enough item, inlaid with thin laminates of more expensive timbers, but with an extra design feature to accommodate the rare occasion of a three player game. This third scoring track was probably not often used since both Cribbage and Dominoes are traditionally played by four people as a game of Doubles. Nevertheless, it's a nice feature which covers all bases, and I particularly like the way the swinging arm conceals a row of holes for three sets of Crib Pegs. A clever design feature.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Shoving Games

Many of the traditional pub games we see now have developed as scaled-down versions of much larger competitive games. Usually it was simply a case of miniaturising for the convenience of play in pokey Tap Rooms and Parlour Bars. Often too it was a way of bringing outdoor games such as Quoits and Skittles indoors, maintaining play during the inclement winter months.

Shove Ha'penny is a good example of this, a miniaturised version of a game known as 'Shovel Board' which was once highly fashionable amongst the gentry. Shovel Board was a fairly simple game which involved sliding metal or wooden 'pucks' up a highly polished, often very long table. The aim was to land your puck as close to the end of the table without overshooting and sliding off the end. Points were scored, and wagers were commonly placed on the outcome.

Shovel Boards, like the one shown above in the 'Audit Room' of Boughton House in Northamptonshire, were by necessity games of the larger country houses and stately homes since nowhere else could easily house (or afford) such a huge piece of carpentry. Inevitably, what was a fashionable game of the wealthy filtered down to the masses, and smaller versions of the game, measured in feet rather than yards, became popular in the drinking establishments of more common folk. Several Shovel Boards survive in the stately homes of England and Wales, but these smaller 'Tavern' tables are very rare indeed. Of those that have survived they are often only distinguishable from ordinary farmhouse tables by the lines scored into them for play, but they do occasionally surface in the antiques trade.

Smaller they may have been, but they were still bulky and expensive fixtures of a public house, so further miniaturisation of the game to that which we see now was perhaps inevitable.

An afternoon game of Pushpenny at the Organ Grinder in Lougborough
Pushpenny is the rarer, and possibly earlier cousin of Shove Ha'penny. Old English pennies are used in the game of Pushpenny, smoothed and polished on one side and with a slight bevel on the edge to stop the coin 'digging in'. The board is similar in size to a Shove Ha'penny, but the nine beds are wider to accommodate the bigger coins. The rules are similar, though only three pennies are shoved up the board as opposed to the five of Shove Ha'penny.

Old Pushpenny boards like the one shown here occasionally surface in the antiques and collectibles trade, particularly in those few areas where the game is still played. This board is a classic Stamford Pushpenny, the Lincolnshire town being one of only two places in the country where the game is still played at league level, the other being the Hastings area of Sussex. This Stamford board has been made from a fairly slim piece of highly polished Mahogany, most likely recycled from a redundant piece of furniture. There's a shallow dip in the surface at the end of the board to receive over-hit coins, and a vertical end-stop. The lead-in is barely wider than the beds, which is uniquely the standard for the Stamford game. These Pushpenny boards are also characterised by having extremely smooth polished playing surfaces, the lightest touch required to score in the first bed, and all too easy to overshoot the last one.

This heavyweight Shove Ha'penny gives a good illustration of the condition that many of these old boards are in when found in the antiques trade. Liberally smothered with the very worst kind of sticky oil and wax finish, in a pointless effort to 'age' what is already quite clearly an item of some vintage. Bees Wax and oil based finishes like this effectively make the board unplayable, and need to be carefully removed. A jar of White Spirit and a lot of elbow-grease will eventually remove the worst of the wax, and help reveal the beauty of the old wood as shown here.

This is a slightly unusual board in that the beds are quite wide for a Shove Ha'penny, though narrow for a Pushpenny. Older boards like this probably pre-date the commercial production of Shove Ha'penny boards by Jaques, Wisden etc. which may explain why the spacings and dimensions are often slightly different to later examples, a vestige of how the game would have been played when more local rules applied. This is a very high quality board, the scoring zones at the side are made of slate, and there's a good quality Brass end rail at the curved end.

Just a few of the many different 'coins' which have been shoved up polished wood in pubs and clubs over the years. From left: Victorian Penny, smoothed and polished on the 'Brittania' side for Pushpenny. Also shown is a set with the Monarch side smoothed off, regarded by some as something of a heinous crime! Half Penny, this one a George VI but many others are used including the earlier Britannia design. Again, these have had the monarchs head smoothed off. St Georges Series, a silvered brass shove ha'penny token manufactured in tandem with various boards, probably post-war or later. Trumans Tap Bitter, brewery advertising tokens for Shove Ha'penny. Half Penny Tokens, based on the 'ship' half penny design, but blank and with a raised-edge on the reverse. Jaques London, manufactured tokens by the famous London games retailer. French 5 Centimes, there are two of these along with three Victorian half pennies. These were given to me by a friend, and were originally used by his father, and possibly grandfather who operated a pub in London. These coins have been smoothed on the reverse, and are wafer thin from decades of use and polishing.

This Slate Shove Ha'penny is one of the cheaper (possibly later) variations on the 'Challenger' board, supposedly issued for play by the Shove Ha'penny Control Association. The design is identical, the cast metal end stop replaced here with a plastic version carrying advertising for a popular cigarette brand.

My recent visit to the Albion Brewery Tap in Northampton was principally to view the Northamptonshire Skittles Table and Bar Billiards. I was later informed that the bar also has this Shove Ha'penny available for play.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Beeston, Nottinghamshire

The Victoria Hotel, the first pub that greets you on arrival at Beeston rail station
The Nottinghamshire town of Beeston lies at the southern edge of the unique Derby/Notts Long Alley Skittles tradition, though sadly league play in the town has now dwindled to just a handful of pubs and clubs. Just how much of a skittling stronghold Beeston once was can be gauged by the number of outdoor alleys which still exists at pubs in the town, most sadly no longer in use, some unusable.

A good example of this can be found at the predominantly food oriented White Lion in the centre of town, (opposite the shiny new Tram stop). What appears to be a fully functioning covered skittle alley can be found in the pubs garden, but closer inspection reveals a fully functioning brick BBQ built in the middle of it! Patios and decking obscure other alleys in the town, and of course a good few community locals where skittles would have been popular have closed for good in recent years.

In fact the only pub alley I've come across in Beeston that is still in regular use for league matches is the one to the rear of The Queens, a pub which has already featured on this blog. On the same side of town at nearby Beeston Rylands, there is a pub skittle alley with the potential for the game to return at some level, given enough local interest of course.

The Boat & Horses takes its name from the close proximity of the Beeston Canal. Not actually located in Beeston proper, rather the low-lying 'village' of Beeston Rylands to the south of the town, it serves both the local community and those seeking recreation on the nearby canal and River Trent. After a period of neglect the pub is now in the safe hands of new tenants, and a very tidy pub it is too with a huge potential that the new licensees are keen to exploit.

Being close to the waterway, food is obviously an important part of the pubs offering, and for the locals a regular programme of live music keeps them coming back. Pool, Darts and Poker nights represent the current gaming interest at the Boat & Horses, the skittle alley currently unused.

The new licensees have done a great job tidying up the pubs large grassy garden, but whether the skittle alley will receive a similar spruce up depends on customer demand I guess. In recent years it has been used as a covered area for bands to play during summer events, but it wouldn't take much to bring the alley back into use for functions and casual summer games.

Though the local game of skittles is certainly harder to find in Beeston than it once was, the town is still blessed with more than its fair share of great pubs, some of which may now benefit from the newly opened southern Tram extension.

It's probably true to say that some visitors to Beeston, particularly those arriving by rail, struggle to make it any further than the fabulous Victoria Hotel. Perhaps no great surprise given its prominent location adjacent to the station platform.

A harmonious mix of Victorian and later 1930's decor, the Victoria was beautifully restored by Nottingham based Tynemill Ltd (now Castle Rock) who aqcuired the then run-down pub in 1994. Now a freehouse, the pub has a great reputation for its beer and food, and makes an excellent alternative waiting room for rail passengers.

Games are not a particularly prominent feature at the Victoria, but there is a Darts Board in the 'Red Room' to the right of the entrance. This is the smaller of several rooms at the pub, and a space which I've found a little less dining oriented. A great place for an afternoon game of Dominoes or Cards if the mood takes you.

If you do make it past the 'Vic' and into town, you won't go far wrong visiting the excellent Crown Inn (below). This is another important heritage survivor which in recent years, under the ownership of Everards Brewery in partnership with the Brown Ales Pub Co, has built a great reputation for its beer choice.

The pub was extended with a large new lounge in the 70's by Hardys & Hansons brewery, but thankfully the multi-room layout of the original building was preserved. It's the kind of pub where it's hard to decide where to settle, each small bar and snug having its own unique charm. On the day I visited with a friend, we settled in the Games Room, now effectively the link between the older parts of the building and the newer lounge bar. There's a Darts Board adjacent to the serving hatch, but we brought a Shove Ha'penny for an afternoon of supping and sampling the beers on offer.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Worcester Skittles

Most of the major towns in the Three Counties have a strong and enduring skittles tradition. The county town of Worcester is no exception with a fair number of alleys dotted around its pubs and clubs, particularly in the suburban areas where the pubs retain a more traditional social function than the town-centre circuit. However, the two pubs featured here represent the extremes of the games current fortunes, a situation common everywhere as pubs struggle to survive and adapt in a tough commercial world.

Although it's safe to say that skittle alleys are not as common as they once were in Worcester, the game is still popular and supported at competitive level by several leagues, including the Worcester & District Skittles League, the slightly smaller Worcester Friendly Skittles League, and a Ladies League. Players from Worcester also compete in the Three Cities League, a regional 'Derby' against teams from Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.

Throughout the traditional playing areas of the West Midlands and West Country, it's not uncommon to find skittle alleys in use most weekday evenings. Skittles is still very popular in certain parts of the country, and the consolidation that has resulted from numerous pub and club closures in recent years can make for some very busy skittle alleys. For many pubs this almost constant weekday skittles play can be the very lifeblood of the business, as the licensees of the West Midland Tavern in Worcester made clear to me on the Saturday afternoon I visited the pub.

The West Midland Tavern is located on the edge of the town centre, very much a friendly locals pub where sport, live music and entertainments pull in a good weekend crowd. During the week it's gaming that keeps the pub ticking over, and the skittle alley in particular, with teams accounting for upwards of two dozen customers on what may otherwise be a quiet night.

The West Midlands Tavern host enough teams in the various leagues to keep the alley and pub busy throughout the week. Each of the locked boxes shown below contain the pins and balls of a home team playing out of the pub, which must be quite a task for league secretaries to arrange the seasons fixture list without double-booking the alley.

You might think that leagues and teams operating in the same area would play with a standard set of  pins, but as can be seen here, there's quite a bit of variation from one set to another. These three examples could be broadly described as a Gloucester pin and two sizes of Bristol pin.

It was in conversation with the licensee of the West Midland Tavern that I learnt of the imminent demise of the nearby Bridge Inn, and by the time you read this the pub is likely to have closed, quite probably for good. A board outside advertised a 'Last Chance' disco and karaoke that evening, and what was probably a very fine pub at one time was showing all the signs of neglect I've come to recognise in similarly doomed boozers.

The skittle alley at the rear of the pub had already been taken out of service some years ago. A sad sight, made all the more so by the vintage roll of honour hanging at the business end of the alley (below), recording the early 80's Bridge Inn House Champions in Cribbage, Darts, Dominoes, Pool, and of course Skittles. The alley has been marking time as a storage and band rehearsal space for several years now, and is apparently destined to be demolished for flats. I'm glad I popped in to record its passing, and hope the roll of honour finds a better home than in a skip. Many more closures like this and the West Midland Tavern will need another alley!