Sunday, 25 January 2015

Leicestershire - Capital of Skittles?

(L-R) Boxwood Northampton Table Skittles & Cheese, Fruitwood (?) and Lignum Vitae Leicester Table Skittles & Cheese, Plastic Leicester Table Skittles & Cheese, Mahogany 'Bayliss' Table Skittles & Leather/Rubber Cheese, and Lignum Vitae Devil Amongst The Tailors Skittles.
Skittles is undoubtedly one of the most widely played and fascinatingly varied traditional games in the world. Only Cards and Dominoes seem to match it for sheer variety, with different versions of what is essentially the same 'throwing things at sticks' game found throughout Europe and beyond. In Britain alone there are dozens of different skittle forms, and probably hundreds of subtly different rules and conventions of play.

It was whilst pondering this fact that a thought came to me! Perhaps the humble county of Leicestershire has (or certainly had until very recently!) more examples of the game of skittles as played at pubs and clubs than any other county in Britain, possibly even similarly sized areas worldwide! Quite a claim I know, and one I have little hope of confirming either way to be honest, but it's an interesting possibility nevertheless, and one worth illustrating with a few examples.

Long Alley Skittles
Long Alley is probably the skittles game with the longest history in the county. The version played in Leicestershire pubs and clubs is distinctly different to that found in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, but is probably a remnant of the kind of skittles played throughout the country before the smooth timber alleys of the West Country and Wales were developed. So the heavy Lignum Vitae barrel-shaped 'Cheeses', and tall, almost straight hardwood pins (right) are entirely unique to the Leicestershire game.

Although alleys are being lost on an all-too regular basis (the Gate Hangs Well, Syston seems to be the latest to lose its alley following a recent refurbishment!), the game can still be found in pubs and clubs throughout much of the county. Long Alley is particularly well supported in the Wreake Valley area bordering Nottinghamshire, and to the south-west of the county in the Soar Valley area.

Northampton Table Skittles
Table Skittles takes several forms, uniquely two of which can be found in Leicestershire. The Northampton version of the game as seen here at the Queens Arms in the village of Leire, is played in a very wide area encompassing Northamptonshire itself, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Warwickshire, and something like half of the county of Leicestershire, specifically to the south. Tables are standard throughout all of these areas, though subtly different depending on manufacture, with W T Black & Son and Peppers Bros tables being the most common.

Needless to say there is wide variation in rules between areas and leagues (and even competitions within a league). Towards the South-East of the county, and in leagues such as the Dunton Bassett shown on the trophy below, yellow plastic pins and cheeses are the norm. Around the Northamptonshire border, wooden pins and cheeses are standard for league play,  Boxwood for preference.

Leicester Table Skittles
Closer to the city of Leicester can be found the county's other version of Table Skittles. The Leicester game is played on a similar table to the Northamptonshire version shown above, but the pins are thinner, slightly taller and with a central 'King Pin'. The 'Cheeses' are quite small and made from the very dense wood Lignum Vitae. Plastic versions are also available, as shown in the image above, but not generally used for league play. This unique Leicester game may have developed independently of the Northants version, or of course it may have developed from it. In common with practically all skittle games, nobody seems to know its origin, only that it has been played in the county for over 100 years, maybe much longer. The table below is located in the long slim bar of the Fountain Inn, Leicester, and sees service in the Leicester City Mens Table Skittles League, though not to my knowledge under the name of the Sacred Heart Skittles Team.

Other Table Skittles
I've written before about the mystery set of skittles and cheeses I bought from a dealer in Grantham, Lincs (below). The pub where this skittle set is understood to have originated (or ended up!) is shown to the right, though sadly it's no longer a village pub. It was during a house clearance at the former Hunters Arms in Wymondham that this unusual skittle set came to light, and at least one person I've spoken to since can just about recall a table for the game in the bar of the pub.

I think this represents an example of the wide variety of Table Skittles games which were played at one time, many of which would have been very local indeed. Similar but locally or regionally different examples have been recorded from South East England, up the Eastern side of the country as far as Lincolnshire, and though to central England. Of these only the two versions shown above, and a handful of mostly new Kentish Daddlums tables still exist today.

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A tantalising piece of information has recently come to light in the form of this old trade card, showing a Nottinghamshire-made skittles table equipped with skittle pins almost identical to the ones from the Hunters Arms. Although it's hard to tell from this image, the three Cheeses are a very similar size, and possibly even made from leather.

Manufactured by W C Bayliss, the table appears to be designed to sit atop a regular pub table. Perhaps the ideal alternative to a full size Northants table when space was at a premium in a small public bar or tap room.

Devil Amongst The Tailors
I've included a set of Devil Amongst The Tailors skittle pins in the image at the start of this post, not because the game is now played to any degree in Leicestershire, more that it clearly once was. I personally know of only a handful of Devils tables in the county, though I'm sure there are many more out of sight or gathering dust in store rooms and lofts, but in the 1979 CAMRA guide to the pubs of Leicestershire & Rutland it's notable just how many pubs in the city are listed as having this game. Unusually, the Leicester version of Table Skittles described above appears to entirely absent from the city! I think this is probably down to a combination of Leicester Table Skittles being predominantly a game of clubs, and the kind of basic locals where the nascent real ale revival had yet to make an impact and therefore not listed in the guide.

So, was Devil Amongst The Tailors played at league level in Leicester? I don't know, I've no evidence to suggest it was, and it seems unlikely given the existence of the larger table game. Nevertheless, it seems to have been popular enough to be a feature of a good many city-centre boozers, and adds weight to my belief that the county may have, or at least may have had in recent times, the widest variety of pub skittle games anywhere in the country.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Leicestershire Table Skittles - Stoney Stanton

Despite the overall decline of most pub games in recent years, South-West Leicestershire remains one of the hotbeds of traditional pub and club Skittles play. Not only are there a reasonable number of venues for Long Alley Skittles in the area, the game of Table Skittles is also remarkably well represented, particularly considering the loss of so many village locals which are the natural home for highly social games like these.

It's probably true to say that most of the more traditional village pubs, and practically all of the clubs in the area have a skittles table, with several Winter and Summer leagues managing the important business of competitive play. The Dunton Bassett League alone consists of up to five leagues, totalling 60 teams during the more popular winter season, such is the continued popularity of skittles hereabouts.

Which is not to say that the game is thriving to anywhere near the degree it once was, when practically every pub and club would have had a well-used table. I certainly recall playing on skittles tables at the Francis Arms in Stoney Stanton (closed), the White Horse, Desford (looks to be closed but no skittles for some time anyway), the Old Inn, Littlethorpe (table removed prior to re-opening recently), the Tavern Inn, Walcote (permanently closed), and the White Lion, Kilworth (recently re-opened as a Wine Bar/Restaurant, skittles table long gone). The Red Lion, Sapcote still advertises the presence of Table Skittles at the pub, but sadly the table was removed several years ago.

The external signage of the Bulls Head in Stoney Stanton (above) promises 'Traditional Pub Games', but in this case the promise holds true. Pride of place in the cosy Tap Room of this two-room traditional local are a Darts Board and this fine old W T Black & Son skittles table.

This is a classic Northampton-made table, but the game is played to Leicestershire rules which include the obligatory use of plastic pins and cheeses rather than the wooden sets still favoured throughout Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. Traditional Boxwood and other hardwood skittles are becoming ever more difficult to obtain, and given the excessive wear and tear of league play, an increasingly expensive part of the game.

It seems that at some point in the past, with more and more teams going over to the durable plastic alternatives, the Leicestershire and Warwickshire leagues must have made the decision to abandon wood entirely for league play. Certainly it's now rare to see a wooden skittle set in this part of the county, though the Northants tradition of Boxwood pins and cheeses persists in the nearby Market Harborough area of Leicestershire.

The Bulls Head really is the quintessential village pub. Lively and popular, noted for the quality of the beers and ciders, and run by enthusiastic supporters of rugby, and the Leicester Tigers in particular. These photos were taken in the summer of 2014 when the pub was decked-out for the football World Cup. Expect a similar showing for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup later this year.

The Star Inn (below) is one of three pubs which remain in the village of Stoney Stanton, and it too is a long-standing Table Skittles venue (the Social Club in the village has both a Skittles Table and Long Alley). The table at the Star is located in a separate games room off the main bar area which also featuring a Darts Board and Pool Table.

Interestingly, the Skittles Table at the Star is a somewhat rarer Leicester model, and an unusually old one at that. These tables are most commonly found in the suburbs and villages immediately surrounding the city of Leicester, though I've also seen examples as far out as Syston, Blaby, and Whetstone. These tables were originally built for use with the much thinner hardwood pins and cheeses of the Leicester game, but nowadays wherever you find them they tend fulfil a multiple role for the various leagues and different games played.

All in all, the Leicester Tables seem somehow less sturdily constructed than the more common Northants versions. This one has clearly seen many years of service, the metalwork screwed to the side cushions (below) seem to be part of the running repairs and refurbishment common to tables of this age.

The table is shown set for play with the stubby Northants style pins in these images, but I understand it's also used by at least one team for the distinctly different Leicester game which the table would have presumably been originally built for.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Pubs For Darts

An old advertising sign overlooks the Darts Board at the Three Crowns, Oakham, Rutland.
Ashby Road is one of the main routes out of Loughborough to the busy University site, and it happens to be blessed with two of Loughborough's finest traditional boozers, which presumably see some trade from the constant stream of students passing their doors. I say 'some', but the sad fact is that student trade is not what it was, spare cash for a night out rarely making it any further than the students union these days. Thankfully, these and other more traditional pubs in the town retain a good local following, though both have been under threat of closure, even demolition in recent times.

Like so many similar out-of-town boozers, the Generous Briton was under threat of permanent closure and redevelopment until re-opened by local 'White Knight' Ian Bogie in 2011. For this fantastic show of faith, the pub has received numerous awards from the local CAMRA branch. The separate bar and lounge have been retained, and are considered sufficiently unchanged and unspoilt that the pub appears on CAMRA's inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. The quarry tile floored bar (above), which features a well-used Darts Board, is a particularly pleasant place to enjoy the good range of real ales on offer.

Across the road and a little closer to town is the Old English Gentleman (left & below), probably my favourite drinking venue in Loughborough at the present time. This too has been under threat of permanent closure in recent years, in this case the threat extending to a complete demolition of the building to facilitate a proposed road widening scheme. Thankfully that has yet to materialise, and the pub remains an unspoilt haven on the edge of the town centre, and what must be one of the most friendly and sociable venues in Loughborough. The front bar is the real hub of the pub, the cosy seating area close enough to the bar counter to join in with the chat, which often revolves around sport, and 'the horses' in particular. Off to the left as you enter is a games room with Pool Table and Darts Board, with another Darts Board in the lounge to the rear of the pub. Darts is played at both of these pubs in the Loughborough & District Pubs & Clubs Darts League, the Old English Gentleman being the HQ for the league. The 'OEG' also hosts a team from the Loughborough Students Union!

Darts & Beer at Steamin' Billy pub The Paget, Loughborough, Leicestershire
Spot the difference! The smaller lounge bar of the Falstaff Freehouse in Derby is where you'll find the Darts Board, concealed when not in use behind a hinged panel mounted on the bar counter.

Competitive Darts is played at the Falstaff in the Derby Sunday Darts League.

The Falstaff is a beautifully refurbished Victorian alehouse, located a little way out of the city centre at New Normanton but well worth the effort to find. Another unspoilt heritage pub, the aforementioned lounge bar has been decked-out as a homage to the long-closed Offilers Brewery, the traditional public bar similarly adorned with breweriana and other curios. As if this wasn't enough, the pub sells a range of beers from its own onsite brewery, one of several which go towards making Derby one of the finest destinations in the country for beer lovers.