Friday, 20 February 2015

Two Pubs for Northamptonshire Skittles

Skittles Tables like the one shown above are still relatively common throughout Northamptonshire, slightly less so in surrounding counties. It's in village pubs, clubs, suburban community locals, and occasionally town-centre boozers, that you'll most often find a table, and where there's a skittles table, chances are there will be a team playing in one or more of the many local leagues. So the spread of skittles throughout the county is still very wide, and yet some pub-goers may never have come across a table, much less a game in progress!

Why might this be so? Well, despite the game being relatively common throughout the county, the 'demographic' spread of Table Skittles is more patchy, much less inclusive. It's the more down-to-earth 'locals' pubs and members clubs where the game is popular, pubs where the focus is still very firmly on the social aspect of pub-going. Table Skittles (and pub games in general) are rarely found in the more gentrified rural gastro-pubs, and never in my experience in town-centre circuit bars. You certainly won't find one in a Wetherspoon! (though I'd love to be proved wrong).

Mikado Pheasant, Kettering

The Northamptonshire town of Kettering has a handful of town-centre pubs where the game is still played regularly. But travel out into the sprawl of housing which surrounds the town and practically every pub has a team active in local leagues.

The Mikado Pheasant is one such pub, located a good mile or two out from the town centre on the edge of a large expanse of modern housing. Built in 1980, and originally a far-flung outpost of the Shipstones Brewery empire, the Mikado Pheasant, in common with most estate pubs of this era, is really not much to look at from the outside. In truth it's the kind of pub that most of us rarely come into contact with. Very much a locals pub, which along with the clutch of adjacent shops was built to serve the needs of the immediate locale, and not a largely non-existent passing trade.

The interior of estate pubs like these can often be pretty functional too, but not in the case of the Mikado Pheasant (seen here decked-out for a childrens Halloween party) which has been refurbished to a high standard. Whilst not strictly multi-room, there are a number of distinct areas, including a wide lobby which seems to be popular with locals who like to prop the bar up, almost in the style of northern lobby drinking areas. I also found the pub very welcoming, the locals and licensee keen to chat and extol the virtues of a pub which has had a chequered past, but which now seems to be firmly back at the heart of the community.

Of course the true heart of a pub like the Mikado Pheasant is the games and entertainments, of which the Mikado Pheasant is well served. The Skittles table has been allocated its own seated alcove, all the better for those toiling in the 'woodyard'. The pub teams are usually up-there in the local Burton Latimer League, the 'A' team currently leading division one, and all comers are welcome to throw a few cheeses on Sunday afternoons, a tradition observed in many Northamptonshire pubs.

Melbourne Arms, Duston

The village of Duston has been largely swallowed up by the growth of near neighbour Northampton, yet still retains much of its essential village character. The Melbourne Arms in particular is still very much a village local, tucked away up a quiet side street of the busy main road through Duston, and well worth seeking out for a pint.

The Skittles Table is housed in its own dedicated skittles room in an outhouse at the rear of the pub. Said to have originally been a bottle store, it's likely the building had a more active role at some point in the past given the presence of a now disused fireplace. Skittles seems to have been a relatively recent addition (or reintroduction) to the pub, with the 1990 local CAMRA pub guide stating the 'possibility of Northants Skittles in future'. The skittles team at the Melbourne Arms in Duston ply their trade in the Northampton Wednesday Skittles League.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Heritage and Traditional Games in Nottinghamshire Pubs

Anyone who takes an interest in pubs will be aware that very little of the heritage and traditions that make the British pub so special remains entirely intact and unspoilt by progress. They may also be aware that much of what does remain has little or no real protection from the kind over-zealous or inappropriate development which has blighted the pub trade for decades. This is particularly sad given that the supposed custodians of so many of the historic gems which do survive seem hell-bent on closing them at an ever increasing rate, cashing-in the most important assets they have in a desperate bid to shore-up their chronically mismanaged businesses. Some buildings are of course statutorily listed, but often this amounts to little more than protection for the attractive chocolate-box exterior, and not the equally important layout, fixtures, and fittings which are the real historic heart of a pub. Those things which contribute to the irreplaceable 'social' history of the building.

Activists including those associated with CAMRA's Pubs Heritage group have had some success in this area, including upgrading the existing listed status of some pubs to include interiors of rare national importance. But that still leaves literally thousands of pubs with little or no protection from inappropriate development. Pubs which if they haven't already had the guts ripped out of them as part of someone's crass idea of modernisation, are certainly at risk of this kind of vandalism in the future.

In common with most of the larger brewers and pub owning companies (and some of the smaller ones it must be said!), Greene King of Bury St Edmunds have a very mixed track record with regard to the management of their pub estate. Closures such as the New White Bull at Giltbrook in Nottinghamshire have incurred the wrath of locals and campaigners alike, and the recent furore over the removal of historic pub signs throughout the Greene King estate, and the corporate branded alternatives chosen to replace them, give a good indication of just how little regard the management and bean-counters of company's like this have for heritage and tradition. Greene King, in common with most other pub companies of this size, are now moving away from traditional tenanted pubs, preferring the bland uniformity of managed and branded dining and family venues. These new-build pseudo-pubs and off-the-peg refurbishments leave little room for the kind of individuality and character that make pubs at their best such wonderful places to spend time in. But thankfully, in amongst the branded blandness, a good few traditional gems remain, but for how long!

Greene King have a very large pub estate now, largely the result of brewery acquisitions over the last few decades. Amongst this widely spread estate are the tied pubs of Hardys & Hansons, a Nottinghamshire brewery which was acquired and summarily closed by Greene King in 2006. The former Hardys & Hansons estate includes many community locals dating from the early 20th century and post-war years. Certainly most of the 'Kimberley' pubs I remember drinking in at the time were basic, unfussy urban boozers, not at all like the flagship Test Match Hotel in the affluent Nottingham suburb of West Bridgeford, which is featured here.

The Grade II* listed Test Match really is one of those 'must-visit' pubs. Extensively refurbished to a very high standard in 2001, everywhere you look there are beautiful Art Deco features, original artworks, and quality fixtures and fittings. The pub features several distinctly different rooms, including an upstairs cocktail bar, tea-room, lounge, and a relatively small public bar which doubles as the games room with Darts and Pool Table (above & below). The listed status of the Test Match has clearly played a key part in its survival as one of the most opulently furnished pubs in the Midlands. It's a successful pub too, and maybe a pointer to the those that should know better that it's well-maintained heritage like this that helps make pubs unique and special social places, and not merely bland corporate retail units for food and drink.

A humbler, yet no less important pub survivor is the Gladstone Arms (left), a classic two-room Victorian terrace locals pub located on a backstreet of the busy Mansfield Road, to the north of the city centre. Busy and bustling on a Friday night when I visited, it's location off the beaten track has probably saved the Gladstone from the usual fate of relatively small, multi-room pubs like this, many of which have been knocked through to create one large room managed from a central servery. Retaining two rooms as it does means that the pub can offer different environments for differing tastes. The left-hand lounge is cosy and comfortable, a great place for a read or a chat during quieter opening hours. The bar is slightly more basic, a place where beer and conversation flow freely, and of course it features the pub's Darts Board. Thursday nights are Quiz Nights, and a slightly neglected Domino set and Crib Board are available from behind the bar if like me you like a rattle on a Sunday afternoon.

Out in the sticks, and even in villages of a reasonable size, pubs and the licensees who run them usually have to adapt to survive. The traditional local trade which has served them well for generations is now rarely enough for a village pub to survive, and small wet-led pubs with a limited trading area can be a real struggle to make work. This is why so many rural and village pubs have been so extensively knocked about and expanded in recent years, the attractive and often historic exterior concealing a single large space with few clues as to where the walls would have been, the separate rooms located.

The Royal Oak at East Bridgford has certainly seen some alterations in recent years, but with more success than most I'd have to say. Though essentially one large room, the public bar/games area still retains much of its former identity, and although the pub clearly relies heavily on its food trade, the Royal Oak still happily accommodates the needs of its loyal locals, with all the pub game staples of Darts, Pool, and Dominoes played, the latter evidenced by the large number of trophies about the place.

But perhaps best of all, and to the great credit of the current licensees, is the retention of the pubs traditional Skittle Alley, an increasingly rare feature of pubs in this area, and one which could all too easily have been lost during the refurbishments.

The original alley was located in the low building to the right in the photo above, but this has now been incorporated into the main pub. Across from what is now the main entrance to the pub can be found the 'new' alley, converted from a former garage/outbuilding, and extended by several yards to the rear to accommodate the alleys full length. As such it's pretty smart for a Long Alley, and eminently suitable for other uses when not hosting a game. Long Alley Skittles Nottingham/Derby style is the game here, played in the tiny East Notts Skittles League. Often a well-used practice set of skittles and balls will be available in a Long Alley, but not so here. The matchday set are kept safely locked away by the home team.

The 'new' Skittle Alley. Note the change of colour in the bricks where the building was extended into the beer garden at the rear.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.23

Bonzoline is without a doubt better than Ivory, though it's unlikely the unpalatable nature of the Ivory trade was foremost in the minds of the Bonzoline Manufacturing Company when this advert appeared in the early 20th century book 'The Game of Billiards and How To Play It' (J.Roberts).

The fact is that Ivory, being a natural material, would have exhibited slight imperfections of density and uniformity throughout the ball, such that some balls may have even had significantly different weights. Composite Bonzoline balls, as developed by John Wesley Hyatt of New York, would have been more uniform and stable than the natural materials used previously, and of course would have been a much cheaper alternative to Ivory, which eventually found favour throughout all cue sports. Various manufacturers came up with their own composites, including these from Atlas Co of London Billiard Balls, which bear the label British Made Ronite.

Some recently acquired Cribbage Boards. The large dark Mahogany 'three-way' board underneath is for the slightly unusual occurrence of a three person game. Unusual in that most Card and Domino games scored on a crib board are either for two players, or four playing as doubles. This board is stamped HWR, almost certainly the initials of the person who lovingly crafted it in their shed from an off-cut or 'up-cycled' piece of timber.

The scorer at the top is in a common form for cribbage boards which would have been hung on the wall in a pub or club, and is stamped with the letters T*S, possibly the owner/maker or maybe the name of the pub. The board below that is also a homemade example, this one made from Bakelite or similar. Below that is a Mahogany crib board with brass feet, the wood extremely dark from the patina of many years of use.

The only board shown here that was manufactured is the one bearing the long closed (though recently revived) Truman's Brewery name. A simple moulded Bakelite or early plastic board, perfect for scoring with used matches. Breweries and Cigarette/Tobacco brands are the most common sponsors of these old cribbage boards, though not nowadays of course.

The beer and brewing world of the early to mid 20th century was a battleground of regional and national branding and advertising. You only have to search for Breweriana on eBay to get an idea of the sheer number of beers and breweries fighting for brand awareness in the pubs and clubs of Britain up until the widespread mergers and brewery closures of the 1970's and 80's. Practically every item used in the licensed trade was fair game to carry advertising for a beer brand, from mirrors and all manner of signage, to ashtrays, glasses, and of course the numerous accoutrement's and accessories of pub gaming.

These Shove Ha'penny tokens are quite rare examples of beer and brewery branding. Although I'm sure hundreds, if not thousands of these would have been produced at the time, their diminutive and frivolous nature means that most seem to have been lost or thrown away over time. Probably dating from the late 1970's when Tap Bitter was introduced by the London brewer on the back of the nascent real ale revival. They're a classic example of a simple everyday item being co-opted to keep a beer brand at the forefront of a drinkers mind, even when engaged in the serious business of shoving coins up the smooth surface of a slate such as this.

The slate shown here is one of the more common examples of its type. 'The Imp Shove-Ha'penny Slate', a relatively inexpensive and lightweight model compared to the hefty slabs still occasionally found in West Country pubs.

The Bar Billiards Table shown to the left is a real rarity, located as it is in the very heart of the city of Birmingham.

The Post Office Vaults is a subterranean cellar bar with a great reputation for beer and cider, and a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping area of the city.

The Chandlers Arms at Shearsby in Leicestershire has been a firm favourite of mine since the 80's, a regular destination, particularly in the summer when the tidy garden comes into its own. Like the attractive village itself, the pub seems to have changed little over the years, though in truth it's been well maintained, and the beer range has improved greatly under the current licensee.

Pub games have never seemed to feature prominently at the Chandlers. Dominoes and Cards are available, but food has always been an important part of the pubs trade, and there's little room in the cosy bars for a Darts Board. Recently though, room has been found for the landlords favourite game of Bar Billiards, tucked into the less-used left-hand bar area.