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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Got sent this post by the Nottm Pub Group (via CAMRA) mailing list - excellent article and good illustrations. Thanks.