Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Pitch Penny

George Green displays the now lost Pitch Penny bench in the bar of the Plough, Little Downham, Cambridgeshire. This image is reproduced with the kind permission of John Clarke of the Little Downham Community Archive
Traditional pub games are found throughout the British Isles. Some such as Darts, Dominoes, and Pool could rightly be considered to be national pastimes, albeit played to a bewildering array of different rules and conventions. Others, such as Aunt Sally, Pushpenny, and the numerous variations on the theme of Skittles are more regional, sometimes even local to a particular town or county. The more local a game is, the more interesting it is in many ways.  The bar-room staple of a Darts Board is unlikely to stir much interest from visitors to a pub, whereas a Sussex Toad in the Hole or a game of Aunt Sally in progress certainly would!

A region or local area which can justifiably claim to have its own unique pub gaming tradition, is something the locals should be proud of in my view. Yet so few pub-goers seem to be even aware of these unique regional specialities these days. Often the more unusual local games are kept out of sight, only really known to the locals, and sometimes taken for granted to a degree bordering on neglect. Rarity like this can certainly be interesting to the enthusiast like myself, but sadly it can often contribute to the decline, even the eventual death of a pub game.

The Pitch Penny Settle at the Coach & Horses, Tilney St Lawrence near Kings Lynn
The Eastern counties of England, and particularly those which make up the Anglian region, can lay claim to some truly rare and local pub games. Sadly this includes many which have either disappeared from pubs, such as the Suffolk version of Indoor Quoits, Norfolk Table Skittles, and Four Pin Skittles; or cling on as rare curiosities such as Caves, the Norfolk Twister, and the game featured in this blog post, Pitch Penny.

Pitch Penny is such a simple, home-spun game that it has never been 'manufactured' to my knowledge, and has the feel of a genuine rural curiosity. A farming pastime from an age when a visit to the pub was a much-needed release from the day-to-day agricultural labour. A real piece of rural social history in fact.

It's perhaps hard for us to understand how important the local pub would have been in the days before cars became affordable, and popular entertainment was beamed directly into our homes. In the relatively isolated rural locations of the Eastern counties, gaming at the pub would have been one of the few affordable social pleasures available to a man, a trip to the town or city largely restricted to market days and the pursuit of rural commerce. It's within this context that a game which simply involved tossing coins or other discs into a hole bored out of a bench or settle became popular, perhaps even common in village pubs throughout the Eastern counties.

The Pitch Penny game as it's usually found at the Coach & Horses
Very few of these old games survive now, but a good example can be found at the Coach & Horses, Tilney St Lawrence in Norfolk. The pub stands isolated on what would once have been a busy road into nearby Kings Lynn, a farmers bar and latter-day roadhouse largely bypassed by both now. The interior features a pair of very old high-backed settles which help give the otherwise modernised bar a cosy and genuinely historic feel. It's on the now cushion-covered seat of one of these settles that the rare Pitch Penny game can be found. The game is sadly not in use at the present time owing to a lack of suitable coins and the upholstery on the bench, but dare I say if you brought your own coins (see below), the licensee might be persuaded to bring it back into use during quieter times!

When stripped of its seat cushions, the Pitch Penny game is revealed in all its play-worn simplicity. A semi-circular hole at the rear of the seat surrounded by a battered protective layer of lead sheeting. The seat itself has been altered or repaired at some point, incorporating a separate piece of timber, presumably following many years of aerial bombardment from heavy coinage. Below is a rudimentary drawer to catch the 'holed' coins during a game, a feature of all Pitch Penny benches it seems.

The game itself was not usually played on a points scoring basis, rather the aim was to be the first to 'hole' all of their coins either as a singles or team game. Coins used seems to vary, but the old (and increasingly expensive to obtain) 18th/19th century 'Cartwheel' pennies were often favoured, indeed discs of a similar size are still used in Sussex for the 'pitching' game of Toad in the Hole. The weight and size of these coins are ideal for games like this, landing with a solid 'thunk' on the surrounding lead rather than pinging off and disappearing in the nooks and crannies of the bar.

The Jackson Stops Inn at Stretton in Rutland represents one of the most westerly examples of a surviving Pitch Penny bench, and has already featured on this blog. Located in the cosy snug adjacent to the fire, and known locally as Nurdles, the game is still in occasional use including for an annual 'World Championship'.

The Pitch Penny Bench at the Golden Cross, Clee Hill, Shropshire. A game far from its original home, but a must-have part of the licensees extensive collection of traditional pub games 

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