Sunday, 8 March 2015

Three Counties Skittles

A smart wall plaque on a village pub promising 'Cask Ales' and a 'Skittle Alley' is a reassuring sight to me in more ways than one. Not only does it raise my expectations that there might be something worth drinking on the bar (not always realised it must be said), but it also suggests the pub I'm about to enter may have retained at least some degree of authentic character and proper 'pubiness' where so many have taken the foodie path to its ultimate gastro-conclusion. Because a fully functioning skittle alley, and particularly one in regular league use, is rarely a feature of the fine dining and gastro-pub phenomena!

The pressure to attract passing trade as a destination dining venue has certainly done for a great number of traditional skittle alleys over the years, even in cases where the alley was still in regular active use. The temptation to squeeze a few more tables into the space taken up by a good indoor alley is just too great for many, and often forms a crucial part of the business plan for what may be a marginal or failing pub. Having said that, I've been to a good few pubs where the skittle alley successfully serves the dual function of games room and overspill dining area, but adaptability like this requires a commitment to run the place as a 'pub', and all too often this is the last thing that new owners with new ideas seem to want from their 'pub'!

The Ivy Inn at North Littleton in Worcestershire has sadly closed since I visited last year, though hopefully this will prove to be a temporary state given that it's the only pub in the village. It's a typically attractive Vale of Evesham pub, very much a village local, but in a prime village location to tap into any potential as a destination dining venue. Certainly when I visited on a quiet Autumn afternoon I was made very welcome by the licensees, but it was clear to see that although the bar was homely and comfortable, it would certainly have benefited from a bit of a spruce-up. Whether this is the eventual plan for the Ivy is not clear, and if it is, how far any forthcoming refurbishment will go, and how much genuine 'pubbiness' is retained remains to be seen, but it's clearly a case of yet another skittle alley in peril. In the mean time, the promise of Real Ales and a Skittle Alley at the Ivy Inn remains unfulfilled.

The alley would have seen a fair amount of league action throughout the week, accommodating home teams from within the village and further afield in the Evesham & District Skittles League. As nearby pubs close or skittle alleys are lost, play continues in those venues that remain, with maybe half the teams in the Evesham League essentially 'nomadic', their former venues no longer available for play.

It's a very well appointed alley, located within the main body of the pub but tucked away out of earshot of the main bar area. Because of the way the alley is set, viewing a game can be difficult for all but the players in action, so a camera has been installed at the frame end with progress visible on small monitor near the scoring board.

The Plough Inn was in the process of changing hands when I visited Hereford last summer, and whilst the new arrivals were certainly a hospitable couple, they were in no position to show me around their new pub, least of all pull a pint on the day of their move. So this is the best picture I could manage of the Skittle Alley, a separate pre-fabricated building located at the rear of the pub, and home to the Wranglers team in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League.

It was second time lucky for me at the Suffolk Arms in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The first time I stopped by for a look, the skittle alley was full to bursting with a large party of friends who book the skittle alley every year for a pre-Christmas game. Whilst it was great to see the alley being put to good use, photography was out of the question, so I finished my pint and went elsewhere for the afternoon, returning in the Spring for a chat with the licensee.

Competitive play at the Suffolk is in the Cheltenham Skittles League, with the full complement of eight ladies and mens teams playing out of this alley from Monday to Thursday. A very busy skittle alley indeed, and another example of the relative shortage of venues in comparison to the number of men and women who are keen to play the game.

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