Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Hillmorton, Rugby, Warwickshire

Land-locked Warwickshire is almost unique as a county in boasting three very different pub-based skittles traditions. Only neighbouring Leicestershire can compete for overall skittling variety, with three of its own skittle games as outlined in a previous post on this blog.

To the south-west of Warwickshire the West-country tradition of Alley Skittles prevails, sharing league play with pubs and clubs in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire where the game is widespread. In the south-east of the county bordering Oxfordshire, the traditional pub game of Aunt Sally holds sway. Aunt Sally is a skittles game in all but name, albeit one where the wooden 'pins' are thrown at the 'ball'! The table skittles game known as Devil Amongst The Tailors, still played at league level in parts of Staffordshire, may well have featured to the north of the county at one time, but it's the more common Northamptonshire version of table skittles which brings the Warwickshire total to three.

The eastern edge of Warwickshire around the town of Rugby borders both Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, so it's perhaps no surprise that this part of the county shares a Table Skittles tradition with its near neighbours. Indeed many of the venues for the game in and around Rugby share league play with those just over the border near Lutterworth, and presumably the same can be said for venues in Northamptonshire's Daventry area. Rugby town centre has a handful of pubs and clubs where a skittles table can be found, but it's in the villages surrounding the town that the game is still relatively common. The nearby village of Hillmorton is a good example, a residential suburb of Rugby which could probably be considered a stronghold of the game, there being a table in virtually every pub and club.

Most of the pubs in Hillmorton are located on or near the busy High Street, the Stag & Pheasant takes a little more finding. A classic village pub of some age and character, located a short walk from the main road and now surrounded by modern housing to the north of the village. The pub is close enough to the Oxford Union Canal to attract visitors in the summer, but this is essentially a cosy two-room locals pub with a strong gaming element. Trophies for Darts are displayed around the bar, and there's an adjoining games area which features a Pool Table and vintage W T Black & Son Skittles Table.

The Skittles Table is shown here 'parked' out of the way to allow space for Pool play, but a clue to its normal playing position can be seen in the metal grills across the windows to the right. The netting 'hood' at the back of a Northamptonshire skittles table is designed to catch errant cheeses during a game, but despite this they often go astray. High-velocity plastic skittles and cheeses can do a lot of damage to a window, even occasionally to those toiling in the 'woodyard', hence the protective grill over the window. A steel Oche or Mott is used in these parts, with Mens and Ladies competition in the thriving Dunchurch & District League.

The Bell Inn (below) on the main road through Hillmorton is a pub that really impressed me. Though I'd have to say that first impressions were I'd maybe come to the wrong pub! Turn right from the front entrance as I did, and you'll find yourself in a smart refurbished lounge/restaurant, really not the kind of place you'd expect to find the rattle and thud of skittles play. The restaurant is clearly a major part of the business plan for the Bell, along with the excellent family-friendly garden to the rear, but what sets the Bell Inn apart from so many recently refurbished pubs is that it retains a thoroughly traditional bar and games area, for which you need to turn left at the entrance.

By retaining two distinctly different rooms rather than the increasingly common knocked through and blandly refurbished lounge-bar, there remains a space for everyone to enjoy the pub whatever their taste. There also remains space for Darts, a Pool Table, and another beautifully maintained Skittles Table.

The games area is located around a corner of the main bar, keeping the noise of play to a sensible level for drinkers. In this way, the locally important game of Table Skittles, as well as other popular  and sometimes noisy pub games have been accommodated rather than ousted as they are in so many modern refurbishments.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Bulls Head, East Leake, Nottinghamshire

Other than the tiny South Notts League and the larger Derby/Notts Border League, the Nottingham Skittles League covers the bulk of competitive Long Alley play in the Nottingham area. The Winter competition, which is drawing to a close as I write this, operates over two leagues with around a dozen teams in each. At first glance these might seem healthy numbers for a local skittles league, but when examined more closely the teams and alleys which make up the league are seen to be spread over quite a wide area.

This wide geographical spread has become quite common in traditional pub game leagues. As more and more pubs and clubs are refurbished or closed down, skittle alleys are inevitably lost. The teams and players which are the lifeblood of league play may still be willing, but can often struggle to find a home alley within reasonable distance of 'home'. Of course some players and teams throw in the towel at this point, but those which remain find they have to travel ever further to fulfil league commitments. This often marks the beginning of a steady decline for traditional games leagues, and has certainly led to a good few folding in recent years.

Often it's clubs rather than pubs that are the stronghold of league skittles play now. Not because clubs have fared any better than pubs as far as closures are concerned, more that they're less likely to convert their alleys to other use, games being such an important part of the social club offering. As far as I can tell, clubs make up around half of the venues in the Nottingham Skittles League, and those pubs which have retained their alleys and are still active in league play are now pretty thin on the ground.

The Bulls Head at East Leake represents a relatively far-flung outpost of the Nottingham league, located as it is almost in the neighbouring county of Leicestershire. This is definitely the Nottinghamshire game though. The distinctive shape of the pins, the large wooden balls, and the loose metal 'foul throw' sheet set in front of the frame mark this out as the more northerly of the two Long Alley Skittles traditions.

A former Home Ales pub, the Bulls Head remains a solidly traditional village boozer, and a relatively early addition to the local council register of Assets of Community Value. This register serves to recognise facilities and services within a community that deserve special protection from inappropriate development. The kind of rapacious development that has done for so many rural and urban community pubs in recent years, often aided and abetted by the pub and brewing companies which own them but have little or no interest in their estate other than the bottom-line of property management.

The lease on the Bulls Head has been on the market for some time now, a community asset waiting for the right people (at a sensible price!) to take it forward and secure its future for the community it serves.

The skittle alley is a small but important part of what makes the Bulls Head a true community asset. A purpose built affair to the rear of the pub, not particularly pretty on the outside it's true, but tidy and functional within. Nottingham's long-closed Home Ales brewery certainly recognised the value that the local game brought to their beer and pub business, including Long Alleys in the design of many of their new-build pubs of the post-war years. The Home Ales estate effectively passed out of local ownership in the 80's following its purchase by Scottish & Newcastle. The Bulls Head is now in the hands of the mighty Heineken empire, whose commitment to community locals, and the local games which are such an important part of pubs like this, remains to be seen.