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.

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