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.
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.