Friday, 29 May 2015

Brewers Arms, Hereford

Despite the myriad changes affecting the pub trade, much of it to the detriment of long-standing tradition and heritage, the gaming element that has been a part of pub culture since the very beginning endures. All but the most bland, corporate managed houses seem to recognise the importance of a shared gaming pursuit, even if it's just finding space for a Darts throw or a set of Dominoes and Crib Board on the windowsill. I've even come across a few pubs which have had a major gaming element such as a skittle alley reinstated, often at the behest of local players.

A dwindling few seem to make such a feature of their traditional gaming that it would be hard to imagine the pub surviving without them. The Brewers Arms in Hereford falls into this latter category, boasting a wide range of traditional pub games, including the local specialities of Skittles, Quoits, and the card game Phat, all played in leagues at the pub.

The major pub game feature of the Brewers Arms may not be immediately apparent when entering, the pubs Skittle Alley being entirely hidden from view when not in use. The traditional wooden floored alley runs down the back of the pub, and is normally concealed by a hinged partition located at one end of the public bar. A Darts Board completes the subterfuge, and it's only when a game is in progress that you'd know it was there. Skittles is played in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League, with play currently on Friday nights in the Summer league.

The Hereford & District skittles league is unique in that the 'skittles' used are all ex-bowling alley pins, often stripped of the white plastic coating (below). The use of old tyres to absorb the impact of balls and pins at the back of the alley is not unique to Hereford, but seems to be quite a common feature of the alleys hereabouts.

Indoor Quoits represents a smaller, though no less important part of the pub games scene in Hereford. This gentle but highly competitive game has suffered a catastrophic decline in recent years, disappearing entirely from former strongholds such as the Evesham area and down to just a handful of pubs and club venues in Hereford itself.

The Brewers Arms is just the kind of locals pub where this increasingly rare game can still be found, and still sees regular use throughout the summer in the local league. The red and green concrete Quoits Board and the steel frame it sits on (above), was rescued from the closed Cotterall Arms, another classic backstreet local with a strong gaming tradition in its day.

The card game of Phat, though certainly not unique to Hereford, is unusual enough to be considered a local speciality. Phat is a trick-taking game played by two pairs of players, and the giveaway that you're in a 'Phat Friendly' pub like the Brewers is the presence of large-scale scoring boards like the ones shown here. Unlike the more common game of Cribbage which scores to 121, players aim to reach 181 in the game of Phat, which is either three times around a standard Cribbage Board, or a more sensible once on the expanded Phat scorers shown here.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Gate Inn, Awsworth, Nottinghamshire

The drinking corridor at the Gate Inn
Junction 26 of the M1 is probably best known to us 'Midlanders' as the (in)famous IKEA junction. The heavy industrial past of the area around the Erewash Valley may not be immediately obvious to visitors now, but it's still possible to get a taste of it in some of the areas largely unspoilt 'locals' pubs, of which there are thankfully still quite a few.

Pubs like the Gate Inn at Awsworth, a classic village local built to serve the needs of the local mining (and brewing!) community. A pub rich in heritage and a haven for local tradition, as well as being an award-winning outlet for local and national real ales. It's also yet another example of a pub rescued by enthusiastic licensees following years of neglect and under-investment by a large-scale brewer.

When local brewers Hardys & Hansons sold out to Suffolk super-regional Greene King, the historic Kimberley Brewery, and latterly much of its pub estate, became surplus to requirements. The Gate Inn closed for a time, and that might well have been that had it not been for the enthusiasm and drive of Kim Boldock and Stephen Fox, a couple who saw a future for the pub where the out-of-touch bean-counters at Bury St Edmunds clearly couldn't.

It's an all-too familiar tale, depressingly so given the number of well-loved and important community pubs that lumbering giants like Greene King still own. The sadness turns to anger when accountant-run businesses like this refuse to give people like Kim and Stephen a chance, preferring to sell their assets off to developers, ending any chance that their own failures might be turned around (as with the New White Bull at Giltbrook for example). It seems there's a limit to how many success stories like the Gate the big-boys can stomach.

And the Gate Inn is very much a success story. Since reopening in 2010, Kim and Stephen have made a special feature of their real ales, taking advantage of the large cellar at the pub and a growing demand for characterful craft-brewed ales. The total for different beers which have passed over the bar reached the 1,000 mark just three years after re-opening, the ever-changing beer range inspiring locals to brand the recently refurbished front bar (below) 'The Sweet Shop'!

It's not just about the beer though. The Gate Inn is the kind of traditional multi-room boozer that lends itself well to a wide range of social activities, ensuring the pub remains at the very heart of the community it serves. The patio beer garden has had an extensive makeover, with a rooftop terrace adding to the summer potential. Inside is a work in progress, but already many of the facilities have been brought up to modern standards, all the while with an eye to retaining the essential heritage of the building, no IKEA-inspired makeover here! A quiet snug exists to the left of the entrance, the hallway forming an increasingly rare example of a traditional drinking corridor. Plans for the future include opening up long-closed fireplaces, a 'new' room created where an old room once existed, and generally restoring the interior to how it would have been in its prime.

Prior to Kim and Stephen arriving at the pub, the Skittle Alley had been converted to a smoking shelter. Responding to requests by local Long Alley Skittles players, the alley has now been reinstated, and thanks to other alterations at the pub, is now effectively an indoor alley. This means that play can comfortably continue year-round, the local team playing in the Nottingham League, and Border Skittles League which is drawn from venues with covered alleys in both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Already there's a skittles cup at the pub, proudly displayed in the spacious trophy cabinet mounted above the heads of the lucky regulars in the 'Sweet Shop'.

Skittle alleys are, and certainly need to be, versatile spaces. The Gate Inn already has a well-appointed function room, but pub skittle alleys of all types often fulfil this purpose. The length of an alley also makes it an ideal venue for the little-known pub sport of shooting.

Competitive small-bore rifle shooting was actively encouraged as a sport toward the end of the 19th century, largely as a result of the poor standard of shooting observed during the Boer War, and continues in many leagues throughout the country to this day. Bell Target and paper target shooting even occurs within the public areas of some pubs, with special arrangements of steel pipes and automatic target changers to facilitate a match safely.

The Shooting Gate Airgun Club is a self-contained competitive shooting club which meets on Sunday evenings in the skittle alley of the Gate Inn.

Tradition of a different kind finds a home at the Gate Inn, being the meeting place for the local Black Pig Border Morris side.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Three Hinckley Pubs

The entries for Hinckley in my 1979 copy of CAMRA's Real Ale Guide to Leicestershire & Rutland give a clear indication of the stranglehold Burton brewers had on the towns many pubs. Most were owned by Marston's, with the mighty Bass conglomerate providing the only other choice in town. The later 80's edition of the guide reads much the same, and I recall with some fondness the (relative) excitement of finding a pint of M&B Mild at the now closed Castle Tavern when the Leicester CAMRA branch were in town.

Hinckley now has its own CAMRA branch, and thankfully things have moved on a bit since then pub-wise. Which is not to say there isn't still plenty of Marstons beer about the town (Bass now seems to have become a rarity), with the lower strength Marston's Bitter still a good drink in my view. The national Wetherspoon chain helped break the mould, and since then there has been a slight, but welcome relaxation of the Burton monopoly in the town.

The former Skittle Alley at the Railway Inn
The Railway Inn (above) has certainly benefited from this recent relaxation, and is now in the hands of the excellent Steamin' Billy Brewery Co. The Railway was a popular Marston's house in its day, but had fallen on hard times despite the obvious catchment of rail passengers from the station across the road. This decline in 'railway pubs' and 'station hotels' seems to be a feature of many towns, the pub closest to the station so often a terrible disappointment to travellers where it could, and certainly should be one of the best. Quite why this might be is a mystery to me, but in the right hands many of these unofficial station buffets have been very successfully revived by forward thinking owners, and such is the case with the Railway Inn.

If I'm honest, the decor of the Railway's lounge bar doesn't appeal to me, but the bar is a real delight, and it's great that the multi-room layout has been retained and even expanded under the current owners. The bar manages to achieve a thoroughly traditional feel whilst being light and airy, bright and inviting to all. It makes waiting for a train a real pleasure, which is exactly what a station pub should do. The bar features a Darts Board, and there are regular Poker Nights on Sunday. Sadly the skittle alley, possibly the last of its kind in Hinckley town, has now been converted to dining.

The wider Hinckley area has a number of pubs which are listed by CAMRA as having important heritage interiors. This includes two in the town itself, one of which is the excellent Greyhound (above & below), located at the top end of the town.

The Greyhound has always been a treat for lovers of good pubs, retaining its traditional multi-room layout of three rooms radiating from a central servery. But like the Railway, the Greyhound had been allowed to whither on the vine by owners Marston's. Quite why Marston's are still in the pub trade is beyond me, they seem to have little idea or interest in the future of their ever-shrinking pub estate. Thankfully, there are still a few in the licensed trade who take a keen interest in our pub heritage and the unique culture which surrounds it. People like local pub hero Louise Lavender who now runs the Greyhound free of Marston's disinterest and neglect, and has set about revitalising the pub as a true asset for Hinckley drinkers.

It's a quiet oasis from the busy high street, a pub for conversation or quiet contemplation over a pint and the newspapers. The front bar area has a Darts Board, but sadly the skittles are long gone from the Greyhound.

A short walk out of town brings you to the Holywell, a pleasant enough 1920's Marston's pub, but one which is currently 'between licensees' so perhaps not at its best. A large, busy, one-room pub with all the usual pub game staples, including Darts and Pool, and the relative rarity of a traditional Skittles Table.

The pub was until recently a stalwart of local league skittles play, but currently finds itself without a home team. The Skittles Table is available for casual play, but usually resides in the marquee at the rear of the pub and requires moving indoors by the staff. Not such a big job given that this old 'Peppers' table has been augmented with a sturdy set of wheels.