Saturday, 20 June 2015

South Wigston, Leicestershire

The very centre of South Wigston is not a happy hunting ground for pubs. The closure of classic Victorian backstreet boozer the Grand Hotel, and more recently the Marquis of Queensbury, has left the immediate area around the rail station and shops unusually pub-free. The two social clubs will have mopped up much of the displaced custom, but the centre of the village has clearly ceased to be a destination for South Wigston drinkers.

It's in the surrounding residential areas that pub life continues unabated, particularly on the fringes bordering Wigston Magna where the two pubs featured here are found.

Nautical William

Throughout the 80's and 90's I would have driven past the Nautical William on many occasions, yet never felt inclined to pop in for a pint. At a time when 'locals' pubs like this were as common as 'local' supermarkets are today, it would have been just one more unremarkable boozer amongst many. It was also a far-flung outpost of Nottingham's Home Ales empire, offering the classic post-war beer range of Mild, Bitter, or an exotic 'mix' of Mild and Bitter. Even then, there was better available elsewhere!

The pub itself is a fairly typical 1950's building, of a type which I wouldn't have given a second glance at the time. Neither quaint nor 'historic' in the way some town and country pubs are, it's perhaps only because the pub sits on such a large plot that it stands out from the surrounding housing at all. But my view on pubs like this has changed over the years. To these eyes, pubs like the Nautical William are infinitely preferable to the new-build family dining venues which are replacing them, or the historic country pubs which promise much from the outside but have been stripped of all heritage and character within.

There's an honesty to these post-war community locals which makes them far closer to what I consider a proper pub to be than the glorified coffee houses and restaurants that so many have become of late. But it's exactly these kind of pubs, often standing on large attractive plots, that are being lost to housing and supermarket development at an alarming rate. This makes them all the more precious to pub enthusiasts like myself when they do survive largely intact and unspoilt, as is the case here.

Smartly refurbished in 2012, the Nautical William is now in private ownership, and still maintains its original multi-room layout. An entrance hall, which retains a now unused serving hatch (probably for off-sales originally, but possibly for corridor drinking), leads to a front dining room on the left, and smart public bar to the right (above). The games room to the rear of the pub is still well-used, and even the beer range has improved under the current owners.

Table Skittles, Darts and Pool are the mainstays of game play at the Nautical William, with skittles being played in division four of the Dunton Bassett Skittles League at the time I visited. There was also a skittle alley for the local game of Long Alley at one time, constructed by enthusiastic locals and opened in 1970. Whether this was in fact the current games room, which is about the right length for an alley, or another demolished building in the beer garden is not clear.

The skittles table is a W T Black & Son model. Most 'Blacks' tables are easily identifiable by the small oval plates on the front legs (though often broken or missing from the impact of a wayward 'cheese'), but they also carry information on construction stencilled on the woodwork underneath (below). This is table number 39, constructed in 1952 which is just two years before the Nautical William opened. Was this table bought from stock for the newly opened pub? If so it's quite possible that the skittles table is the only fixture at the pub contemporary with its original opening in the 50's.

Note also that this table was refurbished in 2013 by Colin Swinfen of Lutterworth, one of the few local craftsman skilled in the wood and leather work required for this job.

Chartwell Arms

I remember when the Chartwell Arms first opened its doors in the late 80's, a relatively rare occurrence even before the widespread closures of recent years. Known then as the Forryans Inn, the Chartwell is located on the edge of an industrial area, though it's essentially a residential estate pub. Bank's Brewery seemed to be one of the few who were actively building new pubs in those days, and a location like this would have suited their mixed food and drink offering, particularly back then when a lunchtime visit to the pub wasn't frowned on by employers in the way it is now.

The pub was given a fairly traditional layout which it retains to this day, with a lounge/eatery, bar area, and tile-floored games room which features Darts, Pool, and a slightly neglected Skittles Table tucked away in the corner. As can be seen in the advert for the opening (reproduced by kind permission of Midlands Vehicle Photographer), these were installed from opening, in stark contrast to newly opened pubs today, which rarely feature anything as social as a Darts Board, never mind the local game of skittles!

'Popular licensees Philip and Susan Hayes' are of course long gone from the Chartwell, and the current licensee is keen to establish games teams back at the pub following several years of instability behind the bar.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Newark, Nottinghamshire

Newark is a long-time favourite destination of mine from back in the day when rail fares were still reasonably affordable, and the time needed for a leisurely afternoon of drinking around its pubs seemed much easier to come by. Perhaps its the fact that Newark was once an important brewing town, but it's always seemed to me to have slightly more than its fair share of pubs. Needless to say, a few of these have been lost in the intervening years, but there's still a very good choice of pubs in the town, many of which are now tapping enthusiastically into the current vogue for all things beer and cider.

The modernised Organ Grinder (formerly the
Horse & Gears) has reintroduced a Darts Board
Perhaps inevitably, this rush to embrace the Craft & Cask trend has had an impact on some of the more traditional aspects of the towns pubs. On a recent visit I witnessed work in progress to convert a skittle alley to more profitable beer garden use, and multiple rooms continue to be knocked through, quirky or bland modern decor preferred to the genuine heritage which has served pubs so well for generations.

So Newark is undoubtedly a better destination for the beer drinker than it's ever been, but its pubs are changing at a rapid pace, and the kind of traditional community locals I love are giving way to a more upmarket, 'premium' offering.

Of course an open and thriving modernised pub is infinitely superior to a struggling or closed traditional boozer. It must also be said that a good deal of the change that Newarks pubs are undergoing has left room for locals to help shape the direction of 'their' pubs, and for the traditions of game play for example to either remain or be reintroduced should there be a demand. This is particularly important given that one of the three traditional pub games which are local to the area, Table Skittles, has already ceased as a league game, and the two which do remain are being pushed ever further out of town with every refurbishment.

Spring House

Long Alley Skittles is a case in point. Played throughout the East Midlands, the Newark & District Long Alley Skittles League is probably the most far-flung easterly outpost of the game, but alleys within the town are not as common as they once were. Maybe as many as half a dozen pub alleys are still in use, with the south of town being best represented.

A short walk out of the centre along Mill Gate takes you past the Watermill pub, and on the very edge of town the Spring House. I remember stopping in at this pub some 20 years ago on the way to Lincoln, though I can't honestly recall much about the place other than it (possibly?) served Mansfield Brewery beer. Back then it would certainly have had a league standard Skittles Table (Devil Amongst The Tailors) somewhere on the premises, a game which was played in a local league until quite recently. In fact the trophies from the final year of play are still held at the Spring House (above), and the table itself is still at the pub, though sadly no longer set up for play.

What is set up for play though is the Long Alley. It's no surprise that I don't recall this from my previous visit, the alley being located in an enclosed yard at the back of the pub, and far too short for play without opening a set of gates to the car park. As you can see, it's an outdoor alley, and play continues comes rain or shine, the surface having a tendency to hold a bit of water following a downpour. Perhaps that's why the 'Spring House Lads' now play out of the Malt Shovel on the other side of town, equipped as it is with a cosy indoor alley. Note the curved shape of the pins, and three large wooden balls, a feature of all Long Alley play in the Nottinghamshire (and Derbyshire) area. So too is the tin sheet positioned in front of the 'frame' which has to be cleared for a throw to score.

The Watermill

The Watermill plays host to the (locally) famous Flintstones Skittles Team, one of the few Long Alley teams in the Midlands to have any kind of online presence. The skittle alley is located outdoors to the rear of the pub, but covered against the worst of the English weather. The pub itself retains a fairly traditional multi-room layout, including a rear bar with a Skittles Table, and a second Darts throw on which the licensee had kindly set up the pubs Lincoln or Doubles Dart Board (below) for my visit.

Doubles Darts is one of the many regional variants of our most common traditional pub game, and is usually played in addition to, and not instead of the standard trebles board. This style of Doubles Board is local to the Lincolnshire area, though it only differs from the almost identical Yorkshire Doubles Board in its lack of green, red, and white colouring. Mens and Ladies Doubles Darts are played locally in the Newark & District Doubles Darts League.

The rear bar area with Doubles Dart Board set up. The pubs Skittles Table can be seen propped up against the wall, and is available for play on request.