Sunday, 9 August 2015

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

It's been a good few years since I last visited Bridgnorth, once a regular destination in one of my favourite English counties. Returning to much-loved old haunts after a long absence carries the risk of crushing disappointment, but  I have to say that Bridgnorth and its many attractions didn't let me down.

The wholesale changes I've come to expect wherever I go these days seem curiously, and refreshingly absent in Bridgnorth. A few new restaurants to choose from, the inevitable Wetherspoon on the High Street, perhaps less independent retailers and a few more charity shops! But by and large everything seems much as I remember it, right down to a good number of very good pubs, and of course the two iconic heritage railways for which the town is best known to many visitors.

I stayed in Low Town, the smaller 'half' of Bridgnorth bisected by the wide expanse of the River Severn. There are several pubs down here, the pick of the bunch for me being the Fosters Arms, a traditional two bar boozer where the pub game staples of Darts and Dominoes rule. There's a cosy lounge to the rear, presumably the venue for league Domino action given the unusual clock behind the bar counter (below), but its the public bar at the front where you'll find the locals propping up the bar and chewing the fat.

Low Town is also home to the unique Bylet Bowls Club, located on a tree-lined island just downstream of the historic stone bridge over the Severn. Crown Green Bowls is the game here, played on two immaculately maintained greens throughout the Summer. Crown Green Bowls differs from Flat Green Bowls in that the green rises in height to a 'crown' in the centre, and play occurs from all angles rather the parallel 'rinks' of the flat game. You'll know there's a game on by the noise emanating from the club, enough to rival any Sunday League football match, and I'd highly recommend popping over to view the spectacle if time permits.

At a time when the high streets of so many towns are dominated by national and international chains and brands, it's always refreshing to find somewhere which has retained much of its individuality and local character. Pubs and bars have succumbed to this homogeneity as much as any retail sector, and even those that remain independently run have often lost much of their character through bland refurbishment.

The Golden Lion (above) remains steadfastly traditional, and full of the essential character that sets genuine pubs apart from the characterless chain bars and foodie managed houses of the high street. It's a remarkable survivor located as it is in the very centre of town, and one of the finest and friendliest pubs I've visited in a good long while. This is an historic multi-room inn, and a genuine inn at that as it also offers accommodation. But it's the public bar (above) at the front of the pub that offers the best chance to rub shoulders with and chat with the locals. This is also the venue for Dominoes, a popular game at the Golden Lion, and with a home team who have achieved some success in the Bridgnorth & District League. Just ask at the bar and you'll be furnished with all the necessary equipment, including a baize covered table-topper which features a crib board suitable for the Shropshire giants of the game (below)!

The other traditional gaming feature of the Golden Lion is Quoits, a game once popular throughout Shropshire and well into the West Midlands, but now very much a rarity this far from the Welsh border. The traditional red and green painted board folds up from the wall, with the unique home made scorer situated adjacent to it, but sadly the rubber Quoits are no more. Apparently they were stored on a high shelf of the bar and melted during a particularly hot summer! Consequently the game is rarely if ever played now, but thankfully the board remains, and is available for play should you have a set of Quoits available. Certainly I regretted not bringing my own set for a game.

Another game which seems to have all but disappeared from this part of Shropshire is Skittles. The existence of what would have been a very well-appointed alley at the Shakespeare Inn, the only one in the town to my knowledge, suggests the game may have been more widespread in the county at one time. Hardly surprising given that the counties adjoining the southern edge of Shropshire retain a strong skittling tradition. Sadly the alley, and the pins in particular, have seen better days. But new licensees at the pub seem keen to exploit this unique facility, so lets hope a refurbishment is on the cards in the near future.

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