Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Worcester Skittles

Most of the major towns in the Three Counties have a strong and enduring skittles tradition. The county town of Worcester is no exception with a fair number of alleys dotted around its pubs and clubs, particularly in the suburban areas where the pubs retain a more traditional social function than the town-centre circuit. However, the two pubs featured here represent the extremes of the games current fortunes, a situation common everywhere as pubs struggle to survive and adapt in a tough commercial world.

Although it's safe to say that skittle alleys are not as common as they once were in Worcester, the game is still popular and supported at competitive level by several leagues, including the Worcester & District Skittles League, the slightly smaller Worcester Friendly Skittles League, and a Ladies League. Players from Worcester also compete in the Three Cities League, a regional 'Derby' against teams from Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.

Throughout the traditional playing areas of the West Midlands and West Country, it's not uncommon to find skittle alleys in use most weekday evenings. Skittles is still very popular in certain parts of the country, and the consolidation that has resulted from numerous pub and club closures in recent years can make for some very busy skittle alleys. For many pubs this almost constant weekday skittles play can be the very lifeblood of the business, as the licensees of the West Midland Tavern in Worcester made clear to me on the Saturday afternoon I visited the pub.

The West Midland Tavern is located on the edge of the town centre, very much a friendly locals pub where sport, live music and entertainments pull in a good weekend crowd. During the week it's gaming that keeps the pub ticking over, and the skittle alley in particular, with teams accounting for upwards of two dozen customers on what may otherwise be a quiet night.

The West Midlands Tavern host enough teams in the various leagues to keep the alley and pub busy throughout the week. Each of the locked boxes shown below contain the pins and balls of a home team playing out of the pub, which must be quite a task for league secretaries to arrange the seasons fixture list without double-booking the alley.

You might think that leagues and teams operating in the same area would play with a standard set of  pins, but as can be seen here, there's quite a bit of variation from one set to another. These three examples could be broadly described as a Gloucester pin and two sizes of Bristol pin.

It was in conversation with the licensee of the West Midland Tavern that I learnt of the imminent demise of the nearby Bridge Inn, and by the time you read this the pub is likely to have closed, quite probably for good. A board outside advertised a 'Last Chance' disco and karaoke that evening, and what was probably a very fine pub at one time was showing all the signs of neglect I've come to recognise in similarly doomed boozers.

The skittle alley at the rear of the pub had already been taken out of service some years ago. A sad sight, made all the more so by the vintage roll of honour hanging at the business end of the alley (below), recording the early 80's Bridge Inn House Champions in Cribbage, Darts, Dominoes, Pool, and of course Skittles. The alley has been marking time as a storage and band rehearsal space for several years now, and is apparently destined to be demolished for flats. I'm glad I popped in to record its passing, and hope the roll of honour finds a better home than in a skip. Many more closures like this and the West Midland Tavern will need another alley!

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Boat Inn, Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire

Some of the early local and regional CAMRA pub guides can be useful documents to pub enthusiasts like myself. Dating from the 1970's onwards, these pocket-size guides would eventually cover most parts of the country, and at their best give a valuable insight into a tradition of pub-going which most pubs can only dream of now!

The actual pub descriptions are often perfunctory at best, the campaigning focus of CAMRA in those days being firmly rooted in the revival of real ale at a time when pubs were largely taken for granted! The Northamptonshire guide which I find most useful dates from the late 80's, a time which might now be regarded as the very beginnings of the current massive decline in pubs and pub going. This comparatively recent guide has much better descriptions than most, even the local Northamptonshire Skittles game was deemed important enough to feature wherever a table existed, sadly not always the case with CAMRA's current (and otherwise excellent) national pub guide Whatpub.

Though closures were much rarer back then, the late 80's and 90's were still a time of great change in the pub trade. The wholesale knocking-through of multi-room pubs was a particular concern, and inappropriate refurbishment was as common then as it is today. The descriptions in the Northants guide reflect this, sometimes in ways that seem unduly harsh in retrospect. The Boat Inn is a good example of this, the extensions and additions to the historic heart of the original pub described rather cruelly in the guide as being carbuncles!

Harsh indeed given the fate of so many similarly attractive village pubs in the intervening years. The writers of that pub guide must surely reflect on whether this beautiful thatched canalside pub would have survived at all had it not been for the investment and far-sighted business sense of the owners? That the original series of interlinked rooms survive to be enjoyed today is undoubtedly thanks to the success of the business overall. A honey-pot for families and diners which fully exploits the pubs attractive location, and yet remains entirely true to its origins as a humble bargees watering hole and village local.

You really have to take your hat off to the licensees of the Boat Inn. Less sympathetic owners would no doubt have opened out and spoilt the original interior to squeeze a few more tables in, assuming it even survived as a pub. And would a space have been retained for the old Northamptonshire Skittles Table in the bar? Doubtful in my view.

The Boat has been run by the same family for approaching 150 years, and in sympathetically modernising and extending the historical original, they have surely done local and visiting pub-goers a huge service. Indeed my only criticism of the interior is that you probably have to get there pretty early to bag a seat in the cosy older part, such is the popularity of the pub at all times of the year.

The Skittles Table, a 1960's W T Black & Son model, sits in its own ante-room off the old bar area. The table is missing the usual netted 'hood' designed to catch wayward throws, but this is not really required given that the table sits snugly in an alcove. I imagine it must come in for an awful lot of play from visitors to the pub, particularly the steady stream of leisure boaters with more time on their hands than most. Northamptonshire Table Skittles must be a local curiosity for many visitors, who no doubt require a little coaching in the throw, the rules of the game, and general skittling etiquette.

Life has just got a little bit tougher for this venerable old table following the Boat's recent return to the Gayton & District League after an absence of over 25 years.

Several decades of use can take its toll on a Northants Skittles Table. The leatherwork is usually the first thing to go, the woodwork usually requiring little more than a new coat of paint. Table No.124 has been refurbished by A Pinkard of Kislingbury at some point in the past, a name which appears on many skittles tables in Northamptonshire, and probably the local repairer and refurbisher for most of the league tables in the Gayton League.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Loggerheads, Shrewsbury

If you only have time to visit one pub in Shrewsbury, my recommendation would be the fabulously unspoilt Loggerheads on Church Street. Located in the very centre of the town, this is surely every tourists idea of the quintessential English pub. A truly historic and unspoilt alehouse, important enough to be included on CAMRA's inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

There's absolutely no doubting the heritage of the place. It's all there waiting to be seen because thankfully the current owners have resisted the urge to enhance or embellish its natural charms unnecessarily. Beautifully well-maintained, it's also an honest, working, town-centre locals pub, and that is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Loggerheads.

This aspect is perhaps most clearly seen in the small Bar Parlour (above & left), the centrepiece of the pub which fronts the main servery and it's row of polished handpumps.

Quiet and intimate, the kind of place where it's hard not to be drawn into the conversation, indeed it would probably be rude not to. This is clearly the social hub of a friendly and welcoming town-centre pub. Would that all pubs retained a 'Bar Parlour' like this.

There are two entrances to the pub, one takes you down a corridor to a smaller servery, opposite which is the Smoke Room (below). This was a 'Gentleman Only' bolt-hole until as recently as 1975. High backed settles and rough scrubbed-top tables create an intimate space, ideal for an afternoon game of Shove Ha'penny. The pub has a fine old slate board in the 'Smoke', and half pennies are available for a game from the bar.

The other entrance leads directly into the 1930's refurbished Lounge Bar (below), which if it were not for the rest of the Loggerheads attractions would be worth the admission price on its own. Note the erroneous Loggerhead Turtle pub sign mounted above the servery. As can be seen below, this room houses the pubs Dart Board.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Crown, Bathley, Nottinghamshire

The Crown first came to my attention a few years ago following a visit to the Muskham Ferry at nearby North Muskham. The Newark area was, until quite recently, one of only a handful of places in the country where Table Skittles, or Devil Amongst The Tailors, was still played competitively at league level. Sadly the league folded several years ago, but occasional friendlies are still played in those pubs where the skittles table hasn't been packed away for good. The locals at the Muskham Ferry were just about to play one of these friendlies, an away match at the Crown.

I can certainly see the appeal of an evening friendly at the Crown, it really is a great all-round village local. A pub noted for good beer and food in an attractive rural location, and with a lovely garden for the summer months. The lounge bar with its open fire a comfortable retreat in the winter, and a smaller public bar which houses the pubs well-used Darts Board. It's also the principal venue for village functions, and the meeting place for local council business given that the village has no other suitable venue.

The Skittles Table may only see occasional friendly use now, but the alley where it resides is still in regular use for games in the Newark & District Long Alley Skittles League. Long Alley in the Newark area is played with the same iron-shod curvy pins and large round balls found throughout Nottinghamshire, and as far north and west as Clay Cross and Ashbourne in Derbyshire. This is a very well-appointed alley in an area where many are still located outdoors and largely exposed to the elements. The cast iron 'frame' is set a little smaller than many, which means the pins stand slightly closer together resulting in higher than average scores.

Most of the skittles tables I've seen in the Newark area are locally made, usually by a pub regular or someone known to the league. These tables often bear a small brass plaque with the name of the maker, and perhaps uniquely to the Newark area, feature a small drawer rather than the usual lidded trough to store the pins in. The one at the Crown however seems to be a good quality manufactured table, similar to the better quality old Jaques models where a crib-style scoreboard acts as a cover for the skittle storage trough. The dimensions and spacings are standard though, as they would have to be to facilitate league play.

In the games heyday of the early 20th century, these 'league standard' skittles tables were made by numerous small manufacturers throughout the country. Some were very high quality indeed, sturdily manufactured from mahogany or other expensive hardwoods, and with leather padding to reduce impacts and noise during a game. This table is more modestly upholstered, as most pub tables are, with a few offcuts of carpet. The skittles table can be brought into the bar for a game on request.