Monday, 26 December 2016

Table Skittles in Nottingham

The Newshouse, Nottingham. The Skittles Table is set up ready for play in the bar, but the pins and ball are kept behind the bar for safe-keeping.
The classic ball-on-a-string skittles game Devil Amongst The Tailors (also known as Table or Bar Skittles) was once as popular and widespread in British pubs as Darts or Pool is today. It's one of those traditional old games that most people above a certain age readily recall, even if they haven't played it for decades. Small 'toy' examples were equally common, indeed I had one myself, but the game is perhaps most strongly associated with pubs and clubs where highly competitive leagues for the game would have existed, particularly in areas with an established 'alley' skittles tradition.

In the East Midlands the game tends to crop up in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Long Alley Skittles areas, the Northamptonshire side of the region having a very different Table Skittles tradition. In these areas it would have originally been an indoor winter game for when predominantly unheated or outdoor skittle alleys would have lost their appeal. Sadly all but one of the leagues for this form of table skittles in the East Midlands has ceased competition, the Newark league being the most recent to fold. Only the Nottingham & Arnold Table Skittles and Domino League remains, a competitive league so diminutive as to be virtually invisible outside of the handful of pubs and clubs which compete in its single division.

In Nottingham itself I know of just three pubs with a Devil Amongst The Tailors table available for play, and of these only one competes in the Arnold league, the bulk of those venues being private members clubs. The Newshouse has a good 'league standard' example, as does the Nags Head and Blacks Head, both in the suburb of Carlton, an area that was once a hotbed of Long Alley and Table Skittles play.

The Skittles Table at the Blacks Head is a classic Jaques model, and is usually set up ready for play in the smaller left-hand bar. The pub was refurbished to a high standard in 2015, but has retained its traditional public bar as well as a lounge and small snug at the rear. This pub doesn't currently compete in the local league, though the licensee is keen to get a team together at some point.


The nearby Nags Head has also had a recent refurbishment, and thankfully it too retains its traditional multi-room layout which includes separate Pool and Darts rooms off the main bar area. Two Pool teams play from the Nags, and the licensee is hoping to attract a Darts team soon. This is one of only two pubs that field a team in the local Table Skittles and Domino league, the other being The Plough at Keyworth.

The Skittles Table, another slightly older Jaques model by the look of it, is tucked away towards the rear of the bar, and has its own dedicated scoreboard. The pins are kept behind the bar for safe keeping.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Horse & Groom, Rearsby, Leicestershire

Whilst there are still a good few pubs in Leicestershire equipped for the local game of Long Alley Skittles, the general trend continues to be downwards. Every change of ownership and subsequent refurbishment brings with it the threat of another lost alley, and the epidemic of closures affecting village and suburban locals has inevitably contributed to the games decline in recent years. Nevertheless, the game is still popular at those pubs which retain an alley. Skittles is an ideal game for team-building and social functions, and competitive play continues in the Tom Bishop Memorial, and Syston & District Long Alley Skittles Leagues. Just occasionally, a long-closed or neglected alley is brought back into use, as is the case at the Horse & Groom in the north Leicestershire village of Rearsby.

Rearsby lies at the very heart of one of Leicestershire's two main areas for Long Alley Skittles. Close to the village of Syston which gives the local league its name, and also Thrussington, home to an unusual pair of outdoor skittle 'alleys' on the village green, and a traditional summer skittles event which has been held in the village for over 50 years. Pubs with good skittle alleys are dotted all along the Wreake Valley as far as Melton Mowbray, and a slightly different version of the game is played just over the border in Nottinghamshire.

When I first visited the Horse & Groom a couple of years ago, the skittle alley was in a sorry state and hadn't seen active service for some time. More recently the pub has changed hands, and licensees Tracey and Eddie Kimber have not only spruced-up and brought the alley back into use, but embarked on a series of improvements to all parts of the pub, including I'm pleased to say the beer range, which now includes the popular Harvest Pale Ale from Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham.

Traditional games and local league play are often the lifeblood of village and suburban locals, and no more so than at the Horse & Groom. The main Summer activity at the pub is Pétanque, possibly the most popular game played at pubs and clubs in this part of Leicestershire. League matches are usually held on Wednesday evenings throughout the summer months, and Pétanque is a good spectator sport, particularly when accompanied by a cool beer on a warm summer evening. Two teams play from the pub in the 1990 Pétanque League.

The Pétanque piste at the rear of the pub
Parts of the pub date from the very beginning of the 19th century, though there have been many later additions and alterations since then. The original layout can still be discerned in what is now a single bar room, and probably consisted of three rooms off a central corridor. The corridor is of course long-gone, but the bar retains these three separate areas and many original features. This includes an off-sales hatch on the right-hand side of the bar counter, a separate servery that would have been accessed from the corridor so that customers could purchase takeouts without having to enter the 'on' licensed rooms. Off-sales were once a common feature of pubs, but have now almost entirely disappeared following the late 20th century de-regulation of alcohol sales, allowing shops, and latterly supermarkets to dominate the lucrative take-home trade.

One of these three areas is dedicated to the pubs Dartboard, and landlord Eddie captains the Horse & Groom Darts team in the Syston & District Darts League.

The pub was originally a coaching inn on the now bypassed Leicester to Melton road, and the skittle alley is housed in the pubs former stabling (below). Note the three large sliding doors fronting onto the main road, the original equine access points. The alley is now back in regular use and has already hosted functions, accompanied by the traditional 'Skittles Evening' supper of Pork Faggots & Peas. It is also hoped that the pub will get a team together for competition in the local league in the coming season.

A boxing day Tug-o-War has been held in the village of Rearsby for over 40 years now. Originally the rivalry was between the Horse & Groom and the nearby Wheel pubs, with teams vying to pull their opponents into the village brook. It seems that competitive spirit runs deep in Rearsby, and the village pubs of the Wreake Valley continue to be at the heart of this healthy local rivalry. It must be something in the water!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Skittles In Dorset

The Chapelhay Tavern, Weymouth
What little I know of the Dorset skittles tradition can be attributed to my fellow pub games enthusiast, and enthusiastic Dorset skittler John Penny. John plays out of the historic skittle alley at the Rose and Crown in the village of Bradford Abbas, competing in summer and winter leagues in the Yeovil area. Earlier this year I was honoured to make up the numbers in the final game of the 2015/16 season at the Rose and Crown, a grand night in good company, and a great opportunity to see how the game is played locally. But is there in fact a Dorset skittles tradition?

A very similar game of alley skittles is played throughout most of the West Country, as well as much of the West Midlands, South Wales, and central southern England. Even Scotland has a historic pub skittle alley (a twin one in fact), though sadly no surviving leagues to my knowledge. Skittles is essentially the same game throughout all of these areas, and yet subtly different almost everywhere you find it, which is of course a large part of the fascination I have for this most traditional of pub games.

So I don't believe we can say there is a specific Dorset skittles tradition, because most of the traditions associated with skittles play are either universal (nine pins, three balls, wooden floored alley), or uniquely local, and therefore can't really be pinned down to a county. Just about every aspect of the game varies depending on where you play it, including the size of the pins and balls, alley dimensions, rules, regulations, customs and conventions, and perhaps inevitably in an area with such a rich and diverse dialect, the terminology of the game. Perhaps one day, someone will write a book that helps explain these myriad differences...

This team photograph hangs in the bar of the White Hart in Sherborne. The pub has been extensively modernised in recent times, and needless to say no longer has a skittle alley, but this and several other sport and games photos associated with the pub have been preserved.

In practice, Dorset skittles is much the same game as the one played in Devon and Somerset, that is to say the pins and balls used are of a similar design and size, including a slightly taller kingpin, or 'Landlord' which is not found in other areas such as Bristol and the Three Counties. There is however one aspect of the game which seems to have originated in the county. The clue is in the name!

The classic single-handed delivery has been used to deliver balls down alleys for as long as the game of skittles has been played. It's a tried and tested method that's clearly stood the test of time. Admittedly some use the right-hand for preference, others favour the left, but the basic technique is the same the world over. Or at least it was until some bright spark developed the 'new-fangled' delivery known as the Dorset Flop!

One of the quirks of skittles as it's played in Britain, and one which enthusiasts of the 10-pin 'Bowling' game probably find frustrating, is that skittle balls have no holes for the fingers to grip. Skittle balls vary in size, but one thing they all have in common is that they weigh a fair bit, all the better to do the damage at the business end of the alley. Traditionally the dense, hard-as-nails wood Lignum Vitae has been used for the West Country game, though many now use resin or rubber coated equivalents. The size and weight of these balls can make them quite difficult to handle, particularly if your hands are small. The colourfully named Dorset Flop gets round this by being a two-handed delivery, one in which the player launches themselves forward, 'flopping' down onto the alley once their hands are free of the ball. It's a very accurate method, and one that's become very popular throughout much of the West Country, particularly with younger players.

Goldies, Dorchester

The Dorchester & District Skittles League has around 60 mens teams playing in 4 divisions, and a further 16 ladies teams. Clubs appear to make up most of the venues, with around four pub alleys in the county town itself and several more further afield. Goldies, (also known as the Borough Arms), has a very good alley at the rear of the building, as does the nearby Tom Browns pub.

One feature of just about all league skittles play is 'home advantage'. In theory a player will always derive some advantage from playing on their home alley, if only because it's the one they play and practice on most of the time, but sometimes other factors come into play. The alley at Goldies is located in a stone walled outbuilding which may or may not have been built for the purpose. If it was, they didn't do a particularly good job of it as the alley slopes significantly uphill giving a very tangible advantage to the teams that call Goldies their home!

The Mermaid, Sherborne

The town of Sherborne lies at the very heart of the Dorset skittles tradition, only a few miles from it's most famous pub alley in Bradford Abbas, and yet finding a pub with a functioning alley proved to be a difficult task on my recent visit. Perhaps no great surprise given the attractive, somewhat touristy nature of a town like Sherborne.

Vestiges of the towns former skittles tradition do remain however, including an alley at the Plume of Feathers in the very centre of town, though nobody was quite sure whether it was still in use, which tends to suggest it's not! The locals at the White Hart, and the George Hotel opposite, proved useful for my search, pointing out several former skittling pubs in the town which no longer had alleys! On a more positive note, everywhere I went the consensus seemed to be that the best, possibly only chance of finding a pub with an active skittle alley in Sherborne was at the enticingly named Mermaid a little way out of the town centre.

Of all the pubs I visited in Sherborne that day, and I think I may well have visited all of them, The Mermaid was in many ways my favourite. Sometimes you just know when you walk into a pub whether it's 'right' or not, and the Mermaid was just that. A proper community locals pub, I found that I was immediately drawn into conversation with the friendly locals at the bar. A crowd which included a keen, and very successful skittles player of old, and all with a tale to tell about the pub in its heyday.

The Mermaid is quite a sizeable, classic early 20th century boozer, built as The Mermaid Hotel by the Dorsetshire Brewery Company probably around the 1920's. Located on the edge of a large area of housing, the population of which once packed into the pub at a time when the beer was served straight from the barrel on a long stillage behind the bar.

Nowadays the Mermaid is a single bar pub occupying the right-hand side of the building, with an adjacent games area for Pool and Darts (below). The left-hand side houses a Chinese takeaway. Certainly not the most traditional aspect of the pub, but I'm pleased to say that a good few customers make use of the bar for a drink whilst waiting for their food order, which can only be a good thing for the survival of a pub like this given that so many like it have closed in recent years.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Drillmans Arms, Stratton, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

The Cirencester District Men's Skittles League is currently made up of around 60 teams playing in 5 divisions. A healthy enough figure and fairly typical of leagues throughout the West Country. In fact the secretary of the Cirencester league reckons around 10% of the male population in the area play skittles at one time or another, a remarkable figure if true. Yet on a recent trip to the town itself, tracking down a pub with a skittle alley proved more difficult than these figures might suggest.

A CAMRA pub guide to Gloucestershire from 1996 lists eight pubs with functioning skittle alleys in the town. Just 20 years later only two appear to remain, one at the Wheatsheaf on Cricklade Street, and a very fine alley at the Bees Knees (formerly the Plume of Feathers). The rest of the eight were in pubs that have either closed for good or had their alleys removed as part of a major refurbishment. The Golden Cross for example was listed as having a skittle alley and described as being a proper locals pub in the 90's guide. It's now a modern, stylish town-centre pub/bar majoring on food, the skittle alley having been converted to alternate use as recently as 2014.

That most of Cirencester's town centre pubs have moved upmarket, concentrating almost exclusively on food and the Cotswold tourist trade, is perhaps no great surprise. The loss of so many of the towns more 'suburban' community locals is saddening though, particularly given that these often prove to be the stronghold for skittles and other pub games when they are effectively pushed out of the town centre.

So I was forced to look a little further afield, and I'm glad that I did because I found myself at one of the areas very best pubs, the Drillmans Arms in the village/suburb of Stratton. An attractive Georgian pub on the old Gloucester road, and yet another of those truly great locals boozers that I wish was my own local.

The Drillmans Arms is a great favourite with beer drinkers locally, and a regular entry in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. It's also that rarest of things, a pub that's been in the same hands for over 25 years. Licensees Richard and Denise Selby made the Drillmans their home in 1990, and have run the pub along reassuringly traditional lines ever since. It's this rare continuity of ownership, and by people who so obviously care about the traditions of pub-going, that goes a long way to explaining the pubs popularity with both locals and visitors alike.

The front bar (above) is clearly the hub of the pub, buzzing with a good crowd of after-work drinkers when I popped in on a warm summer afternoon. To the rear is a smaller lounge bar with an adjacent area for the pubs Pool Table, and it's this bar which serves the pubs very fine Skittle Alley.

With so many pubs and alleys closing in recent years, it's no surprise that those few which remain can be very busy with league play throughout the week. The Drillmans hosts something in the region of ten teams, some of which appear to be quite good at the game given the number of trophies on show. The alley also doubles as a function room, with Dartboards for both mens and ladies teams who play out of the pub. To complete the traditional gaming at this most traditional of pubs, two teams call the Drillmans home in the Cirencester & District Cribbage League.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

Some Cribbage Boards

I don't play Cribbage, and yet I seem to have acquired one or two Cribbage Boards in recent years. Cribbage is a game that takes slightly more time to learn than most traditional pub games. The basics of games like Dominoes, Skittles, or Darts can be grasped in no more time than it takes to explain them, even if some measure of expertise in the game may take much longer to achieve. But mastery of Cribbage comes through experience, and even then the game seems to involve frequent, and to the uninitiated, baffling debate over the scoring!

To be taught the game of Cribbage is a great thing though because like Fives & Threes Dominoes, once you know how to play to a reasonable level, there are usually plenty of opportunities to find a casual afternoon game. In my limited experience of observing Cribbage around the country, there are a great many players who are more than happy to peg a board with a stranger, such is the appeal of the game to those who appreciate its intricacies. Like Dominoes, it's also a very sociable game, which perhaps goes some way to explaining its decline in recent times! For more about Cribbage, I'd recommend a look at Siv Sears Cribbage in the Counties blog, a travelogue and labour of love based around the six (occasionally five) card game.

A classic old polished Brass & Mahogany Cribbage Board. Whether it was made by a tradesman, or homemade from recycled pieces that were to hand I'll never know, but it's nice examples like this that help explain the attraction of Cribbage Boards to collectors. Note the large hole at the end for hanging on a wall.
Three Player parquetry inlaid Crib Board
Cribbage Boards seem to have been designed principally for scoring Cribbage. A statement so obvious it's hardly worth stating, but Crib boards have been co-opted to score many other games since then. In fact the scoring of some pub games seem to have been designed specifically around the standard Crib Board. Devil amongst the Tailors sets often come with a cribbage style scoring board built into them, with 121 the target score. Similarly Fives & Threes Dominoes scores to 121, and this is what I tend to use my small collection of boards for.

This of course doesn't explain why I've got far more Cribbage Boards than I'll ever need for an afternoon game of Dominoes. Just one would do the job adequately, and of course many pubs have their own boards available for use. The fact is, there's something wonderfully 'collectable' about Crib Boards. This is principally down to the endless variation in design, but also because some are such beautiful works of craftsmanship. I certainly don't aim to acquire every board I see, indeed some are offered at such ridiculous prices it could become a very expensive collecting interest, but when I see one I like, well it's hard not to...

I resisted the urge to buy these two, which are typical brewery branded Crib Boards from the late 20th century. Pretty much every sizeable brewery offered these advertising items to licensees, and Bass Worthington were a very sizeable concern indeed, with a truly national presence through their bottled and draught beers. These are cheaply made commercial examples, of more interest to the Breweriana collector than those of us who appreciate a nice bit of old polished wood.

Brewery branding on Crib Boards is common, but so too are more personalised examples. Some carry the name of the maker or owner, whilst others like the one shown here at the Bakers Arms in Mickleton, Gloucestershire are marked with the name of the pub. These are nice items to find, particularly if you can track down which pub they originally came from, often a lot more difficult than it sounds.

This monster size Crib Board is practically a piece of furniture! At around 15 inches long it could best be described as 'oversized' for the job, and the mahogany door knobs for feet don't help the size issue. In common with most of these earlier Crib Boards, this one features some nice parquetry in boxwood and a darker 'ebonised' wood, and there's a sliding cover underneath concealing a small compartment for the all-important Crib Pegs.

Strangely enough, the Crib Boards I'm most attracted to are tatty old examples like the one shown here. Definitely a homemade or 'shed built' board, there's something so appealing to me about old wood that's obviously seen many years of hard service. A basic, utilitarian board, probably fabricated from an offcut of wood. Stained dark brown from years of smoke, beer, and handling, items like this reflect an aspect of social history that rarely makes it into the history books. A working mans Crib Board, rescued from oblivion (and in due course the fire!) to score a game once again.

The Ushers Brewery of Trowbridge in Wiltshire was closed over 15 years ago. This Crib Board dates from a good deal before then probably the mid-20th century, given that few breweries advertised Stouts as part of their portfolio due to the ubiquity of Guinness toward the end of the century. The Mahogany and Brass circular Crib Board below is a somewhat impractical beauty, which given the similarly unfeasible price I resisted the urge to add to my collection.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cricketers Rest, Kimberley, Nottinghamshire

Pub closures are down to just 21 a week according to industry figures, a statistic that's being trumpeted as some kind of good news story in certain quarters! It's still a thoroughly depressing figure though, particularly given that the vast majority of these closures are the kind of village and suburban locals that communities can ill-afford to lose. What's most depressing about this figure is that a great many of these closures are entirely unnecessary, and of course almost always against the wishes of the locals affected.

The reason that's so often given when a pub closes for the final time is that the custom is simply not there anymore, but this often hides the role that some pub-owners have played in driving custom away. 'Use it or lose it' is certainly true up to a point, but the fact is that many of our most traditional pubs have been so badly neglected in recent years, and become so run down that they're simply not fit for purpose. A tatty boozer selling a limited range of drinks, and at the artificially inflated prices many pubcos inflict on their licensee 'partners', will always struggle to attract and retain customers. The myth that people don't like pubs anymore is just that, and the smokescreen it creates continues to be readily accepted by all too many observers of the trade and repeated ad-nauseam by the media, which of course helps pave the way for the asset-stripping that follows.

Needless to say there are many villains in this destruction of our pub heritage, from the cash-strapped pubcos that own so many of our best community boozers, to the developers and supermarket chains who prey on these easy targets. And of course the lax planning laws that makes it so easy to convert important community assets like the pub to other use. Thankfully, it's not all bad news though, and there are still plenty of local heroes in the pub trade. People who are that little bit closer to the shop-floor, and therefore still able to appreciate the value of pubs to the individuals and communities they serve. People that have the flair and passion to manage pubs both profitably, and for the good of everyone.

Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham are pub heroes, and have been instrumental in rescuing numerous pubs from neglect or threat of closure. Born out of the pioneering Tynemill pub chain, itself an early entry in the burgeoning real ale scene of the 90's, their small pub chain was quick to establish itself as a firm favourite with beer drinkers in the East Midlands. This at a time when the beer and pub scene was still largely dominated by the old established regional and national breweries.

My first encounter with the Tynemill chain was on our frequent trips to Loughborough for what seemed at the time a remarkable range of real ales at the classic Swan in the Rushes pub. Tynemill, and latterly Castle Rock Brewery pubs have always majored on good beer, but they also tend to be the kind of traditional multi-room locals that have fallen out of favour with the bigger breweries and pubcos, which makes Castle Rock an important custodians of our vanishing pub heritage.

Castle Rock's latest acquisition is the Cricketers Rest in Kimberley, a north Nottinghamshire village with a proud brewing heritage. The pub stands almost in the shadow of the now defunct Hardys & Hansons brewery, to which many of the pubs locally, the Cricketers included, were formerly tied. Sadly the brewery and its pub estate fell into the hands of Greene King following a management sellout in 2006. The brewery was closed in short order, and almost from day one there has been a steady disposal of the more traditional wet-led locals in the former Hardys & Hansons pub estate.

Sadly, pubs like the Cricketers simply don't fit in with the food and family dining concept which large pubcos lke Greene King see as the future of pubs. A strong local campaign wasn't enough to keep the New White Bull at nearby Giltbrook from being permanently closed by Greene King, and it's easy to see how the Cricketers could have become yet another of the 21-a-week statistic.

The Cricketers Rest is set back from and above the main road through Kimberley, close to the old GNR rail station which served the village before it too was closed in the 60's. The original multi-room interior has been opened out over the years, but there are still three distinct areas. Needless to say the beer range has improved under Castle Rock ownership, and the Cricketers now forms a link in a chain of nearby good beer destinations which include the recently opened Miners Return micropub, and the Stag Inn, both in Kimberley village.
Long Alley Skittles is the local game, and I'm delighted that Castle Rock have retained this traditional East Midlands game at the pub. The Cricketers Rest has a very good quality alley located in the garden to the rear of the pub. The 'frame' (right) is covered, and doubles as a smoking shelter for pub regulars, but the 'Chock Hole' and throw are open to the elements, as indeed they usually are in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Long Alley.

I was lucky enough to chat with a couple of locals when I visited recently, and there are plans to get a team up for competition in the local Border Skittles League. With the recent loss of alleys at the Miners Welfare and New White Bull, the alley at the Cricketers Rest is now one of the last of its kind in the immediate area, so it's great that it will hopefully come back into regular use in the near future at yet another Castle Rock rescue job.