Saturday, 30 January 2016

Royal Oak, Whitecroft, Gloucestershire

Tracking down pubs which feature the increasingly rare game of indoor Quoits can be a difficult task. The more common pub games such as Skittles and Darts are frequently represented online with league or team websites, and even thoroughly local or regional games such as Toad in the Hole and Aunt Sally are well covered, venues for play relatively easy to find. Quoits on the other hand is almost invisible outside of the relatively small number of pubs and clubs where the game is now played.

Of the handful of Quoits leagues which still exist, most are relatively isolated from each other. The Hereford League extends no further than the town itself, and those based at Kington, Clee Hill, and the Welsh borders are hardly near neighbours. The most isolated of all seems to be the Forest of Dean League, an area which has seen a good-few pub closures in recent years, and a rapidly shrinking number of venues for the game in those that are still open.

In the absence of a website for the forest league, I went looking for the Miners Arms in Whitecroft, a pub well-known to me for its impressive cider range, but which also held the promise of a Quoits board. Unfortunately for me the pub has been thoroughly refurbished in recent years, and the Quoits Board is sadly long-gone. It's a very good pub nonetheless, noted for fine dining and with a good skittle alley to the rear. Following a half of strong local cider, the staff were happy to point me in the direction of the villages current hotbed of league Quoits play, the Royal Oak.

Not knowing much about the pub, I must admit that I approached with an element of caution. Was it a welcoming pub? Were the locals friendly? I needn't have worried, the welcome was as warm as the impressive open fire, and the locals were a chatty bunch, carrying the mildly amused look of villagers well used to visitors like ourselves.

Pride of place in the main bar area is the pubs Quoits Board, a white painted slab of aggregate, sitting on top of a standard steel frame strung with netting to catch errant quoits. This all-white colour scheme, as opposed to the more common red and green, seems to be traditional to the Forest of Dean area. Four rubber quoits are available for play, and a home-made scoreboard sits adjacent to the board, the use of which may need some explaining if like me you tend to play a simple point-scoring game.

These scoreboards come in all manner of different styles, but they all perform the same basic task. In league play, the idea is to score each of the numbers on the board. 1-12 in the case of this one, but other leagues have higher or lower numbers. Four quoits are thrown, the outer ring of the Quoits Board scoring 1, the inner 2, and the bolt or 'Hob' scores 5. The maximum score is therefore 20. On each throw, the combination of scores from the four quoits is totalled and this numbered flap on the scoreboard is claimed as yours, should it be available. Your opponent cannot now score that number. The winner is the one with the highest total of numbers that they have claimed throughout the game.

One other point of note is the Quoits themselves. The standard for play everywhere as far as I can tell is a set of four flat rubber rings, white on one side, black the other. Quoits need to land white-side up to score. Two of the quoits on the board at the Royal Oak may once have been white on one side, but after many years of active service they're now more of a deep tobacco brown.

The other two quoits are interesting in that they are black on both sides, but moulded in such a way that they have a concave and convex side. In fact they look identical to the Steel Quoits that this indoor game was originally modelled on. Perhaps this is how all rubber quoits would have been at one time, indeed I've read elsewhere that they were originally made from stitched leather, making it easier to shape the quoits in this way. The white sided quoits we see now were presumably easier and cheaper items to produce.

Quoits is currently played by nine teams in seven venues in the Forest of Dean, and you can catch the cut-and-thrust of league play on Wednesday evenings throughout the summer and winter months. The Royal Oak would be an ideal venue to view the spectacle, which I'm led to believe can be very competitive.

The Royal Oak is also home to the Royal Acorns team in the Royal Forest of Dean Ladies Skittles League, as well as The Wurzels mens team. Pool is played in the Forest of Dean Pool League

Sunday, 17 January 2016

A Darts Roundup

A clutch of wooden spoons in Darts & Dominoes at The Boat, Whittlesey, Cambridgshire
The Waterside Inn

The Waterside Inn sits on the very edge of Mountsorrel village in rural north Leicestershire, separated from it in fact by a broad loop of the River Soar. It's this section of navigable river that defines the pub and supplies much of its trade, sitting as it does overlooking a deep lock and moorings, and a narrow hump-back bridge which connects the pub to the village. Truly a waterside inn then.

So it's perhaps no great surprise that this is predominantly a destination dining venue. Indeed much of the pubs layout is given over to dining, and this along with the tidy riverside garden accounts for most of the pubs trade, particularly during the busy summer months.

Noteworthy in the context of this blog is that there's also a wonderfully traditional 'snug' at the bridge end of the pub (above). A smaller space reserved for the more intimate business of chat and a pint, and an object lesson in how to develop a pub in a way that fully exploits its location and business opportunities without removing all the essential pubbiness that makes the place attractive in the first place. For me it's this small room that is the very heart of the pub, a place I felt instantly at home in, and no doubt a favourite with seasoned boaters moored up for the night. There's also a Dart Board, which seals the deal for me.

The Cross Foxes

I've featured a few of Shrewsburys attractions on this blog before, most notably the historic and unspoilt Loggerheads in the heart of the old town. But there's more to Shrewsbury than the admittedly attractive and historic town centre. Across the river and south of the English Bridge is a cluster of pubs in the suburbs of Coleham and Bell Vue, including the Prince of Wales which has also featured here, and one or two proper locals pubs worth searching out.

The Cross Foxes (below) consists of a single tidy bar room, and is very much an old school social drinking pub. Good beer, conversation, and when I popped in for an afternoon pint of Bass 'the horses', hold sway in the bar, so it'll come as no surprise that the bar room staples of Darts & Dominoes are very popular at the Cross Foxes. Indeed a casual afternoon game of Darts was in progress as I supped my pint, and numerous trophies are dotted around the pub.

The St Dunstan Darts League was a London based league associated with the St Dunstan's war veterans charity, established to help men and women blinded in service to their country (now called Blind Veterans UK). In 1945 a sighted team known as the Dunstan Four was formed by the then chairman of the West Islington Darts League Harry Allen, who toured the country raising money for the charity in popular exhibition matches. The associated league helped the fund raising efforts in pubs and clubs throughout Greater London, and a successor to the league continues today in the form of the Salisbury & District Darts League which raises money for Wiltshire Sight.

The Junction Arms, league winners in 1950, seems to have been located on Junction Road, Upper Holloway, and was renamed the Drum & Monkey within 15 years of this medal being struck. Following a period of closure the pub reopened fairly recently as the Oak & Pastor, a typically pleasant London pub, tastefully refurbished, but without any sign of a Dart Board as far as I can tell!

The Railway

I used to make a regular pilgrimage to the Leicestershire village of Ratby, principally for pints of excellent Marston's Pedigree at the wonderfully unspoilt Plough. Tucked away off the main street and overlooking a common, the Plough was a real treat. Quarry tile floors, drilled bentwood seating, beautifully kept beer, and a Pool Table that kept us amused for far too many pints it must be said. The Plough is still worth a visit though much of the original interior was altered during an early 90's refurbishment. Gaming interest here is in the form of Petanque and a Dart Board in the dining room!

Of the three pubs which remain in the village, the Bulls Head retains a very attractive snug/bar and its traditional Skittle Alley, but for me it's the Railway (above) that hits the spot now. There's a lovely little railway themed back bar (the Pullman Lounge), and a more basic public bar which is where the Dart Board and associated trophies can be found.

The Hop Pole straddles the border between Beeston and Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. Darts is played on Monday evenings in the smaller 'Beeston' bar.
Brass barrels and feathered flights. A set of 'Tournament Darts' from St Albans based Kwiz Darts Ltd. Production ceased toward the end of the 20th century when slimmer tungsten alloy Darts superseded brass.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Castle & Falcon, Newark

Outside of the more upmarket gastro venues and town centre managed bars, most pubs still include games as part of their offering, even if it's just a Dart Board or a set of Dominoes perched on the windowsill. They may not attract the attention of customers in the way they once did, but it's good that so many licensees still see traditional pub games as part of what makes the British pub such a unique and special place. Of course publicans like to see their Darts and Cribbage Boards in use, not least because it ensures steady custom over the course of a few pints, and in the case of league play, a welcome bit of trade on the less busy days of the week.

For some pubs, such as the Castle & Falcon featured here, the gaming is more than just an element, it's pretty much the whole point of the pub. It's also a major part of why this pub in particular continues to thrive where others have struggled or even closed in recent years. That and the fact it's a popular, well run locals pub that's equally welcoming to visitors like myself.

Newark itself has certainly not escaped the loss of many well-loved pubs over the years, and yet it seems to have retained a much healthier number than other similarly sized towns. Newark was of course a major brewing town, indeed the Castle & Falcon stands in the shadow of the former Castle Brewery (left), once the home of Holes Newark Ales, and latterly John Smiths (which helps explain the prevalence of their 'Magnet' ales in many of Newarks pubs).

In recent years Newark's pub scene has regained much of its former glory, to the point where it's now something of a beer enthusiasts destination with regular beer-themed festivals and events. Along with a handful of relative newcomers such as Just Beer and the Vaults, some of the older pubs in the town have been successfully reinvented as speciality beer bars. Great news for pub-goers, particularly given that some of the more traditional 'locals' pubs like the Castle & Falcon still survive largely unchanged, which means there's something for everyone, even traditionalists like myself.

The Castle & Falcon is a pub I've been keen to visit for some time, but the slightly limited opening hours have frustrated me on previous trips to Newark, Fridays and Saturdays being the only lunchtime opening. I eventually managed to pop in on a Saturday, and was warmly welcomed in the front bar where international Ladies Darts held sway on the television, not surprising given that Darts is probably the most popular game at the pub.

Adjacent to the televised action is one of several Dart Boards dotted around the pub, this one mounted with the unique and distinctive Doubles board local to the area, and which happens to be the more popular of the two versions played in Newark. This style of board is known as a Lincoln Doubles Board, and differs from the standard board in having no trebles ring and no outer bull. The Lincoln board is itself identical in layout to the Yorkshire doubles board, differing only in the all black colouring. The Castle & Falcon has Dart Boards in both the front and back bars, as well as in the separate function room. With four mens and two ladies teams playing out of the pub in the local Newark & District Doubles Darts League (which is sponsored by the pub), as well as the Trebles Board Darts League, all of these oches see regular use throughout the week.

There are currently attempts to revive Cribbage play at the pub, but I'm pleased to say that league Dominoes and Pool are still going strong. The other major pub games league which features at the Castle & Falcon is the Newark & District Long Alley Skittles League, played at several venues in the town and further afield through the summer months. The alley at the Castle & Falcon is an outdoor one, as many are round these parts, albeit that most are in fact covered these days against the worst of the elements. The Newark Table Skittles league folded several years ago, but many of the pubs in the area still have a table available for play, though you may have to ask for it to be brought out of storage.

Newarks close proximity to the River Trent means that fishing is popular throughout the area. The corridor at the side of the pub, with its serving hatch (below), is devoted to the trophies and catch records of local angling competition.