Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Compendium of Quoits Images

The game of Indoor Quoits is a good example of a once popular outdoor game, miniaturised and adapted for play in the relative comfort of the public bar. The game's origins lie in the outdoor 'sport' of Quoits (also known as Steel Quoits), an early 20th century national obsession, once played in practically every corner of the British Isles (and successfully exported elsewhere). It's perhaps hard to imagine just how popular the outdoor sport of Quoits was in its heyday, but most villages would have had at least one Quoiting Field, many of which were located at pubs and clubs. The more successful practitioners of the sport were regarded in much the same way that professional athletes and sportsman are now. The outdoor game has declined to the point where most people will probably never have heard of it, and play is now confined to a handful of leagues in northern England, Scotland, Wales, and Anglia.

The indoor version was probably developed for play during the cold winter months, a more comfortable alternative to handling heavy steel in freezing conditions, but is now played all-year round, and is for the most part no longer associated with the original outdoor sport. It's possible that versions of Indoor Quoits would have existed wherever the outdoor game was played, which is to say just about everywhere. The game of Rings for example, itself a widespread and popular pub game which is now confined almost exclusively to Ireland and the Isle of White, may originally have developed from Quoits play. As it stands though, only two examples of Indoor Quoits proper are known. One of which, Suffolk Quoits (above), is no longer played to my knowledge, though a later variant called Caves survives at The Crown, Bedfield in Suffolk. The small painted wooden boards of this Anglian game survive only as curiosities now, occasionally emerging in the antiques and collectables trade.

Only the version of Indoor Quoits played in the West Midlands and Welsh Borders exists today as a pub game. Known locally as Step Quoits, Table Quoits, Dobbers, or more often than not just simply Quoits, this is quite close in style to the original game of Steel Quoits, with a number of features which seem specifically designed to replicate the outdoor game:

  • In the outdoor game the goal is to land your steel Quoit as close to the projecting 'Hob' as possible. The indoor game replicates this by having two concentric scoring zones, 1 point for the outer, 2 for the inner, plus a projecting bolt or 'Spike', the ringing of which scores a maximum 5 points.

  • Steel Quoits have a distinctive convex profile, and I've come across older rubber quoits for the indoor game, still in use, which are similarly shaped. To score, these rubber quoits have to land convex side uppermost. The majority of quoits used now for the indoor game are manufactured flat, and replicate the original convex profile by having a white and black side. Only those quoits which land white side up score.

  • In Steel Quoits, a major aspect of tactical play is to throw and position your own quoits in such a way that they might block your opponent from getting theirs close to the Hob. A similar blocking strategy to that used in Lawn Bowls in fact. The unique scoreboards used in many indoor quoits leagues (right) introduce a similar level of strategic play by allowing each player to 'block' their opponent from claiming particular scores during the course of a game.

In common with almost all traditional pub games, Quoits has declined markedly in recent years. In Arthur Taylor's book Played at the Pub, the Forest of Dean League is noted as having 25 teams in the 1980's, but this is now down to just 9 teams playing from 7 venues in the current 2015/16 Winter League.

Rural and community pub closures have undoubtedly contributed to this decline. The kind of pubs where traditional games like Quoits are popular and still played at league level, are also the ones which have suffered most from the general decline in pub-going. Many of those which remain open have understandably taken the option of developing their food trade, often at the expense of more traditional pub pursuits such as games.

Forest of Dean pub the Miners Arms at Whitecroft was until quite recently renowned not only for it's huge range of ciders and perries, but also a very fine Skittle Alley and a bar where the local game of Quoits took centre stage. Whilst the fine traditional bar area remains at the pub, the Miners Arms is probably better known now as a quality food destination. The Skittle Alley has also survived, though not currently in use for league play, but sadly the Quoits Board is long gone. Only a white line on the flagstone floor (above) and a team photograph (below) indicate that the game was once popular at the pub. Quoits is still played in the village at the nearby Royal Oak which has already featured on this blog.

Still in the Forest of Dean, the photograph below shows the winning team from the Rising Sun pub at Bream, taken sometime in the mid 1970's. This photograph was supplied to the Old Photos of the Forest of Dean website by Roger Clutterbuck, shown seated on the left, and is reproduced here with their kind permission. Quoits is still played at the Rising Sun, with 'A' and 'B' teams competing in the Forest of Dean league.

As a league game Quoits may have declined markedly from its heyday, but interest in the game continues, and the distinctive wooden or concrete boards can still be found in rural and village pubs throughout the games traditional area. James & Lisa Aubrey (above) have recently taken on and reopened the Pandy Inn in the village of Dorstone, Herefordshire, with the intention of re-establishing the pub at the centre of village life. The Dartboard has already been rehung, but sadly the pubs old Quoits Board was given away by the previous licensees. Two sets of rubber quoits remained at the pub though, and the couple were keen to track down a replacement board, with enthusiastic support from regulars who presumably miss the game. By chance I happened to have a 'spare' board and was planning a trip to Herefordshire. James and Lisa are shown here with their 'new' Evesham board in the bar of the Barrels pub in Hereford, and I look forward to a game at the Pandy Inn on a future visit to the county.

Quoits is still played in the city of Hereford, though as elsewhere the number of venues for the game is greatly diminished from even a few years ago. The Cotterell Arms for example, features in the Quoits section of Arthur Taylor's definitive work on pub games, but this back-street locals pub has been closed for a few years now. Another former hotbed of Quoits play in Hereford, Broadleys, has a dedicated Quoits Corner in the lounge bar, but sadly the board was recently removed. The very future of this pub has been in doubt for some time now, Broadleys being just one of many that brewers Marston's offloaded to a property developer, keen to convert the pub to retail use against the wishes of locals. Hopefully, once the long-term future of the pub has been secured, the local game may return to Broadleys Quoits Corner.

Despite the fact that many traditional pub games enjoy wide support, and are played by literally tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis, very few other than Darts and Cue sports seem to make it into the pages of literature. The gentle regional pursuit of Quoits is certainly no exception, and I was surprised to find any mention of it at all given the paucity of references that even games as widespread and popular as skittles get, such is the everyday invisibility of so many of our pub traditions. There is however a brief mention of Quoits in a slim novel set in 1970's Hereford.

The Last Great Pub Crawl by John Shane (1976), is the tale of a bunch of old-timers out for one last booze-up before retirement and the expectations of their peers get the better of them. Arriving at the Wellington in Hereford (above), the party, by now several pints up and swelled in numbers, spy the pubs traditional Quoits board. Could this be the only written account of the game in fiction?

'... "Good shot!" the Smallholding shouted, as Victoria scored a quick twenty points. A large, smartly dressed, silver haired man, in a business suit, stood close by at the bar.

"Funny things we get up to eh?" he said, slowly and deliberately, in a broad Yorkshire accent. "Tossing little rubber rings at a nail stuck in a bit of board, and scoring points for it! Pretty odd sort of a thing for grown men and women to be doing, though, ain't it?"

In recent years the Wellington has traded under several different names as a lively edge of town circuit venue, before finally reverting to its original name. Needless to say the pub no longer has a Quoits board....

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Royal Oak, Cossington, Leicestershire

Leicestershire's unique contribution to Britains skittles tradition is Long Alley Skittles, or more specifically a version of the game subtly different to that played in neighbouring Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Several leagues manage Long Alley play in the county, but the majority of competition is covered by just two. Roughly speaking, the Tom Bishop Memorial Skittles League deals with an area to the south of Leicestershire, and the Syston & District Skittles League covers pubs and clubs to the north of the city. Both leagues are currently made up of around two dozen teams each which might seem a reasonably healthy number, but the fact is that the number of teams in play disguises a steady decline in the number of alleys available and in use.

In common with many other venues in both the Tom Bishop and Syston leagues, the Royal Oak at Cossington plays host to both a home team and one recently displaced from the Blue Bell Inn at Rothley. The skittle alley at the Blue Bell was lost to a restaurant conversion in 2014 following a major refurbishment of the pub. Sadly a similar fate has also befallen alleys at the nearby Gate Hangs Well on the outskirts of Syston, and the Coach & Horses at Markfield, both recently refurbished by local Leicestershire brewery Everards.

It's not all bad news for skittles in the area though. New licensees at the Horse & Groom in Rearsby village aim to bring the pubs traditional skittle alley back into use, and are currently looking for teams or individuals interested in playing from the pub. This is a great example of how it only takes one or two enthusiastic individuals to turn things around in pub gaming.

The Royal Oak has certainly seen a few changes over the years. The pubs layout is basically open-plan where it would undoubtedly have had separate rooms in the past. Distinct and separate areas have been included in the layout though, including a pleasant 'Snug' with Dartboard to the right-hand side of the bar servery.

Now if there's one thing that I would like to see retained, or even created as part of the refurbishment of a pub (other than skittle alleys of course!), it's a traditional snug. Thankfully many pubs do still include a cosy, slightly separate space where the more traditional aspects of pub going can continue. In fact it's often this 'snug' space alone that differentiates a pub from being little more than a licensed restaurant.

The licensee of the Royal Oak maintains the skittle alley at the rear of the pub in such good order that it earns its keep not only during league play, but also for private skittles evenings and other functions. A skittle alley can contribute substantially to a pub's 'rateable' footprint, and therefore needs to be used as much as possible.

To this end the hard floor of the Royal Oak's skittle alley has been covered with a laminate flooring at the throwing end, and curtains can be drawn across at various points to create smaller spaces. A small removable section of this flooring conceals the 'tripping hazard' of the 'Mott', the foot-sized depression which a players rear foot must remain in for a 'chuck' to count (above).

Leicestershire's (and Rutland's) other, perhaps surprisingly popular pub game, is Pétanque. There is a Piste to the rear of the pub, and the Royal Oak field two teams in the 1990 Pétanque League.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Three Pubs For Northamptonshire Table Skittles

The Skittles alcove at The Pioneer
Skittles, in all its myriad forms and regional variations, is a game of wide social appeal. Perhaps more than any other traditional pub game, throwing things at a set of wooden pins is something that everyone seems to enjoy. A simple game to understand, and there's likely to be a version within the capabilities of almost anyone. I believe that skittles is also more socially inclusive than other pub games, even at league level where teams can be drawn from all social classes and age levels, male or female. Anyone can have a go, no experience necessary.

Northamptonshire Table Skittles is one of the most widely played of all the skittle games. This is partly due to the fact that the unique tables used for the game are often permanently located in the more public areas of pubs and clubs, and therefore generally always available for play. The presence of a Northamptonshire Skittles Table in the corner of a bar, club, or even at the local village fete, is guaranteed to attract attention, and there seems to be no strata of society that won't happily 'chuck' a cheese given the opportunity.

The three pubs that I've featured here are representative of the wide spectrum of pub-types found in Northamptonshire. Only high-end gastro venues and city-centre bars are missing, styles of 'pub' which are unlikely to feature on this blog given the almost complete lack of games available, or indeed any recognisable 'pubiness' in most cases. From a late 20th century housing estate local, to a village destination dining pub, what links these three pubs is the presence of Northamptonshires most traditional pub game, and the fact that they are all most definitely 'pubs' in the very best sense of the word.

The Pioneer in Northampton is a classic two-room estate pub of a type which was once common throughout the country. Built in the 1970's at a time when it would have been inconceivable to construct a new housing estate without including the everyday essentials of Pub, Shop, and Chippy, these new-build locals would be the social hub of freshly minted communities.

Sadly it's pubs just like The Pioneer that are now closing their doors for good, and at a truly alarming rate. Estate pubs of this kind have always been shunned by beer enthusiasts and family diners alike, but for many it's their core local trade that is now drifting away, preferring a night in with cheap supermarket booze and the telly over the added value of social interaction that the local pub offers.

The Pioneer seems to be doing OK though. The classic mix of weekday evening games and weekend entertainment keeping the locals happy. Pubs like The Pioneer are also often the last bastions of league Skittles play, the game having been pushed out of the town centre and into the suburbs to a large degree.

For many people, particularly visitors to the county, it's attractive old village pubs like the Griffins Head at Mears Ashby that they most strongly associate with rural Northamptonshire. The village itself is a typical mix of stone cottages and larger buildings associated with the local country estate. The Griffins Head sits at the centre of all this, totally at ease with its bucolic surroundings.

Few village pubs these days that don't rely heavily on the food trade for their success, and of course many have gone the whole hog and become gastro-pubs, little more than licensed restaurants in fact. The Griffins Head is certainly a popular destination for dining, but it's still very much a pub with a distinct bar area and an adjacent games room with Darts and the pubs vintage Skittles Table.

The Skittles Table, a WT Black & Son model, dates from 1955. All but the very earliest Blacks tables carry this information and more stencilled on the timbers underneath (above), so do have a look next time you see a table in a pub.

Sixty-plus years of having hardwood 'cheeses' thrown at it will have taken its toll of course, and the table was reconditioned by an S Webb of Northampton at some point in its recent past. The table needs to be in good condition because it still see's regular use in the 3rd Section of the Wellingborough & District Skittles League.

If you went looking for Northamptonshire's very own traditional game in the pubs and bars of the county town, you might be forgiven for thinking the game had finally died out. I know of only one pub table within the confines of the inner ring road, but there are several to be found a little further out, including a fine old Blacks table just over the river at the Pomfret Arms.

The pub gets barely a mention in the 1990 edition of CAMRA's guide to real ale pubs in the county. A Belhaven pub at the time, presumably with no real ale to speak of, the pub is listed without a description so it's hard to say whether skittles has returned to the pub or is a new feature. Given that most of the towns pubs would have had a skittles table at some point, it's more likely that the game has returned, and with it league play. The Pomfret is also firmly on the beer map given that a micro-brewery now operates from outbuildings to the rear of the pub. This helps make the Pomfret a great venue for a casual game of Northampton's finest contribution to traditional pub gaming.