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.

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