Saturday, 25 June 2016

Humber Hotel, Coventry

There are currently just two leagues in the UK for the rare game of Bagatelle. The Chester & District Bagatelle League is probably the bigger of the two, and possibly the more healthy with regard to it's future given the highly proactive committee behind it. Other leagues in Wales and Liverpool have folded in recent times, leaving just the Coventry Bagatelle League to make up the numbers. Quite why the game has survived in areas as far apart as the West Midlands and Cheshire is anyones guess, and given the scarcity of Bagatelle tables, which only occasionally come up for sale, it's not a game that's likely to see a revival of fortunes any time soon.

Bagatelle, sometimes known as Old English Bagatelle to help distinguish it from the smaller pin-table game, was once an extremely popular pub, club, and parlour game. As common in its day as the cue sports of Billiards and Snooker in fact. That the game has declined so dramatically, to the point that few will have even heard of it, is a reflection of the ever-changing fashions in pub gaming. It seems likely that the game of Bar Billiards overtook Bagatelle in popularity at some point, and this in turn has been largely superseded in pubs and clubs by the modern import, American Pool.

The game of Bagatelle has many similarities with Bar Billiards. Played from one end of a relatively small table, the goal is to pot balls into a series of cups, each bearing a different scoring number, the highest of which is the central cup which scores 9. There are of course numerous rules and technical details which make Bagatelle the skillful and highly competitive game it is. Played as a singles, doubles, or team game, the aim is usually to score the highest break. In the Coventry League however, teams of five compete, with each match decided by the first to reach a score of 121.

As in most regional pub games, the rules, and often the equipment used vary considerably. Bagatelle tables in the Coventry league are slightly larger than those found in Chester for example. Another obvious difference is the rounded 'baulk' end of the table, though this doesn't seem to have any bearing on play, and Coventry tables have two side-pockets at the scoring end of the table. Another major difference of play is that in the Coventry league, players are obliged to 'nominate' the cup they aim to pot a scoring ball into, which perhaps makes it the more skillful of the two versions currently played.

The Coventry league has shrunk considerably in the last few years. A rule book and fixture list of the mid 90's which was kindly given to me by the licensee of the Humber Inn, lists around 30 venues for the game, with play spread over two leagues of over a dozen teams each. This number is now down to around 7 venues, and all but one of these are social clubs.

The last pub venue for the game in Coventry is the Humber Hotel, located on the edge of the town centre near Gosford Green Park. This area was once the home of Humber Ltd, and was one of Coventry's principal sites for motor vehicle manufacture. The pub would have originally been built as part of the estate housing the factory workers, and is commemorated by an image of a vintage Humber car on the pubs swinging sign.

The Humber Hotel is a classic large-scale Edwardian pub of a type which is still fairly common throughout the West Midlands, the Birmingham area in particular. Shockingly, the pub was destined for demolition at the time current owners Eddie & Lynne Sheridan took it on over 20 years ago. Since then the pub has seen numerous changes, but still retains a good deal of its original period splendour, and even though most of the internal walls have been removed over time, the original multi-room layout can still easily be discerned.

The lounge (above) has been recreated with a modern partition which separates it from the public bar. This glazed screen matches beautifully with the existing wood panelling, so much so that I initially thought it was an original feature. It's in this comfortable room that the pubs Bagatelle Table resides. A vintage Padmore & Sons of Birmingham table, sourced from another venue following catastrophic damage to the Humber's original table. Most aspects of a quality cue-sport table like this can be repaired following damage, but when the table at the Humber was dropped during renovation work at the pub, the all-important slate bed was broken, and the repair considered too costly so another table was procured locally.

A 'Certificate of Conformance' hangs adjacent to the Bagatelle Table (above), and shows that the table at the Humber Hotel has been inspected and complies with the standards of competition set out in the rules. Note also the wooden 'Bell-Push' on the panelling below, one of several dotted around the lounge, and originally used to summon waiter service in the days when the lounge was served from a hatch to the main bar.

On entering the main bar area, it's easy to see the line of the original corridor which would have separated the 'Smoke' on the left-hand side (shown above with Pool Table), and the Public Bar to the right (below). This traditional 'drinking corridor' would have originally been served from a hatch on the left of the main bar counter, and some of the original patterned tile-work is still in situ in this area. In front of the servery is the pubs Dartboard. A large trophy cabinet near the Pool Table attests to the success of the various teams that play out of the Humber.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Punch Bowl, Worcester

Of all the many pubs that have been lost in recent years, it's perhaps the untimely closure of so many village locals that has been most keenly felt by pub-goers. For the locals it can represent a devastating 'social' loss, particularly where there are no convenient alternatives, but even less regular users and visitors from further afield are likely to mourn the passing of a favourite 'destination' watering hole. Such is the special place we hold in our hearts for that uniquely gregarious institution, the village pub.

By contrast, the epidemic of closures that have afflicted post-war estate pubs seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the wider pub-going populace. For most of us, when we think of our ideal destination for a social pint, it's not likely to be an estate pub that springs to mind, and sometimes with good reason it must be said! It's also true to say that the classic estate pub was not really built to attract a wider custom. Planted squarely in the middle of what were then new housing developments, they would have been perfectly positioned for the locals yet very much out of sight and off the beaten track of passing trade. There would have been more than enough trade on the doorstep anyway, and each pub would have enjoyed a predominantly local and in many cases fiercely loyal following.

I've made a point of visiting just about every kind of pub in the pursuit of our traditional pub games heritage, and this includes numerous late 20th century estate pubs, many of which represent a last refuge for gaming traditions which have been pushed out of the ever-changing town centre drinking circuit. In the course of this investigation I may have been forced to drink Guinness a little too often it's true, but I've also found that by and large, estate pubs can be just as welcoming and well run as the attractive rural village pubs we hold so dear.

The Punch Bowl on Worcester's Ronkswood estate is a good example of this. A quiet midweek afternoon session rarely shows a pub at its best, but it gave me a great opportunity to chat with a few of the locals in the public bar. As a bonus I also got to enjoy a pint of Banks's Mild, and admire the largely intact late 1950's interior, an interior so highly regarded by those that know about these things that the pub is included on CAMRA's list of unspoilt heritage pub.

A surprising addition some might say, but heritage isn't just about historic buildings and relics of a bygone age. It also encompasses important cultural survivors. Pubs like the Punch Bowl are important because they represent a rare connection with a post-war 'near-past', still clearly remembered by many, but fast disappearing from everyday life. Of course the most important aspect of pubs like the Punch Bowl is that they remain open, and continue to serve the local communities they were built for.

A pub like the Punch Bowl won't be to everyones taste it's true, but to my eyes it has a plain, functional beauty that so many post-war boozers have lost to bland and unsympathetic alterations. The pub retains it's original four room layout where most have been knocked through to one large space around a central servery. Even the original off-sales remains, though now pressed into service as office space.

Chatting with the locals gave me a good insight into the pubs current position in the community. Popular and busy at weekends, less so during the week, particularly during the daytime which is my experience of practically every pub in the current climate. Trade is probably not helped at the moment by the ongoing development of a large green space at the front of the pub. These grassy areas were considered essential to the original design of estates like the Ronkswood, but are now just another opportunity to squeeze in a few more houses. Perhaps the new residents will become regulars at the pub.

In common with pretty-much all community locals, the public bar of the Punch Bowl would have been alive with game play in its heyday. League Darts and Pool are still played at the pub, the Dartboard occupying its own alcove off the public bar, but Dominoes and Cribbage are now played on a more casual and occasional basis. Indeed the public bar is furnished throughout with tables designed for games play (left), the shelf below designed to hold pints, leaving the upper deck free for the shuffle and deal of Dominoes and Cards. Sadly the pubs traditional Quoits Board is long gone from its position under the Dartboard, as is the Shove Ha'penny board that once resided on a table in the bar.

To the rear of the pub is a large function room, a common feature of pubs and clubs from this era where entertainment was so important to the working class social scene. Adjacent to the function room is a Skittle Alley, a later addition to the pub which several teams play from in the local Winter League.