Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Dog & Bone, Lincoln

Such is the fascination for some of Britains more obscure local or regional pub games that they can sometimes crop up in the most unlikely places. Full-on pub game enthusiasts such as those at the Brunswick Arms or Golden Cross are certainly likely to have more examples than most, and my friend and fellow writer on the subject John Penny has a track record of introducing 'funny foreign' games to his local pubs in the Dorset area. There are also numerous examples where foreign visitors have been so taken with a game they've constructed their own version back home.

Then there are those who just get taken-up with an idea for a new or revived game. A bright idea amongst friends over a few too many afternoon pints, or maybe a brainwave for a charitable fundraising event. This is often the origin of some of our most eccentric and unusual gaming 'traditions'.

What led a group of Lincolnshire pubgoers to sign up for a 'World Championship' tournament in deepest Sussex is anyones guess, but needless to say, until they did there was no known tradition of Toad in the Hole play in the county, indeed little indication that the game has ever been played outside of the South-East of England.

Toad in the Hole is a game which has experienced a significant revival in its home county of Sussex in recent years. Though similar in form to the game of Pitch Penny, which can still be found in a handful of mostly Eastern counties pubs, the equipment and rules of the game are entirely unique to the area. The very simple premise of the game is the tossing of metal discs (Toads), onto a lead-topped table with a hole in the middle (the hole!). Landing a Toad cleanly on the surface scores one point, a Toad in the hole scores two.

Toads tables like the one shown here were falling out of use and heading for extinction in their home counties in the south-east, until a late 80's revival, spurred on by a bunch of local 'Toads' enthusiasts, brought the game back from the brink. This revival has been so successful that new tables continue to be built, and the local Sussex league is one of the very few pub game leagues which have actually grown in recent years. More details on the game can be found on comedian Ben Ward's excellent website, and you can follow the games progress through the season on the Lewes & District Toad in the Hole League blog.

The game of Toad in the Hole arrived in Lincoln in 2012 when a touring team from Sussex challenged locals in the city to a friendly match. The Toads Table was subsequently presented to the Lincoln players, resulting in a team attending the annual World Championships in 2015, an open competition run by the Lewes Lions.

The Dog & Bone is now home to the 'Lincoln Toads' team, with regular practice nights and competition in the pubs 'Dog Kennel' games and function room. Recently the team have initiated a North-South Divide competition, playing an invitation team from Sussex for a handsome Toads Trophy.

It's easy to see why the Lincoln Toads team might have chosen the Dog & Bone as their home base. A very traditional and beautifully maintained back-street locals pub with a great reputation for its beer, and as fine a place to settle in for a few pints and a natter as you're likely to find anywhere. The left-hand bar area (left) has a stove for cosy winter drinking, and there's a lovely garden at the rear for the summer months, which is also where you'll find the 'Dog Kennel'.

The bar is also home to a Dartboard, and hosts a team in the local Lincoln & District (Doubles Board) Darts League. The all-black Doubles Board can be seen to the right of the numerous awards the pub and licensee has received over the years (below). The Doubles board is not usually on show, but I visited on the day following a victorious home match.

The 'Dog Kennel' at the rear of the pub is of course the venue for Toad in the Hole games, but there's also a 'Pin' Bagatelle Table, Cribbage Boards, and a couple of good quality Shove Ha'penny boards. The games pile in the 'lounge bar' side of the pub (below) is also well equipped with traditional pub games and more modern board games, so it's no surprise that the pub has hosted occasional 'Pub Games Olympics' in the past.

Sadly the current licensees are moving on following several successful years at the Dog & Bone, but it's hoped that little, other than the faces behind the bar of course, will change under new stewardship.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Selly Park Tavern, Selly Park, Birmingham

Large red-brick boozers like the Selly Park Tavern are still a relatively common sight throughout Birmingham and the West Midlands, albeit that many are sadly no longer trading as pubs now. Built at a time of rapid urban population growth in areas of heavy industrialisation such as the West Midlands, with a resultant strong growth in trade for local breweries. As thirsty workers swelled their coffers, brewers were keen to expand their businesses to meet demand, often through mergers and acquisitions which created major regional brewing concerns. They were also keen to put some long overdue investment into what was often seen as a chronically neglected pub estate. A pub estate that was invariably the preserve of male drinkers, and often with a reputation for intemperate behaviour, perhaps even lawlessness.

Pubs built during this pre-war period were designed to move the trade upmarket, with many of the older backstreet beerhouses de-licensed and closed down for good, often with strong encouragement from local licensing authorities. No expense was spared on the interiors, with local craftsman creating fashionable designs in leaded glasswork, polished brass, and fixtures and fittings crafted from the finest imported hardwoods.

Built in 1901 by Holder's Brewery Ltd as the Pershore Road Inn, latterly the Selly Park Hotel. The pub lies in a suburban area of Birmingham's industrial and commercial sprawl, an area which still retains something of it's independence from the city thanks to several areas of surrounding parkland. Holder's were an important local brewing concern and their logo crops up in pubs all over Birmingham, most notably at the fabulous tile-clad Craven Arms on Upper Gough Street. The brewery was subsequently bought out and closed by Birmingham's brewing powerhouse M&B, and the pub is now owned by Ember Inns, a pubco created from the old M&B estate. Refurbishment and alterations have all-but obliterated the pubs original internal layout, but there are still a number of distinct areas within the large open-plan interior. The Holder's logo can still be seen in stonework at the front of the building, and in an attractive leaded glass window on the rear staircase (below).

The Selly Park predates the trend for what has become known as 'improved' pubs by several years, yet there are indications that the pub adopted at least some aspects of this inter-war style of pub building. These 'improved' pubs were designed to offer recreation and refreshment for all of the local community, with a multitude of individual rooms designed to appeal to different tastes and social classes. This often extended to the inclusion of a large first-floor function room, or concert/dance hall, and provision for one or more of the more genteel games of the day such as Billiards or Lawn Bowls.

Of course most of these grand turn of the century pubs have now lost their multi-room layouts (the Selly Park Tavern is no exception), victims of the late 20th century obsession with knocking everything through to one large easily managed space. But the Selly Park is unusual in that it has retained not only its Bowling Green, but also what was probably a later addition of a fully functioning Skittle Alley.

The skittle alley occupies a separate (listed?) building at the rear of the pub, which a local newspaper feature on Birmingham's better known skittle alley at Moorpool suggests was originally built to house one or more Billiard Tables. It's hard to know just how popular and widespread the game of skittles would have been in Birmingham, but there are certainly records of other alleys, including at pubs in nearby Selly Oak and Harbourne, and there was at least one league to manage competition, the Birmingham & District Skittling League. The only formal competition for skittles that now remains in Birmingham is an in-house league at the aforementioned Moorpool Skittles Club, but the alley at the Selly Park Tavern sees regular use for Skittles Nights and private functions.

To the rear of the pub is what was once a common sight in the Midlands, and one of the classics of the movement to 'Improve' pubs, the neat square of a Bowling Green. Crown Green Bowls is the game played in the Birmingham and West Midlands area, and the green at the Selly Park Tavern has the pronounced rise in the centre which is a feature of this version of bowls. Unlike Lawn Green Bowls where play is down numbered 'rinks', players launch their woods from all directions across the crown which makes for a much less sedate, sometimes loud and fast-paced game. Many of these Bowling Greens have been lost from pub sites, and many that do survive are no longer owned by the pub itself. This one is still attached to the pub, and leased to the local club. The pub itself has a pretty decent range of real ales these days, so what better way to spend a summer afternoon than spectating a game on the Selly Park Tavern's Bowling Green, or maybe an evening of skittles in what is probably Birmingham's last dedicated pub Skittle Alley.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Fountain Inn, Parkend, Gloucestershire

I've been a regular visitor to the Severn Vale and Wye Valley areas of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire for the best part of 30 years, and yet the leafy bit in the middle that makes up the Royal Forest of Dean remains something of a mystery to me. It's a place I've viewed from afar and even driven through on occasion, but I've yet to get a handle on the forests undeniable tourist appeal. Is it good walking country? A challenging cycling space? A happy hunting ground for those who appreciate industrial heritage? Or a slightly mysterious, ancient wooded hinterland, populated by hardy smallholders and dangerous Wild Boar? All of the above and a fair bit more I don't doubt.

Recently though, I've gained something of a foothold in the forest by visiting one or two of the areas better pubs, some of which are home to one of Britain's rarer regional pub games. I've examined Indoor Quoits (known simply as Quoits to those who play it) on this blog before, and if you've never seen or heard of the game before, it may be worth reading my short account of it here. Quoits can be found from Shropshire in the north, Warwickshire and the West Midlands in the East, and throughout Herefordshire and the Welsh Borders to the West. Gloucestershire, and the Forest of Dean in particular, represent the furthest south that Quoits is generally found, and these areas may well represent the historical limits of the game.

Quoits Boards like the one shown here at the Fountain Inn were probably as prevalent in the Forest of Dean during the games heyday as Dartboards and Pool Tables are now. Sadly a great many forest pubs have closed in recent years, and those that remain are more often than not lacking the local game. That's a great shame because Quoits lends itself so well to the casual afternoon or evening game. Easy to learn, and accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Indeed it's an ideal amusement (and curiosity) for tourists to the area, particularly on a rainy day or dark winter evening.

The Fountain takes full advantage of the forest tourist trade, located as it is just a stones-throw from Parkend station on the popular Dean Forest Railway, which runs daytime steam and diesel services on Wednesdays and weekends from the mainline at Lydney. As with many pubs in the forest, food and accommodation are crucial to the success of the Fountain, but that doesn't mean that the locals have been squeezed out.

The main entrance to the pub delivers you directly into the smart, recently refurbished bar area, and this is where the locals gather and the Quoits Board is located. This bar area is defined by a wide bay window with table and seating, and the whole pub has been tastefully decorated with old photographs and fascinating relics from the area, including many associated with the rail line which originally passed close to the pub.

The brightly painted Quoits Board shares an 'oche' with the Dartboard, and is usually folded down out of the way when not in use. Apparently this is the only wooden board still in play in the forest league, most venues preferring the heavy pre-formed concrete variety found in Hereford and elsewhere. Many of these concrete boards are also painted all-white rather than the traditional red and green seen here at the Fountain, though why this might be I've yet to discover. Quoits and Darts can be found to the left of the bar counter, and these include a set of the earlier concave rubber Quoits as well as the more common black and white variety. League play at the Fountain is in the Royal Forest of Dean Quoits League, which operates Summer and Winter competitions at around seven venues in the Forest area.

Other than the Hereford league where scoring follows a similar pattern to Darts, league Quoits play is scored on special scoreboards like the one shown above. I've seen several of these now, and despite the fact that Quoits Boards and the rubber quoits themselves have been manufactured from the early 20th century to the present day, these scoreboards are always homemade affairs, and therefore entirely unique to each pub or club venue. This one is numbered up to 12, which is I think the standard for the Forest of Dean League.

The next time I visit the Forest of Dean, I'm hoping to catch a league game. I play Quoits quite regularly at home and in our own local pubs, but it would be interesting to gauge how good these regular players are in comparison to our own more casual efforts. A better understanding of how the scoreboard contributes to tactics in the game wouldn't hurt either. Minor mysteries for another day in the Forest of Dean...