Friday, 30 September 2016

One Eyed Jacks, Gloucester

The Eastgate side of Gloucester has probably seen more than its fair share of pub closures in recent years, and taking a walk along Barton Street it's easy to see why. Most large towns have at least one area where immigrants have tended to gravitate towards and settle, and for Gloucester the high density Victorian terraced housing of the Barton Street area is certainly one such area. Successive arrivals since the war years have contributed to a wide, and for most of us welcome cultural mix in these areas, but it's perhaps inevitable when many of those who have settled are non-drinkers, or simply not accustomed to Britain's unique traditional pub culture, that the local pub trade is going to suffer as a result.

The Barton Street area has two well-known examples of pubs which have found themselves surplus to requirements largely as a result of local demographic change. The Vauxhall Inn (left) and nearby Robin Hood Inn (right) remain truly great examples of Victorian opulent pub design and decor, yet both have sadly been closed for decades now. Both have been turned to alternate use, undoubtedly never to serve as pubs again, and only the impressive glazed tile exteriors and signage remind us that these buildings would once have been flagship pubs for their respective brewery owners, and great traditional boozers for their locals.

The first time I visited this part of Gloucester some 20 or so years ago, both of these classic urban locals were already long since closed, but the nearby India House pub was still very much open. This too has now closed, so the only notable survivors in the area are the Plough Inn, a backstreet boozer which has already featured on this blog, and One Eyed Jacks on Barton Street itself.

One Eyed Jacks is the kind of pub that many, myself included, may well have walked past without actually considering stepping over the threshold for a drink. A pub with something of the look of an Irish sports themed bar from the front, a style probably not to everyone's taste it must be said. The interior is similarly themed, decorated with items of faux Victoriana and the odd neon advertising sign. But if you do decide to step inside for a pint as I did, you'll also find that this is a well-run, beautifully maintained, and popular locals pub. A pub where I was made very welcome by both the licensee and the chatty lunchtime locals.

On entering the pub, it's immediately apparent just how important sports and traditional pub games are to the appeal of One Eyed Jacks. A Pool Table dominates the front bar area, and there's a well-used Dartboard tucked around the corner. Bench seating and tables run along the right-hand side of the front bar, which is perhaps the most 'pubby' part of the two main drinking areas, and where the locals like to sit and chat. Darts and Pool are still probably the most popular games played at league level in the pubs of Gloucester, but Skittles must come a very close third.

I don't know whether One Eyed Jacks would have had a skittle alley in its former incarnations as the Victoria or Molly Malone's, but it's clear from the assorted certificates and alley records on show that skittles has been hugely important to the success of the pub for at least the last few decades, and at a time when many similar locals have struggled.

Teams compete at One Eyed Jacks in the Gloucester City Skittles League, and every Sunday there's also an informal knockout tournament, a tradition which I've noticed is common to skittles pubs throughout the country.

I can only imagine that the game of Shove Ha'penny must have been popular enough in Gloucester at some point to have warranted a league. Whilst there are still a good few Shove Ha'penny boards about in pubs throughout England and Wales, it's quite unusual to find a match quality board set up in the bar, polished and ready for play. In Gloucester there are good slate Shove Ha'penny boards at the nearby Plough, and a similar board tucked away at the rear of One Eyed Jacks. Both these boards are set up permanently for play, and come complete with their own anglepoise 'floodlighting' for when the game gets serious.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Chapelhay Tavern, Weymouth, Dorset

The old harbour area of Weymouth is probably most peoples idea of holiday heaven. A lively, foodie, spill out on the pavement kind of place, and an ideal evening hang-out after a long day crackling in the sun on the towns endless sandy beach. Unfortunately I was only in Weymouth for a day which is not nearly enough time to try everything the town has to offer, so the pubs and eateries of the Quay would have to wait for another day. On this occasion I was just passing through, on my way from the undoubted pleasures of the beach to a 'higher place' overlooking the harbour.

An off the beaten track backstreet boozer is more my idea of heaven anyway, and the Chapelhay Tavern falls firmly into this category. The pub is easiest to find by walking up past Holy Trinity Church from North Quay on a steep footpath which leads directly to the pubs front door. Mid-afternoon on a weekday is never going to be the time to see a pub at its full swinging best, but a handful of locals made me very welcome, and a cool pint of Thatchers Traditional Cider sealed the deal for an hour or two away from the sun, sea, and ice cream.

Shuffle Zone - the pubs Domino Table
One reason I was particularly keen to visit the Chapelhay was in the hope of seeing a rare and unique pub game only found in this area of south Dorset. The local version of Shove Halfpenny is confined almost exclusively to the Swanage/Purbeck area, and is very different to the game of the same name found in the rest of the country. Sometimes known as the Dorset Long Board, these highly polished planks of wood resemble nothing less than a miniature version of the cruise liner favourite, Deck Shuffleboard. Instead of the familiar nine scoring-beds of the more common game, in Dorset Shove Halfpenny wafer-thin coins are launched up a very long board, the aim being to land them in a close arrangement of numbered scoring zones at the far end.

These long boards are rare and treasured items. The wooden surface is very smooth, giving a true precision playing surface. So much so that the boards are never left out on show for fear of accidental damage. Hence you'll rarely see one in use other than on a match or practice night, and sadly this was the case at the Chapelhay Tavern. The bar staff and locals confirmed that a board was indeed kept at the pub, probably the only one in this neck of the woods, but unfortunately the licensee was not on hand to bring it down from safe keeping upstairs. Oh well! Maybe you'll have better luck when you visit.

Weymouth is a little outside what might be considered the traditional area for this unique version of Shove Ha'penny, and whilst I believe there is a small league for the game locally, I've no idea how much use the Chapelhays board gets these days. What does get a great deal of use though is the pubs Skittle Alley (below).

A prominent blue painted sign for the skittle alley is the first thing you notice when approaching the pub from the Quay. The well-appointed alley adjoins the main bar area, concealed behind a set of doors when not in use, and appears to have been a later addition to the original building. Skittles is popular throughout the county of Dorset, no less so at the Chapelhay Tavern where eight teams currently play from the pub in the 2016/17 Weymouth & Portland Skittles League, including the mighty Atoms Skittles Team (below).

Saturday, 10 September 2016

A Compendium of Leicester Table Skittles Images

Of all the many and varied pub games that are still played in Britain, it's those which remain firmly rooted in a particular local area, a genuinely local tradition, that interest me the most. The game of Table or Hood Skittles is in fact 'local' to several counties, more of a regional game in truth, but even so it's a game that few will have come across outside of it's core Northamptonshire and Leicestershire heartland. Within this region of play there is however a truly local version which many who play the more common regional game will probably never have seen or even heard of. If we take into account the myriad different ways of playing and scoring the game we could probably say there are dozens of versions, but as far as the actual hardware is concerned, the skittles table, the pins and cheeses, the vast majority play what is commonly referred to as the Northamptonshire game, and a select few the similar but significantly different Leicester version.

Although to the keen eye they do look different in a number of subtle ways, in practical terms there is little to distinguish a true Leicester skittles table from the more common Northampton version. In fact in the villages immediately surrounding the city where Leicester tables are found, they are more or less interchangeable for both styles of the game. The principal difference is in the pins, which are much thinner and styled like those used in the Leicestershire version of Long Alley Skittles (and which may give a clue to their origin), and the cheeses, which are also smaller and made from a denser wood than those in the Northants game. These differences in turn significantly affect the way the game is played, such that a good Leicester player may not do so well in the Northants game, and vice-versa. Needless to say, the rules are markedly different too, though the same can also be said of the numerous Northamptonshire skittles leagues.

Spot the difference (Crows Nest, Leicester): On the left a W. T. Black & Son skittles table from Northampton, with a typical Leicester table on the right. The Leicester table is set with plastic 'Northants' pins as used throughout much of Leicestershire. Despite examining over a dozen of these unique Leicester tables, I've yet to find one that carries any indication of manufacturer or the individual(s) who made them.
So Leicester Table Skittles is a unique and local sub-set of a game found in at least four counties centring on Northamptonshire. A relatively rare game like this may be of particular interest to enthusiasts like myself, but the downside of this is that few have ever come across the game, and even fewer actually play it, which is of course not a good thing for the long-term survival of games like this.

In common with most traditional pub games, Leicester Skittles Tables have almost disappeared from the very centre of Leicester, and the clubs and suburban boozers where the game can still be found are often those at greatest threat of closure. From what I've seen, the players are not getting any younger too, and it's hard to see at this time where the new blood needed to ensure the games survival are likely to come from. Even so, the game is popular with those who play it, and even given its obvious decline there remain several hundred enthusiastic players competing in various leagues in the Leicester area.

The photograph above hangs in the bar of the Earl of Stamford pub in the north Leicestershire village of Birstall, and shows the pubs all-conquering 1952/3 team. Sadly this image is the only indication that skittles was ever played here, given that the pub sadly no longer has a table. Whilst it doesn't actually say so, the City League was a precursor to one or more of the current Leicester Table Skittles leagues. Of course the existence of a city league suggests the game was so well supported that county venues would have had their own league(s), and it's certainly true that this game, and the more common 'Northampton' version, were widespread in Leicester even within my relatively limited time visiting pubs in the county. Birstall is still an important centre for Leicester Table Skittles, with teams playing out of the Royal British Legion and the Social Club.

Birstall Social Club

Celebrating 80 years as a club this year, the Birstall Social Club is a modern and well-maintained club set within a striking Art Deco building in the very centre of the village. Though some games and sports continue to be supported, the clubs traditional Long Alley, probably the last in the village, has now sadly gone, and regulars informed me that few if any now play the club staples of Cribbage or Dominoes. Even the Table Skittles team had upped sticks and moved elsewhere, but returned a couple of years ago to play in the 1st division of the Leicester Mixed Table Skittles Summer League.
Plastic pins and cheese like the ones shown here at the Birstall Social Club are quite common in the Leicester game (I have a set myself), but unlike the 'Northants' version found in Leicestershire and the Rugby area of Warwickshire, they are yet to replace wooden pins and cheeses for league play.

The Tom Hoskins, Beaumanor Road, Leicester

The Tom Hoskins pub in its original guise was simply an off-license for the now defunct Hoskins Brewery, the remnants of which are still located at the rear of the building. The pub was created from brewery offices in the 1980's, and was a regular on the nascent real ale circuit for Leicester drinkers like myself at a time when so many breweries had gone over entirely to bland keg beers. The newly created pub quickly established itself as a popular destination for locals, which it remains to this day, albeit under Punch Taverns ownership now.

We drank almost exclusively in the smaller public bar (above) in those earlier Hoskins Brewery days, and I can't in all honesty recall whether there was a skittles table at the pub or not. Certainly the current table was relocated from the nearby Abbey pub following its closure in 2010, the players from which presumably form the heart of the current Tom Hoskins team. The skittles table is perhaps uniquely located in a former office of the brewery which now see's regular weekly service as a Barbers Shop.

Black Horse, Blaby

Blaby and the surrounding area to the south of Leicester remains one of the county's real hotspots for local skittles games. Long Alley is still relatively common, and both forms of Table Skittles can be found in the pubs and clubs of the area. Blaby village itself has skittles tables at the Black Horse (below), Fox & Tiger (a Northants table), and a (possibly unused) Leicester table in the skittle alley of the Bulls Head.