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.


John Penny said...

Another interesting and eloquently written blog. Fascinating stuff - and clearly the search for the answers in the quest to discover all the varieties of skittles will never end.

John Penny said...

I believe the plastic pins and cheeses in this blog are the ones I now have in my collection.