Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Skittles In Dorset

The Chapelhay Tavern, Weymouth
What little I know of the Dorset skittles tradition can be attributed to my fellow pub games enthusiast, and enthusiastic Dorset skittler John Penny. John plays out of the historic skittle alley at the Rose and Crown in the village of Bradford Abbas, competing in summer and winter leagues in the Yeovil area. Earlier this year I was honoured to make up the numbers in the final game of the 2015/16 season at the Rose and Crown, a grand night in good company, and a great opportunity to see how the game is played locally. But is there in fact a Dorset skittles tradition?

A very similar game of alley skittles is played throughout most of the West Country, as well as much of the West Midlands, South Wales, and central southern England. Even Scotland has a historic pub skittle alley (a twin one in fact), though sadly no surviving leagues to my knowledge. Skittles is essentially the same game throughout all of these areas, and yet subtly different almost everywhere you find it, which is of course a large part of the fascination I have for this most traditional of pub games.

So I don't believe we can say there is a specific Dorset skittles tradition, because most of the traditions associated with skittles play are either universal (nine pins, three balls, wooden floored alley), or uniquely local, and therefore can't really be pinned down to a county. Just about every aspect of the game varies depending on where you play it, including the size of the pins and balls, alley dimensions, rules, regulations, customs and conventions, and perhaps inevitably in an area with such a rich and diverse dialect, the terminology of the game. Perhaps one day, someone will write a book that helps explain these myriad differences...

This team photograph hangs in the bar of the White Hart in Sherborne. The pub has been extensively modernised in recent times, and needless to say no longer has a skittle alley, but this and several other sport and games photos associated with the pub have been preserved.

In practice, Dorset skittles is much the same game as the one played in Devon and Somerset, that is to say the pins and balls used are of a similar design and size, including a slightly taller kingpin, or 'Landlord' which is not found in other areas such as Bristol and the Three Counties. There is however one aspect of the game which seems to have originated in the county. The clue is in the name!

The classic single-handed delivery has been used to deliver balls down alleys for as long as the game of skittles has been played. It's a tried and tested method that's clearly stood the test of time. Admittedly some use the right-hand for preference, others favour the left, but the basic technique is the same the world over. Or at least it was until some bright spark developed the 'new-fangled' delivery known as the Dorset Flop!

One of the quirks of skittles as it's played in Britain, and one which enthusiasts of the 10-pin 'Bowling' game probably find frustrating, is that skittle balls have no holes for the fingers to grip. Skittle balls vary in size, but one thing they all have in common is that they weigh a fair bit, all the better to do the damage at the business end of the alley. Traditionally the dense, hard-as-nails wood Lignum Vitae has been used for the West Country game, though many now use resin or rubber coated equivalents. The size and weight of these balls can make them quite difficult to handle, particularly if your hands are small. The colourfully named Dorset Flop gets round this by being a two-handed delivery, one in which the player launches themselves forward, 'flopping' down onto the alley once their hands are free of the ball. It's a very accurate method, and one that's become very popular throughout much of the West Country, particularly with younger players.

Goldies, Dorchester

The Dorchester & District Skittles League has around 60 mens teams playing in 4 divisions, and a further 16 ladies teams. Clubs appear to make up most of the venues, with around four pub alleys in the county town itself and several more further afield. Goldies, (also known as the Borough Arms), has a very good alley at the rear of the building, as does the nearby Tom Browns pub.

One feature of just about all league skittles play is 'home advantage'. In theory a player will always derive some advantage from playing on their home alley, if only because it's the one they play and practice on most of the time, but sometimes other factors come into play. The alley at Goldies is located in a stone walled outbuilding which may or may not have been built for the purpose. If it was, they didn't do a particularly good job of it as the alley slopes significantly uphill giving a very tangible advantage to the teams that call Goldies their home!

The Mermaid, Sherborne

The town of Sherborne lies at the very heart of the Dorset skittles tradition, only a few miles from it's most famous pub alley in Bradford Abbas, and yet finding a pub with a functioning alley proved to be a difficult task on my recent visit. Perhaps no great surprise given the attractive, somewhat touristy nature of a town like Sherborne.

Vestiges of the towns former skittles tradition do remain however, including an alley at the Plume of Feathers in the very centre of town, though nobody was quite sure whether it was still in use, which tends to suggest it's not! The locals at the White Hart, and the George Hotel opposite, proved useful for my search, pointing out several former skittling pubs in the town which no longer had alleys! On a more positive note, everywhere I went the consensus seemed to be that the best, possibly only chance of finding a pub with an active skittle alley in Sherborne was at the enticingly named Mermaid a little way out of the town centre.

Of all the pubs I visited in Sherborne that day, and I think I may well have visited all of them, The Mermaid was in many ways my favourite. Sometimes you just know when you walk into a pub whether it's 'right' or not, and the Mermaid was just that. A proper community locals pub, I found that I was immediately drawn into conversation with the friendly locals at the bar. A crowd which included a keen, and very successful skittles player of old, and all with a tale to tell about the pub in its heyday.

The Mermaid is quite a sizeable, classic early 20th century boozer, built as The Mermaid Hotel by the Dorsetshire Brewery Company probably around the 1920's. Located on the edge of a large area of housing, the population of which once packed into the pub at a time when the beer was served straight from the barrel on a long stillage behind the bar.

Nowadays the Mermaid is a single bar pub occupying the right-hand side of the building, with an adjacent games area for Pool and Darts (below). The left-hand side houses a Chinese takeaway. Certainly not the most traditional aspect of the pub, but I'm pleased to say that a good few customers make use of the bar for a drink whilst waiting for their food order, which can only be a good thing for the survival of a pub like this given that so many like it have closed in recent years.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Drillmans Arms, Stratton, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

The Cirencester District Men's Skittles League is currently made up of around 60 teams playing in 5 divisions. A healthy enough figure and fairly typical of leagues throughout the West Country. In fact the secretary of the Cirencester league reckons around 10% of the male population in the area play skittles at one time or another, a remarkable figure if true. Yet on a recent trip to the town itself, tracking down a pub with a skittle alley proved more difficult than these figures might suggest.

A CAMRA pub guide to Gloucestershire from 1996 lists eight pubs with functioning skittle alleys in the town. Just 20 years later only two appear to remain, one at the Wheatsheaf on Cricklade Street, and a very fine alley at the Bees Knees (formerly the Plume of Feathers). The rest of the eight were in pubs that have either closed for good or had their alleys removed as part of a major refurbishment. The Golden Cross for example was listed as having a skittle alley and described as being a proper locals pub in the 90's guide. It's now a modern, stylish town-centre pub/bar majoring on food, the skittle alley having been converted to alternate use as recently as 2014.

That most of Cirencester's town centre pubs have moved upmarket, concentrating almost exclusively on food and the Cotswold tourist trade, is perhaps no great surprise. The loss of so many of the towns more 'suburban' community locals is saddening though, particularly given that these often prove to be the stronghold for skittles and other pub games when they are effectively pushed out of the town centre.

So I was forced to look a little further afield, and I'm glad that I did because I found myself at one of the areas very best pubs, the Drillmans Arms in the village/suburb of Stratton. An attractive Georgian pub on the old Gloucester road, and yet another of those truly great locals boozers that I wish was my own local.

The Drillmans Arms is a great favourite with beer drinkers locally, and a regular entry in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. It's also that rarest of things, a pub that's been in the same hands for over 25 years. Licensees Richard and Denise Selby made the Drillmans their home in 1990, and have run the pub along reassuringly traditional lines ever since. It's this rare continuity of ownership, and by people who so obviously care about the traditions of pub-going, that goes a long way to explaining the pubs popularity with both locals and visitors alike.

The front bar (above) is clearly the hub of the pub, buzzing with a good crowd of after-work drinkers when I popped in on a warm summer afternoon. To the rear is a smaller lounge bar with an adjacent area for the pubs Pool Table, and it's this bar which serves the pubs very fine Skittle Alley.

With so many pubs and alleys closing in recent years, it's no surprise that those few which remain can be very busy with league play throughout the week. The Drillmans hosts something in the region of ten teams, some of which appear to be quite good at the game given the number of trophies on show. The alley also doubles as a function room, with Dartboards for both mens and ladies teams who play out of the pub. To complete the traditional gaming at this most traditional of pubs, two teams call the Drillmans home in the Cirencester & District Cribbage League.