Monday, 26 December 2016

Table Skittles in Nottingham

The Newshouse, Nottingham. The Skittles Table is set up ready for play in the bar, but the pins and ball are kept behind the bar for safe-keeping.
The classic ball-on-a-string skittles game Devil Amongst The Tailors (also known as Table or Bar Skittles) was once as popular and widespread in British pubs as Darts or Pool is today. It's one of those traditional old games that most people above a certain age readily recall, even if they haven't played it for decades. Small 'toy' examples were equally common, indeed I had one myself, but the game is perhaps most strongly associated with pubs and clubs where highly competitive leagues for the game would have existed, particularly in areas with an established 'alley' skittles tradition.

In the East Midlands the game tends to crop up in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Long Alley Skittles areas, the Northamptonshire side of the region having a very different Table Skittles tradition. In these areas it would have originally been an indoor winter game for when predominantly unheated or outdoor skittle alleys would have lost their appeal. Sadly all but one of the leagues for this form of table skittles in the East Midlands has ceased competition, the Newark league being the most recent to fold. Only the Nottingham & Arnold Table Skittles and Domino League remains, a competitive league so diminutive as to be virtually invisible outside of the handful of pubs and clubs which compete in its single division.

In Nottingham itself I know of just three pubs with a Devil Amongst The Tailors table available for play, and of these only one competes in the Arnold league, the bulk of those venues being private members clubs. The Newshouse has a good 'league standard' example, as does the Nags Head and Blacks Head, both in the suburb of Carlton, an area that was once a hotbed of Long Alley and Table Skittles play.

The Skittles Table at the Blacks Head is a classic Jaques model, and is usually set up ready for play in the smaller left-hand bar. The pub was refurbished to a high standard in 2015, but has retained its traditional public bar as well as a lounge and small snug at the rear. This pub doesn't currently compete in the local league, though the licensee is keen to get a team together at some point.


The nearby Nags Head has also had a recent refurbishment, and thankfully it too retains its traditional multi-room layout which includes separate Pool and Darts rooms off the main bar area. Two Pool teams play from the Nags, and the licensee is hoping to attract a Darts team soon. This is one of only two pubs that field a team in the local Table Skittles and Domino league, the other being The Plough at Keyworth.

The Skittles Table, another slightly older Jaques model by the look of it, is tucked away towards the rear of the bar, and has its own dedicated scoreboard. The pins are kept behind the bar for safe keeping.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Horse & Groom, Rearsby, Leicestershire

Whilst there are still a good few pubs in Leicestershire equipped for the local game of Long Alley Skittles, the general trend continues to be downwards. Every change of ownership and subsequent refurbishment brings with it the threat of another lost alley, and the epidemic of closures affecting village and suburban locals has inevitably contributed to the games decline in recent years. Nevertheless, the game is still popular at those pubs which retain an alley. Skittles is an ideal game for team-building and social functions, and competitive play continues in the Tom Bishop Memorial, and Syston & District Long Alley Skittles Leagues. Just occasionally, a long-closed or neglected alley is brought back into use, as is the case at the Horse & Groom in the north Leicestershire village of Rearsby.

Rearsby lies at the very heart of one of Leicestershire's two main areas for Long Alley Skittles. Close to the village of Syston which gives the local league its name, and also Thrussington, home to an unusual pair of outdoor skittle 'alleys' on the village green, and a traditional summer skittles event which has been held in the village for over 50 years. Pubs with good skittle alleys are dotted all along the Wreake Valley as far as Melton Mowbray, and a slightly different version of the game is played just over the border in Nottinghamshire.

When I first visited the Horse & Groom a couple of years ago, the skittle alley was in a sorry state and hadn't seen active service for some time. More recently the pub has changed hands, and licensees Tracey and Eddie Kimber have not only spruced-up and brought the alley back into use, but embarked on a series of improvements to all parts of the pub, including I'm pleased to say the beer range, which now includes the popular Harvest Pale Ale from Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham.

Traditional games and local league play are often the lifeblood of village and suburban locals, and no more so than at the Horse & Groom. The main Summer activity at the pub is Pétanque, possibly the most popular game played at pubs and clubs in this part of Leicestershire. League matches are usually held on Wednesday evenings throughout the summer months, and Pétanque is a good spectator sport, particularly when accompanied by a cool beer on a warm summer evening. Two teams play from the pub in the 1990 Pétanque League.

The Pétanque piste at the rear of the pub
Parts of the pub date from the very beginning of the 19th century, though there have been many later additions and alterations since then. The original layout can still be discerned in what is now a single bar room, and probably consisted of three rooms off a central corridor. The corridor is of course long-gone, but the bar retains these three separate areas and many original features. This includes an off-sales hatch on the right-hand side of the bar counter, a separate servery that would have been accessed from the corridor so that customers could purchase takeouts without having to enter the 'on' licensed rooms. Off-sales were once a common feature of pubs, but have now almost entirely disappeared following the late 20th century de-regulation of alcohol sales, allowing shops, and latterly supermarkets to dominate the lucrative take-home trade.

One of these three areas is dedicated to the pubs Dartboard, and landlord Eddie captains the Horse & Groom Darts team in the Syston & District Darts League.

The pub was originally a coaching inn on the now bypassed Leicester to Melton road, and the skittle alley is housed in the pubs former stabling (below). Note the three large sliding doors fronting onto the main road, the original equine access points. The alley is now back in regular use and has already hosted functions, accompanied by the traditional 'Skittles Evening' supper of Pork Faggots & Peas. It is also hoped that the pub will get a team together for competition in the local league in the coming season.

A boxing day Tug-o-War has been held in the village of Rearsby for over 40 years now. Originally the rivalry was between the Horse & Groom and the nearby Wheel pubs, with teams vying to pull their opponents into the village brook. It seems that competitive spirit runs deep in Rearsby, and the village pubs of the Wreake Valley continue to be at the heart of this healthy local rivalry. It must be something in the water!