Thursday, 22 November 2018

The Racehorse, Taunton, Somerset

If like me, you have an interest in the unique pub games traditions of a particular county or region, you might imagine that the pubs and clubs of the relevant county town would be a good place to start. Sadly, in my experience this is rarely the case, and the more affluent the town/city, the less likelihood there is of finding anything at all that might be considered local to the area.

Take my own nearby county town of Leicester as an example. Within the bounds of the inner ring road, which represents the commercial, and in the case of nightlife, the social heart of the city, I can think of just one pub and a single private members club where the traditional Leicester version of Table Skittles can still be found. Move a little further out of town and you may find another couple of examples, but the bulk of the venues for this rare traditional game are to be found in the suburbs and nearby villages.

The county towns of Nottingham and Derby are if anything slightly worse, with only one example of an alley for the local game of Long Alley Skittles within walking distance of Nottingham town centre, and none at all that I know of in Derby. Even Northampton, a county town at the centre of a relatively thriving Table Skittles tradition is hardly blessed with venues for the game in the centre of town.

It seems the more traditional and locally distinctive the games, the more likely they are to have been pushed out by prevailing trend and fashion to the fringes of the urban pub scene. This is hardly surprising of course, pub games may still be very popular in certain areas of the country, but they're certainly not regarded as 'fashionable' these days, even amongst those who might consider themselves fans of traditional pubs and the traditions of pub-going.

Mid-60's Skittles at the Plough Inn. Something of a family affair it seems, with four 'Skinners' in the runners-up team for the knockout cup competition
A notable exception to this trend is the not insignificant area loosely designated the 'West Country', where skittles is still prevalent just about everywhere you care to look. Skittle Alleys can be found with relative ease in the pubs and clubs of just about every sizeable town and village. The county towns of the West Country are no exception, and a recent afternoon in Taunton gave me an opportunity to confirm this to some degree.

I started the day with something like half a dozen pubs and clubs within easy walking distance of the centre to choose from, though had to rule the Kings Arms out early-doors as there was a large 'white shirt and dickie bow' social going on when I arrived. I know when a lengthy chat with the landlord about skittles is likely to be a non-starter.

The Plough sadly no longer has a skittle alley, though it's perhaps easy to see why it hasn't survived where others in the town have. The Plough is regarded as one of Tauntons best pubs for good beer and local ciders, but the traditional bar is a pretty slim affair, hence the loss of the alley to provide more drinking space at the rear of the building. It's nice to see the old photo (above) wasn't lost in the process. This is the kind of decoration I like to see on the walls of a pub, images with genuine local interest rather than the bought-in faux vintage stuff and coffee-house chic favoured for pub refurbishments everywhere these days.

Pick of the day however was The Racehorse, something of a tardis-like traditional community local on the edge of the town centre. It's an all-day every-day opener, increasingly rare in the modern pub landscape, and a town-centre pub which is owned and run by a regional brewery rather than a national concern or non-brewing pubco. The brewery in question is St Austell, which meant one of the better pints of the day, the reliably hoppy Proper Job, though the pub also has something of a reputation for the quality of its Irish stout...

The relatively modest frontage of this former coaching inn reveals a pub that goes on-and-on, only stopping when it reaches the beer garden and adjoining skittle alley. The pub has been kept nice and traditional, the front bar the highlight for me, but it's one of those interiors that's chock-full of interesting fixtures and fittings. The reclaimed shop-window and old advertising signs in what was originally the entrance for coaches and drays works very well, and features the games table with built in Cribbage Board shown at the end of this post, just asking for an afternoon game of Dominoes.

The Skittle Alley is fairly typical of those found throughout the West Country, a purpose built brick building, functional rather than attractive, and showing signs of many years enthusiastic use. There's a chimney breast at the social end of the alley but I can't in all honesty remember whether it's still in use. As with all the alleys round these parts, the delivery end is inlaid with a contrasting strip of cast metal (sometimes laid with contrasting timber), with local rules stating that on each delivery, the ball must hit this at some point or be adjudged a foul. This prevents the site of heavy lignum vitae balls being launched full-toss down the alley, and the subsequent damage to the surface over time. Another feature which has become common to alleys in the West Country is a wooden baton fixed to the floor, an aid to the two-handed 'flop' delivery that many skittlers favour now.

There are several leagues covering pubs and clubs in the Taunton area, with St Austell Brewery sponsoring the current winter league (below). There is of course a long tradition of brewery sponsorship for all pub games, but in the West Country this often extended to some of the bigger cider making businesses. Taunton Cider were a significant employer at their ciderworks in nearby Norton Fitzwarren until the site closed in the late 90's, so it's no surprise they would have sponsored this Ladies Knock-Out Cup competition in the 50's (above). Some footage and photos of inter-department skittles at Taunton Cider can be seen here, and in a nice bit of continuity, Taunton Cider as a brand has recently been revived by a group of local cider enthusiasts, with the company sponsoring a Skittles World Cup earlier this year.

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Rathmore Club, Cambridge

The Rathmore Club has been on my pub games 'to-do' list for several years now. One of only a handful of venues where the unique Cambridge version of Table Skittles is played, in fact it was a series of online photos of the bar area at the Rathmore that initially hinted to me the local league played a slightly different game to that in nearby Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.

As it happened I was very lucky to get any photos of the club at all. On the walk out on Hills Road toward Cherry Hinton you pass the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs, a huge edifice with a massive clock bolted on the side. This is the centre point of Catholic worship in the Cambridge area, and impossible to miss from all four approaches of the busy junction the church dominates. None less so than when a well-attended funeral is about to commence, which was the case when I wandered by.

So when I arrived at the Rathmore shortly after midday opening, the first thing I noticed was the lack of customers, and the fact that most of the tables were laden with piles of freshly made sandwiches. It didn't take a genius to put two and two together and get a wake, and an imminent wake at that, so I was very grateful to the landlord for allowing me the time to explore and photograph the interior before the place filled-up with friends and family of the deceased.

I can't imagine the Rathmore is on the drinking circuit of too many local Cambridge folk, particularly the more fussy beer drinking types. Guinness is the drink of choice at what is in effect a social club and welcoming home-from-home for the local Irish community. I have to say though, I was made very welcome for a pint and a chat, perhaps remarkably so given the circumstances at the club that day, so it would be wrong to assume this is in any way an 'exclusive' venue, I'd just advise you to choose your visiting time more carefully than I did!

As a social club, it's perhaps no great surprise that sport and games play such an important role. Every corner of the extensive bar area is littered with trophies for Darts, Pool, and a handful for the local game of Table Skittles, a game which is important enough at the Rathmore to warrant not one, but two of the tables unique to the small but thriving Cambridge & District Skittles League. The Rathmore team are currently top of the 2018/19 league, and the two tables make the club an ideal venue for off-season friendlies like the Summer Singles Competition held in August this year.

The Cambridge version of Table Skittles is played on slightly smaller tables than the more common 'Northamptonshire' game, and to rules which are entirely different (an overview of the rules can be seen here). Rules which seem to suggest a direct connection with a very old alley skittles game, known as Old English Skittles that was once common throughout the Home Counties and beyond. This game, known locally as London Skittles, is now the preserve of just one solitary pub, the Freemasons Arms in Hampstead, London. That a game which is played to almost identical rules survives in Cambridge, albeit much shrunk as a league, is a good indicator of how widespread geographically this style of skittles play would have been until the massive decline which affected so many pub and club games in the post-war years and into the mid-twentieth century.

I've absolutely no idea as to the provenance of these Cambridge Skittles Tables. They seem to have some age for sure, whilst showing evidence of regular repairs and refurbishment over the years, but in common with the equally unique tables found in Leicester, the four examples I've seen so far carry no details of a maker.

My guess is they were locally made by skilled carpenters and joiners, all to the same basic design and standard dimensions, but subtly and uniquely different in appearance reflecting the materials available. Perhaps the league(s) for the Cambridge game were never big enough to warrant a 'manufactured' table like those from the Northamptonshire makers W T Black & Sons or Pepper family. Nevertheless, it's likely there were many more of these tables to be found in Cambridgeshire pubs and clubs at one time (vintage league tables listing up to 17 teams over two divisions have recently been posted on the Cambridge league Facebook page), though where they are now is one of the many mysteries that make old pub games like this such an endlessly fascinating subject.

In most games, a shield for the lowest score would be regarded as the 'Wooden Spoon', but the rules for Cambridge Skittles are different, the aim being to achieve the lowest score by toppling the pins with the fewest throws.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Foresters Arms, Dunster, Somerset

Has there ever been a worse time to return to a much-loved pub after a long break? Change, as we all know, is a given in the pub trade, but for traditionalists like myself the wholesale changes that have occurred over the last few decades have more often than not been anything but good.

From the widespread 'knocking-through' of classic multi-room pubs in the 1980's, to the bland, blonde wood and sofa refurbs of more recent times. Add to that several decades of chronic pubco-inspired neglect and the epidemic of closures that inevitably followed, and the maxim that 'things ain't what they used to be' has never seemed more apt. It was with this in mind that I visited the Foresters Arms, a Somerset boozer that's been a regular, if infrequent stop for me when holidaying in the Minehead area for around three decades now. I needn't have worried...

The Foresters might be regarded as the last proper locals pub in Dunster, a village that's extremely well served with cafes, restaurants, and generally food-oriented venues like the historic Luttrell Arms. Under the same ownership for longer than most these days, the pub is reassuringly much the same now as I recall from previous visits. It's worth a visit if only to admire the rare surviving thatched and barrel-fronted bar servery (above), a once common feature of village pubs in the 70's and 80's, though sadly not, as yet, old enough to be considered for statutory listing...

What attracted me to the Foresters first time round was the presence of decent traditional cider, not nearly as common as you'd think in West Country pubs back then, and which I'm pleased to say is still a popular feature of the bar today. I also have fond memories of Nelson, the pubs highly vocal (and frequently very rude!) African Grey Parrot. It's that kind of a pub! So if you're easily offended by swearing parrots or enthusiastic cider drinkers (or dogs for that matter, there were a lot of dogs about the place), other pubs and bars are available in the village...

We tried them all on our most recent visit, and I think it's fair to say there's something for (almost) everyone in this busy tourist hotspot, but it was the Foresters that we felt most comfortable in, returning almost every night for the local Cotleigh Brewery beers, and to notch up another game in our traditional holiday Dominoes 'tournament'. A steady trickle of end-of-season tourists like ourselves, and a hardcore of chatty locals all received the same warm welcome from the licensees, a welcome which also extended to that lifeblood of village pubs like the Foresters, the home and away darts teams, who's lively Wednesday night game in the Minehead & District Darts League even silenced Nelson for a short time!

One aspect of the pub that I wasn't previously aware of was the Skittle Alley at the rear of the pub. Skittles is still a very important part of pub-going for locals throughout the West Country, with literally thousands of men and women enjoying fierce and/or friendly competition in hundreds of local leagues. Sadly a great many skittle alleys have been lost to refurbishment and closures in recent years, but the alley at the Foresters is in fine fettle, and host to league play throughout the winter months in the local Dunster League.

Alley skittles play in much of the country is by necessity confined to the Winter months, for the simple reason that it's easier to get a team up outside of the Summer holiday season. It's therefore not unusual to find alleys like the one at the Foresters, which is entirely separate from the warmth of the pub itself, often come equipped with a heat-source, in this case a substantial wood-burning stove. Skittles players show admirable commitment to the traditions of league play, even through the depths of winter, but an unheated skittle alley might be a game too far for some.

Of course there have been one or two changes at the Foresters in recent years. The now obligatory wooden baton across the delivery-end of the skittle alley is a new-ish addition. An aid to the 'modern' phenomena of the two-handed 'Flop' delivery, developed for accuracy, and small-handed folk like myself who find the heavy Lignum Vitae balls something of a handful. Until recently the alley was fitted-out with four Dartboards for local league play, an indication of just how popular the game was in the area. There's now just the one well-used board in the games area along with a Pool Table. And an African Grey Parrot!

A Shove Ha'penny board went missing from the pub a few years ago, possibly around the same time the swinging pub sign disappeared from it's gantry (the photograph above with the sign intact is from one of my earlier visits). Perhaps it will have returned by the time I visit the Foresters again, though hopefully little else will have changed. There's little need for yet another gastro venue in the village, proper locals pubs like the Foresters Arms are getting ever harder to find.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Cambridge Skittles - Girton Social Club, Cambridgeshire

If there's one game that perhaps best demonstrates the wide variety, and very local nature of traditional pub games, skittles is surely it. Almost everywhere you care to look in England (and to a lesser extent the rest of the British Isles), a unique local version of what is basically the same game can be found. Sometimes the differences are obvious, the equipment and rules of play radically different. More often though the variation is more subtle. That this local distinctiveness has survived when most other games and sports have evolved to a single national or international standard, is a major part of the appeal of pub games to enthusiasts like myself.

In the case of skittles, the only truly common factor throughout the numerous versions of the game is the number of pins used in play, the familiar diamond arrangement of nine wooden (or plastic!) skittles being the standard everywhere (except the very old twin alleys at Moor Pool in Birmingham and the Sheeps Heid Inn Edinburgh, which are equipped for a 10 pin game).

The particular version of skittles that I'm most familiar with is Table Skittles as played in the East Midlands, and the counties of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire in particular. Yet even in the Midlands there's wide variation in the way the game is played. Different rules and playing conventions apply in leagues throughout the region, even though the equipment used is largely the same.

Table Skittles is not just confined to the Midlands though. In the southeast of England the game of Daddlums clings on, albeit with just one original pub table in regular use at the Jolly Drayman in Gravesend. Other tables do exist, but the Jolly Drayman represents the last continuous link with a table skittles tradition that would have originally encompassed several counties in the south-east. Indeed Daddlums itself seems to have been the southern edge of a much wider table skittles tradition found throughout England's eastern counties, including Anglia and up as far north as Lincolnshire.

Whilst the Northamptonshire and Leicestershire game is still relatively common, practically all the skittles tables of this wider south-eastern tradition are long gone. Only photographs and video footage of the Anglian game are known to exist, and just two or three original Daddlums tables remain. There is however an active skittles league, geographically close-by, that might be considered part of this massively shrunken tradition. A game that has much in common with that found in the Midlands, something of the Anglian version in appearance, and perhaps most interestingly of all, a game played to the rules of an alley skittles game found only in London, and which some have suggested may represent the origin of table skittles itself.

Cambridge Skittles

At first glance there seems little to differentiate the game played in the Cambridge & District Skittles League from the more common Northamptonshire game, but there are in fact several important differences. Let's start with the equipment itself, the example above being the table from the Carlton Arms, a suburban local a mile or so north of Cambridge city centre and whose 'B' team are the current league champions.

The tables for the Cambridge game are in fact very similar to that found in the Midlands, but noticeably smaller. In common with the unique tables used in the Leicester Table Skittles leagues, there seems to be enough variation in construction, and lack of makers details, to suggest these tables would have been crafted locally by a skilled carpenter or joiner rather than manufactured as most Northamptonshire tables are. Thick padding to the back of the table as well as the sides, and no netting 'hood' are other obvious differences.

The pins are not only smaller than standard Northants skittles, but have a straighter profile making them more slender and slightly less top-heavy. The small hardwood cheeses are oval in profile, more like those of the old Norfolk table skittles game than the flatter 'edam' shaped cheeses used in the Midlands. In fact these pins and cheeses most closely resemble those which Timothy Finn photographed in a Norfolk pub for his 1975 book Pub Games of England.

Though I've yet to visit the club, I've also seen images of another two tables located at The Rathmore in Cambridge, and these seem to be identical in form.

So a smaller version of the common Midlands game. Interesting but hardly newsworthy, and certainly not significant enough to suggest we're dealing with a uniquely different game here. The major difference though, the one that sets the small, somewhat isolated Cambridge League apart from others, is the rules of play. These are entirely different to the Midlands game, indeed entirely different to almost all skittles played in Britain, yet they're more or less exactly the same as the rare London alley skittles game already mentioned.

In just about every table skittles league I've come across up to now, team rules vary widely, but the basic rules of play are the same, and fairly straightforward it must be said. Three cheeses are thrown at nine skittles, the aim being to achieve the highest score. If all the pins are knocked down with the first cheese, they are re-set for the second, and similarly for the third, giving a maximum score of 27 (3 x 9). In the Cambridge game the aim is entirely different (left).

Up to four cheeses are thrown, the aim being to knock all pins down. Therefore, a 'floorer', where all pins go down with the first throw scores the maximum points of 1 (the lowest score in a match wins), if it takes all four throws to knock all pins down, that's a score of 4, whereas if after all four throws any pins remain standing, that's a (presumably shameful) score of 5!

This is more or less exactly the scoring method employed in London Skittles, and a braver man than me might suggest the location of Cambridge, in an area known to have once played host to this old game, yet also close to the Eastern counties table skittles tradition, may have developed as a kind of hybrid of the two, a genuinely different and unique game.

Not as far fetched as it might sound. There are numerous examples of indoor games that have developed from a similar outdoor version, presumably for continuance of play during the colder winter months when alleys and pitches were often genuinely 'outdoor', or at best in covered but unheated outhouses. The Leicester Table Skittles game is a good example of this. The pins are shaped in a similar fashion to the much larger Long Alley Skittles game played in the same area, even down to the inclusion of a king pin, a feature which is unique to the various table skittles traditions. Is Cambridge Table Skittles the indoor version of the game now known as London Skittles?...

It's also interesting that the image at the centre of the magnificent Mixed Pairs shield shown at the head of this post, which dates from the late 60's, seems to show the game being played on a table which more closely resembles a Daddlums table than anything found further west of Cambridge.

The Cambridge & District League is currently made up of seven teams playing from six venues in the wider Cambridge area, only one of which, the Carlton, is a pub. It's difficult to know how widespread the league(s) for skittles in the area would have been, in common with most pub games there's scant coverage or records to be found outside of the individuals who played the game. I think it's safe to say there would have been many more pubs and clubs equipped with a table, certainly up until the late 20th century when many pub games suffered a catastrophic decline. There's a very good photo in this news feature of The Empress skittles team, a pub on the very edge of the city centre, and I've little doubt this was a common enough sight in many of the city's backstreet locals.

The league may be small, but it's well supported, and an early adopter of social media to keep players informed and help promote the game locally.

Girton Social Club

The table shown above is the home table for the Girton Social Club, acquired only a few years ago from a former venue, and only in league use at the club for the past couple of seasons. The club celebrated it's 100th year in 2011, the history of which can be read here. When I arrived at lunchtime on a Saturday, club members were in the middle of setting up for a locals 70th birthday party, but very kindly accommodated me and my camera, indeed the club is happy to sign in visitors like myself for a pint and a game (though a huge disco setup prevented me from actually having a chuck!). All the main social games of the day are enjoyed at the club, including Darts, Pool, Cribbage, and Dominoes, a true social venue in an area where so many of the pubs have become little more than upmarket restaurants and gastro-pubs.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Rising Sun, Bream, Gloucestershire

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the pub...

From Whitecroft Station in the Forest Of Dean, it's only a mile to the Rising Sun at Bream. I knew this because I'd checked and double-checked my somewhat dog-eared vintage Ordnance Survey map prior to the trip, and decided the walk would pleasantly fill the hour between my arrival at the station, and lunchtime opening at the nearby Miners Arms. When a volunteer at the station suggested it was "...a bit of a walk!" and offered a lift most of the way, I naturally declined. A lift! It's only a mile! Does he even know the area?...

I really must take the time to read Ordnance Survey maps just that little bit more carefully. A solitary mile it may have been, but even a cursory glance at the map should have alerted me to the dozen or so tightly packed contour lines that I'd spend the next half-hour or so wearily trudging across. Red-faced, cursing, smiling back through gritted teeth as yet another peloton of lycra-clad, rake-thin cyclists cheerily glided past me with apparent ease. Oh for a lift... By the time I arrived at my destination, I really needed a drink.

So my rusty map-reading skills need to improve, but at least I got the opening hours of the pub right, something of a lottery in rural England these days but you can usually rely on lunchtime opening on a Saturday.

With the permanent closure of the nearby Cross Keys, the Rising Sun is now the only pub in the village of Bream. Needless to say it's very-much a locals pub, but in common with most hostelries in the forest in my experience, equally welcoming to visitors like myself. The bar is a fairly intimate affair, annexed by a slightly larger 'lounge' (above), and the all-important games room that was the principal motivation for my short stroll up the hill. I ordered something refreshing from the ever-reliable Wye Valley Brewery, propped the bar up, and chatted hill-climbs and Quoits with the locals.

The Royal Forest Of Dean Quoits League is, reassuringly, more or less exactly where it was the first time I investigated it a few years ago. Which is to say that whilst there's been some shuffling around of venues, there are still eight teams in the league, including two that call the Rising Sun home. Quoits is certainly not the most widely played game at the pub, nor indeed in the Forest, as the numerous trophies around the bar for Darts indicates, but it's an important survivor in an area where league game play of any description can be difficult to sustain.

Although there's still a good appetite for pub games like Quoits, Darts, and Skittles in the forest, getting a team together when so much work in the area is on a shift basis can be quite a challenge. In practice, a pub needs to sign up a relatively large pool of players at the beginning of the season as cover for work-based unavailability, though one thing that works in the favour of a relatively small league like the one for Quoits is the close geographical spread of the venues.

The Quoits 'Board' at the Rising Sun is the same moulded concrete type found throughout the forest, indeed the only wooden board I've come across is at the nearby Fountain at Parkend (currently not fielding a team in the league). Plain white is the colour, another unique feature of the forest league. I've found that concrete boards like this are quite common throughout the whole of the Quoiting region, the Hereford League seems to favour them for example, but most maintain the traditional red and green colour scheme.

Another interesting aspect of play in the forest is the Quoits themselves, which are more often than not the older 'convex' type (below). These more closely resemble the steel quoits that the indoor game would have originally developed from. Whether these are vintage survivors or still available to buy new I couldn't say, but outside of the Forest of Dean the standard form seems to be the flat Quoit, one side black, the other white to indicate the scoring side. League-standard quoits like these are made from a particularly soft kind of rubber, which 'slaps' down onto the playing surface with less of a tendency to bounce off than harder rubber types.

In common with most pub games leagues, the Royal Forest Of Dean Quoits League supports a range of competition, from the standard home and away league, to cup knockout tournaments such as the 5-a-side shown here.

Play follows what a local described as 'Evesham Rules', which means using the unique scoreboard shown below. Play is not simply a case of the highest score, or as in the Hereford league, a countdown similar to Darts. In the Forest and other leagues players are required to score each of the numbers on the scoreboard, the figure scored flipped over when it's been achieved. This certainly makes for a more skilful game, in fact it took me most of a pint to achieve the 'full-house' on a similar scoreboard at the nearby Royal Oak, Whitecroft. What was I doing at the Royal Oak? Well, walking downhill for a mile tends to pull a bit on the calf muscles, and with no lift available I really needed a drink by the time I got back to Whitecroft...

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Thorn Tree Inn, Belper, Derbyshire

The Derbyshire town of Belper has, in recent years, become one of my more regular weekday pub destinations. A former mill town in the attractive Derwent Valley, and just a short train ride north of Derby, Belper forms a major part of the Derwant Valley Mills World Heritage Site, and as such is a bit of a treat for lovers of our industrial past. For many though, the town is likely to be just a staging post on the road to nearby Matlock and the Bank Holiday 'seaside' attractions at Matlock Bath. But one thing that Belper has which puts Matlock firmly in the shade, is an unusually high number of pubs, many of which are very fine traditional locals.

Clearly Belper folk like their beer, and thankfully they seem to prefer drinking it in the highly social surroundings of their local pub rather than at home. Of course not all of the towns pubs have escaped the blight of closures which continue to affect just about all parts of the country, but there's still more than enough to go at on a weekday afternoon, including a few personal favourites. The cosy and welcoming George & Dragon (left) was a return visit for me and has already featured on this blog. One of the few early openers on the Wednesday I was in town, and notable for it's traditional outdoor skittle alley, wood-burning stove, excellent draught Bass, and friendly pub dog. A new attraction for me was the recently opened Angels Micro Pub, which along with the towns Arkwright Real Ale Bar (another skittles venue) helps service the needs of local beer enthusiasts by offering a more eclectic range than most.

Another pub with a particularly strong emphasis on its beer range is the Thorn Tree Inn. This pub was recently reopened by local mother and daughter team April and Amber Rose Elliot after a period of neglect and eventual closure, and it's this 'good news story' that was the principal inspiration for my most recent visit to the town.

The Thorn Tree Inn is set a short walk out of the town centre. A solid stone-built wedge of a pub dividing the main Chesterfield Road and smaller Swinney Lane, it's a classic locals pub with a traditional bar in the narrowest part of the wedge, and a slightly larger lounge-bar, warmed by a good fire on the day I visited. The focus on a range of local Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire brewers ales stems from the licensees experience working at the towns Arkwright Real Ale Bar, and in a town which is slightly dominated by Marston's beers, represents a good point of difference.

Darts and Dominoes are played at the pub, and it's hoped that the Thorn Tree will once again be fielding a team in the local Belper & District Skittles League for the forthcoming season. The Belper league is very active in the area, with around 30 teams playing league matches throughout the summer months in three divisions, as well as as all manner of knockout and multiple player competitions. As with most venues in the area, the skittle alley is an outdoor one at the rear of the pub.

A Horseshoe on the timber decking marks the throwing point for the skittle alley, and a brick-built extension to the pub makes for an interesting bottleneck at its centre-point. Whether this contributes any significant home advantage is hard to say, it certainly looks a bit challenging to me, though presumably offers no real restriction to the throw. I would imagine that the Frame (below) needed to be re-set to a new angle following the building of this extension.

The view of the valley from the decking is impressive even on a misty winter day