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