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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.