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.