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.