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.