Sunday, 20 January 2019

Bulls Head Inn, Little Hallam Hill, Ilkeston, Derbyshire

The Derbyshire town of Ilkeston lies at the heart of one of the country's great skittles traditions. The game of Long Alley Skittles is a true East Midlands speciality, played almost exclusively in the neighbouring counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. It's a robust, highly skilful game in the hands of experienced players, and very different to the more widespread game of alley skittles found throughout the south and west of England and Wales, where the balls are generally required to roll sedately down the alley rather than flying through the air 'Dambusters' style! Long Alley Skittles is frequently played outdoors and in all weather conditions, though Winter competition is confined to those pubs and clubs with indoor, or at least covered alleys. Skittlers are a hardy bunch, but not 'that' hardy!

In common with almost all of the more traditional pub games, participation in Long Alley Skittles has declined markedly over the last few decades. Even so, alleys are still relatively common, and there are several leagues active in each of the three counties. Ilkeston gives its name to one of these, a league of some 16 teams competing over the Summer in two divisions at pub and club venues in the town and surrounding villages. It's a great game to play, and a good one to spectate if you get the chance, albeit that some alleys can give a limited view of the action.

There are perhaps half a dozen pubs and clubs in Ilkeston town with skittle alleys, not all of which are in league use. The Bulls Head Inn is just a short walk out from the centre of Ilkeston, and has a good covered outdoor alley which is currently out of action for league play, though it's hoped this won't be a permanent situation.

The oldest part of the pub dates from the 17th century, but has been extended over the years to give the substantial building we see today with a games oriented Bar (left) and separate Lounge, as well as a garden and patio which overlooks the Skittle Alley.

When I asked the licensee about skittles and its place in the pub, she pointed me in the direction of the chap shown below. "Alf knows more about skittles than anyone I know...". I had a good chat with Alf and I can confirm  that he knows a hell of a lot more about the subject than I do, and probably more than most folk who play the game. This should come as no great surprise, Alf has been involved in the local Long Alley leagues since he was a young man, including time as League Secretary, though now confines himself to the equally skilful table version of the game.

Table Skittles, or Devil Amongst The Tailors as it's sometimes known, was once as common  in pubs and clubs as the outdoor game in the Derby and Nottingham area (and possibly Leicester too). In fact wherever Long Alley is (or was) played, Table Skittles seems to have been played too. Providing more comfortable, and considerably less strenuous indoor competition for keen skittlers during the Winter months. Until very recently this was still the case in Newark, and vestiges of the tradition survives in the Nottingham & Arnold Table Skittles and Domino League, a very small league of mostly club venues on the East side of the city. It's because of this almost extinct local pub game tradition that so many of these old skittles tables can still be found in the area, some of which I'm pleased to say are still in regular use.

The old Jaques table shown here in the bar of the Bulls Head is one of several vintage models owned and maintained by Alf. This one is on permanent loan to the pub, and Alf was happy to demonstrate his undoubted skills at the game over the course of a pint or two and a couple of rather one-sided games. All I'll say about the result of these games is that if, like me, you think you have some level of proficiency in a game of skill like table skittles, just try playing someone who really does! I found the table quite difficult to play despite being set up perfectly, not getting anywhere near a 'spare', let alone a 'floorer', and I have to admit that I gave Alf very little in the way of genuine competition. Alf, needless to say, made the game look very easy indeed. A highly enjoyable lesson though, and I very much look forward to a return match some time soon, once I've got in a bit of practice...

The Skittle Alley has all the common features of the Derby/Notts game. The metal 'shoe' (below) indicates where the players trailing foot must remain before the ball leaves the hand. Should the ball fall short of the white line in front of the frame (above), it is adjudged a foul throw and any pins felled don't score. This line is often marked with a loose metal sheet to give an audible indication of a foul throw. The ball-return chute (bottom) crosses the steps up to the patio and is shown in its dismantled state here.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Carew Arms, Crowcombe, Somerset

One of the great pleasures of visiting pubs in far-flung parts of the country, quite apart from the patently obvious pleasure of enjoying local beers in someone else's 'local', is the opportunity to savour our precious stock of 'Heritage Pubs'. Those rare, sometimes historically important survivors, which through good fortune or design remain relatively unspoilt by too much in the way of unnecessary 'progress'.

Which is not to say that a commitment to maintaining tradition and heritage should mean these great pubs lack modern comforts. In fact many of them manage to juggle the ever increasing demands of customer expectation, like fine dining, craft beers, and inside toilets (the famous Monkey House excepted!), without the need for an all-encompassing modernisation that strips out much of the pubs true heritage. By which I mean the 'social' history of the pub, as represented by quirks of architecture, fixtures and fittings, and of course the traditional pub games I like to highlight on this blog. Because it's aspects like these which play an important role in maintaining local distinctiveness in an increasingly homogenous world, and besides which, they've served customers perfectly well for generations, so why change for change sake! At their best, those pubs which we might designate as Heritage Pubs are attractive for all the right reasons, and in fact represent most peoples ideal of what the great British pub should be.

The West Country, and Somerset in particular, seems to have more than it's fair share of genuine heritage pubs, perhaps a result of the region being that little bit more far-flung than more central counties of England. A rural isolation that effectively cushions the area from the very worst examples of interior design trends and transitory fashion. Three cheers for 'far-flung' then!

The Carew Arms in Crowcombe is one such example. A grade II former coaching inn, located in a beautiful village on the edge of the Quantocks. This is no chocolate box fancy though. Very much a working hostelry which features a highly regarded restaurant, letting rooms, and a well-used skittle alley. The heart of the pub, and the principle attraction for pub-lovers like myself, is the lovely flagstone-floored farmers bar (below). Scrubbed pine tables, basic bench seating and a high-backed settle adjacent to the fireplace, with old photos and taxidermy on the whitewashed walls. It's the kind of bar that in the depth of winter, when the stove is running at full blast and the local ales are tasting fine, it would be very hard to leave without a heavy heart.

Of course the real beauty of a pub like the Carew is that it remains at the very heart of the village community it serves, not merely a museum piece for tourists like myself to admire and photograph. The Carew is very much a locals pub that's also welcoming to visitors, and as such it maintains many of the pastimes that make a pub truly a local, including the local West Country speciality, alley skittles.

The Skittle Alley is one of the more interesting ones in the area, located as it is in the pubs former stabling block, a relic from its days as a coaching inn on the road from Taunton to Somersets northern coast. The individual compartments of the stable have been retained, and cleverly incorporated as seating areas along the length of the alley. In fact, despite appearances, the alley is quite a modern construction, the original now the pubs dining area.

The Carew is the home alley of a couple of skittles teams, both of which are currently mid-table in the Watchet & District Mens Skittles League. This is a winter league of three divisions and various cup matches, summer skittling in rural areas like this being the exception, with seasonal work and holiday commitments taking precedence for many of those that play.

Skittles remains remarkably popular throughout the West Country, with participation bucking the trend of many other areas for the game in that it's still something that younger players take an interest in. Perhaps this can be partially explained by the long tradition of the 'Sticker-Up', whereby youngsters are encouraged to earn a little extra pocket money of an evening by returning the balls and sticking the pins back up during a match (note the refuge for the stickers-up to the left of the frame). In fact some leagues have a dedicated end-of-season competition for the volunteer 'stickers-up', sparking enthusiasm in the game, and helping to foster the important social side of skittling from an early age.

Boules is played on a Pitch at the rear of the Carew Arms, as it is at many other pubs and clubs in the area and throughout the country now. Competition has developed quite rapidly from small beginnings in 2001, to the current 20 teams in the West Somerset Boules Association.

The Restaurant, formerly the pubs Skittle Alley