Monday, 3 May 2021

Traditional Inn Games - The Gaymer's Cyder Beermat Collection

Pub gaming ephemera and equipment has long been a medium for drinks and tobacco companies to advertise their wares. Playing Cards, Dominoes, Darts Flights and Scoreboards were all commonly appended with Brewery names and Tobacco brands, and along with league sponsorship there are few areas of the pub games tradition that would have escaped the marketing departments attention.

In truth, I doubt whether this kind of advertising was intended to sway drinkers and smokers one way or the other to any great degree, all pubs being very firmly tied to their respective breweries back then. I'd imagine that then, as now, drinker and smoker preference was based largely on personal taste, price, and choice of pub rather than the hard sell of an attractively branded Cribbage Board. These items were more about brand loyalty, cheap or free tokens available to customers as part of the all-important 'sales rep - licensee' relationship.

So customers got to play their favoured games at the pub without the added expense of having to supply their own equipment, and the drinks and tobacco industry obviously saw the value of rewarding valued customers with relatively inexpensive branded tokens of their appreciation, thereby cementing the relationship between brand and customer. The legacy of all this of course, is a healthy interest from enthusiasts of all things Brewery and Tobacco related, indeed some of these everyday items are worth quite a bit to collectors nowadays.

Occasionally, as shown here, the tables are turned and a drinks company enlists the help of traditional pub games to sell their products, in this case via the time-honoured method of the Beer Mat. Never ones to miss a trick, marketing departments know the value of a well placed 'info-mat', branded on one side, concisely informative on the reverse, and a last-resort bit of reading material in times of idle boredom at the pub. Make them a numbered set and you're guaranteed to want to read (or indeed collect) them all.

This set was produced by Gaymer's, probably around the time the brand was in the hands of Mathew Clarke in the 1990's. Olde English Cyder was a huge cider brand back then, the unique 'Costrel Barrel' keg fonts and false handpumps seemed to be on the bar counters of just about every pub, presumably the result of a massive marketing push, of which these mats would have played their part.

Eight in number, these beer mats feature Traditional Inn Games that would have been quite rare, or at the very least in serious decline even then. The descriptions are accurate enough though, such that I have to wonder who's work the marketeers drew more heavily on, Arthur Taylor or Timothy Finn!

Olde English Skittles (No.6) takes preference over more common variants of the game, presumably because of the 'Olde English' prefix fitted better with the cider brand being advertised. To say that 'The game still flourishes in certain parts of London' is somewhat fanciful. I think at this time there may have been just two, maybe three venues for the game, of which only one pub alley survives today (where it does indeed flourish).

I can't in all honesty say I've ever seen Nine Mens Morris (No.5) being played in the pub, though I have seen examples of the games unique board on occasion. The same cannot be said for Dominoes (No.4) of course, which is still one of the most popular games found in the pub, albeit that the mat refers to the 'Block' game rather than the more 'pubby' Fives & Threes version played competitively in pub and club leagues.

Dobbers (No.7) is a name rarely used these days for the game of Indoor Quoits depicted on this mat, and sadly even then it was probably almost extinct as a game in the Vale Of Evesham when these were in circulation. The game clings on in just a handful of reasonably well-supported leagues, located along the Welsh Borders area.

Shove Halfpenny (No.1), or Shove Ha'penny, is indeed widespread in that there are still many boards for the game in existence, though sadly not so many located at the pub these days. Competitive league play can still be found in the West Country, Wales, and in its Pushpenny variant, Lincolnshire and Sussex.

As stated on the mat, Quoits (No.3) remains relatively popular in certain parts of Northern England, though its status in East Anglia is now less certain. At one time regarded as a national sport to rival Football, the game remains a fantastic spectacle for the casual spectator during a Summer evenings play.

The final two mats are real curiosities. Tossing the Penny (No.8) still exists in a handful of pubs in Anglia, with one outlier at a pub in Rutland. A real glimpse of rural pub life, an unsophisticated game for farmers and villagers that's literally part of the furniture in those few pubs where the game survives. Similarly, Ringing The Bull (No.2) was a pub pastime created to while-away an afternoon or evenings drinking. Little more than a tethered copper Bull Ring and a hook, it's hard to imagine how the brewery and tobacco marketeers would have enlisted these two games to their cause.

Monday, 12 April 2021

The George, Ashley, Northamptonshire

It's the 12th of April, frosty Spring is just about giving way to the warm promise of Summer, and the pubs are finally open again! Or rather pub gardens are open, bar rooms and snugs are still deemed far too dangerous to linger in! Let's not be churlish though, a pub that's open in any form is clearly better than a pub that's closed, and from where I'm sitting today, at the pub, pint in hand, with the sun shining and temperatures set to rise later this week, the timing seems opportune.

Not only are we on the very cusp of British Summer time, when the great British beer garden really comes into its own, it seems to me that even the most single-minded drinks enthusiasts will have realised by now that drinking at home is not necessarily the greatest of drinks 'experiences'. I for one am bored rigid with popping fancy cans of beer at home, no matter how highly crafted the contents, and the long cold Winter has even deprived us of our own personal 'beer gardens', the closest many of us have come to a 'near-pub' experience this year. It's high time we got back to the pub!

The last time we were released from lockdown was a very different experience of course, given that we were free to drink and dine 'inside' the pub, albeit with a raft of rules and restrictions. Filled with enthusiasm and confident of fine Summer weather, I celebrated that day in July by taking a stroll along one of our long-distance footpaths to a nearby village pub. It was a truly memorable day at one of my favourite traditional pubs in the area, and one that I've been looking forward to repeating all through this latest Winter lockdown. So another trek across freshly ploughed and recently seeded fields seemed entirely appropriate today, and to yet another pub that's been a long-time favourite of mine.

The George

The George at Ashley was my local once. By which I mean a local in the true sense of the word. Not just a regular 'beer' haunt, nor indeed the pub on my doorstep, but the one I 'chose' to use two or three times a week in preference to many others nearby. A proper 'prop-up-the-bar' local, a chatty villagers local, a rugby and too many pints on a Saturday afternoon local. Not the only 'local' of its kind in the area it's true, but it was mine for a time, and I must say I loved it to bits.

Sparse description of The George from a 1990 CAMRA guide
In truth The George became my local because my 'actual' local at the time (which was truly 'local' being in my own village) finally closed its doors as a pub for good. I have to say that I was truly gutted at losing my beloved village local, so exchanging a 5 minute stroll to the pub for upwards of an hours trek to the next village seemed entirely reasonable at the time. A man's got to have his local!

The George was somewhere we liked to visit for a whole number of reasons. The flat road across the Welland floodplain made cycling or walking for a pint more of a pleasure than a chore, and the benches at the front were just the best place to rest our legs when we arrived, down a few pints, and watch the local horses clop by. The pub also became a favoured destination for the Friday night warm-up session when the infamous Welland Valley Beer Festival was in full swing. Sadly that memorable event became a victim of its own success, but I'm sure many will remember with great fondness the beer tent and BBQ at the rear of the pub.

Later on we made the George our home for afternoon rugby matches on the telly, taking an old Shove Ha'penny Board along for a few half-time games that would inevitably extend well beyond the final whistle! Rugby at the George was always a treat given the pubs position near the Leics/Northants border. Ostensibly a Tigers pub, there was always a good few Saints fans in for the banter too. Later on a Devil Amongst The Tailors table made the journey across the valley, a favourite with children in the bar, and therefore a firm favourite with the parents too!

So what of the George now. What changes has it seen over the years since my first visit almost 20 years ago. Well the George is still essentially the same 'improved' farmers bar it's always been. An alehouse in a very small village, little altered over the years but now spruced-up and with much more of a food aspect. The traditional Northants Skittles Table that graced the tiny rear bar is long gone (though I understand it's still located in the village). A brass strip set into the quarry tiled floor marks the original throwing point, probably the only clue there was ever a skittles table at the pub. Until recently there was also a well-used Dartboard in the bar, the pub fielding a strong team in the local Welland Valley Darts League. Sadly the Dartboard seems to have gone, but then it's a very small bar and space is clearly at a premium.

Another feature of the pub that may or may not have survived the recent lockdowns is the weekend Dominoes game. A group of perhaps half a dozen folk from villages round and about were always to be found rattling the tiles on a Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon, the sound of village locals everywhere until recent years. The game of Fives & Threes is open to anyone that likes a game, in fact I sat in on a game one afternoon with typically mixed results!

So the games have largely gone, but in new hands it's still very much the pub it's always been. Open Monday to Sunday, and remarkably for a village pub, that includes lunchtime hours every day of the week, even Mondays! A pub for the locals, but also a destination pub with a strong food offering. You're still welcome to pop in for a drink though, or will be when restrictions on inside drinking are finally lifted in May. I may not be a local anymore, but there's still a bench at the front for horse and tractor watching, and I can see myself walking across the fields to the George quite a lot this year.

Easter Monday Tradition

Until the recent COVID disruptions, the George played it's part in an important local sporting tradition. Many will have heard of the Easter Bottle Kicking event between nearby Hallaton and Medbourne villages, a rivalry said to date from Pagan times! What's not so well known is the traditional Tug of War between the villagers of Ashley & Medbourne that usually takes place on the morning of the Bottle Kicking. Mens, Womens, and a Childrens competition have been held, the winners of the Mens match, a best of three, claiming the bragging rights and a shield on the spirit barrel trophy shown here. There is also a wooden Ice Bucket trophy for the Womens competition, both of which were held at the George when I first started visiting. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Rose & Crown, Bradford Abbas, Dorset

If Bradford Abbas is the archetypal sleepy English rural village, then the Rose & Crown certainly fits the bill as its typical English village pub (though far from sleepy when a skittles team are at home). A 14th century boozer of mellow local stone, firmly planted at the centre of the village in the shadow of the parish church. In fact the Rose & Crown is a proper old 'Inn' with several letting rooms, a long rambling bar and dining area, attractive beer garden, and entirely typical for a Dorset pub, a historic and very well-used Skittle Alley. I didn't see it myself, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were 'Good Stabling' available at the pub too, such is the timeless feel of the place.

My first, and thus far only visit to the 'famous' Rose & Crown was over four years ago now, part of a whistle-stop tour of towns and villages in beautiful Dorset. It also marked my first, and quite probably last truly competitive game of 'West Country Alley Skittles', the traditional game played at pubs and clubs all through the West Country and beyond. This version of skittles is the countrys most popular and well supported by some degree, but it's one that I have little experience of, and even less skill at playing if truth be known.

I spent an eventful night at the pub in August that year, playing skittles for the home team at the behest of my Dorset skittling buddy John Penny, a man who's even more enthused by traditional pub games than I am, if that's possible! John has captained teams at the Rose & Crown for longer than anyone cares to remember, playing Summer and Winter in the local Yeovil Skittles Leagues. A good player by all accounts, though clearly a very poor judge of form given that he was happy to sign me up as a reserve player for the 2016 Summer league. This bad judgement continued when he actually picked me to make up the numbers for a Division 4 league match, playing in the middle order for the 'Merkins' at the business end of the Summer season! I guess that even in the skittling hotbed of Dorsetshire, there's more to playing the game than merely winning, and I was delighted to accept the challenge.

So there's John (above), showing his best side and setting the pins for a few practice rounds on the Rose & Crown alley ahead of the big night. As it was I didn't entirely embarrass myself, though the team charitably offered me a bye on the bewildering array of big-money forfeits that come with top competition like this. Missing the pins entirely, missing your 'spare' etc. I think I managed all of these, transgressions which usually carry a hefty fine. As a rank novice though, I managed to escape the skittle alley that night with almost all my pocket money intact. All the more loose change to lose in the hotly contested game of Three Card Brag in the bar later!

The Merkins, including the nights hard-working 'Sticker-Up' at the front
In fact we won the match that night, thanks in the main to consistent if unspectacular scoring from all team members. Other than myself of course, who scraped to a thoroughly average total of 40. But with just 7 points deciding the winners, I was simply relieved that I hadn't missed the pins entirely and thrown the whole match. As a former Northants Table Skittles player I must say that I found the etiquette of the game slightly odd. The whole team leaving the alley and decamping to the bar whilst the opposing players set their score is not what I'm used to. Of course that meant there was less scrutiny from the opposition, and hence a little less pressure to perform, which undoubtedly helped me with my debut game. The only barracking in Dorset Skittles seems to come from your own team mates!

I describe the pub itself as being famous, and famous it most certainly is, albeit amongst a fairly small circle of games and pub enthusiasts. The image shown here (right) is from one of two 1930's British Movietone films which feature the 'Old Men of Bradford Abbas', including four elderly gentlemen whose combined age of 357 seemed to present no obstacle to regular trips to their village local. Nor indeed a few 'hands' of skittles in the pubs ancient skittle alley or on the Devil Amongst The Tailors (below). Images of these 'Lads of the Village' were used in promotional material by Dorset brewers Eldridge Pope in the 60's and 70's, so it's quite possible you may have come across them before and wondered at their origin.

The 'Athletics' film features the 'Lads' throwing a few balls down the stone-walled alley, and it's thought that this may represent the earliest recorded footage of a game of skittles in progress, albeit one for the 'Four Sovereigns Stakes' and Movietone cameras rather than the cut and thrust of league competition. Perhaps John could resurrect the 'Stakes' at the pub for old times sake, though he might struggle to match the 357 age-total these days. They were made of sterner stuff back then it seems...

The 'Duck' trophy, traditionally awarded to those players with the skill to avoid hitting any skittle pins at all on their go. Luckily I avoided the Duck on this occasion...

Having a pub games enthusiast as thoroughly 'enthusiastic' as John Penny for a local, is surely a blessing for the licensees of the Rose & Crown. His enthusiasm extends to being a strong advocate of the local skittles tradition of course, but he's also a keen supporter of pubs in general through his writing (under a pseudonym) for The Visitor magazine, as well as other local beer and pub related publications such as CAMRA's Giant Dongle newsletter. I've heard he also enjoys the odd pint for the cause...

John has also turned his hand to making numerous high quality games such as the 'Norfolk Twister' shown here in the bar of the Rose & Crown. Fellow Pub Games enthusiast Arthur Taylor, author of 'Played At The Pub', is shown here spinning the game with the licensee (photo c/o John Penny). John has made quite a few of these old, traditional games of chance over the years, a game that is now extremely rare in its home county of Norfolk, yet surprisingly common in Johns home county of Dorset!

John and myself spin for something or other, probably the next round of beers

Monday, 8 March 2021

Fox Inn, Wilbarston

These heavily worn Boxwood cheeses are not the ones used for league matches, though they would certainly have seen active service at some point. The matchday pins and cheeses are usually kept safe from the casual player, and will give good service for a few years at most before being retired like these.
The Skittles Table takes pride of place next to the Darts Board in the older part of the Fox Inn bar. Note the grill across the window at the rear of the table, protection from a stray cheese or pin.

Detail on one of the Cheeses at the Fox Inn showing the pub name stamped in the centre. The weight is often stamped on the Cheese too.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

The Shove Ha'penny Control Association

Not much is known about the grandly titled Shove Ha'penny Control Association, which is perhaps surprising given how widespread the game was in pubs and clubs until relatively recent times. As yet, no-one has managed to unearth an archive of minutes and transactions for this auspicious control body, neither have any trophies, awards, or league tables come to light bearing their name. So it's a bit of a mystery just who or what the Association believed they were actually controlling!

In reality, there probably never was a Shove Ha'penny Control Association. More likely it was an opportunistic invention of one or more manufacturers, a clever marketing ruse designed to boost sales of their own 'official' boards as opposed to 'inferior' homemade and locally crafted ones, or indeed those sold by their many competitors.

In the post-war years when the game was at its most popular, there were one or two short-lived attempts to develop the game through national competition. The News of the World organised competitions for a number of popular pub games, most notably Darts but also Shove Ha'penny. Some regional and world competitions still occur to this day, and several regional champions of the game can be seen shoving for a big money prize on Yorkshire Televisions fabulously un-PC Indoor League series in the 70's. But other than these rare moments in the spotlight and a handful of local leagues which still exist, the game remains resolutely one for casual play at the pub, without the need for 'control' by an association of any kind.

This very heavy slate bears the Shove Ha'penny Control Association moniker in cast aluminium, and was the very first board I acquired. It's still a particular favourite of mine even though it doesn't get a great deal of use these days, being far too heavy to carry to the pub. The slate itself is very smooth and in remarkably good condition for its age. The Patent number for this and the token shown below dates the design to around 1929, a time when the game would have been very popular in pubs and clubs.

There's plenty of additional design on this board to warrant the patent, including rubber 'cushions', a handy depression to hold your chalk (right) and numbered beds, presumably for a scoring game. This appears to have been the Rolls Royce of manufactured Shove Ha'penny slates. There was also a cheaper 'Challenger' model without the numbering, and the design was either adapted or copied for later slates with plastic surrounds replacing the expensive aluminium of the originals, and sometimes branded for tobacco products (below). Many of these slates were supplied drilled ready for screwing to a table top, not strictly necessary given the enormous weight so possibly more of a guard against theft.

Serious league play, of the kind the Shove Ha'penny Control Association were presumably aiming to foster, requires a stringent set of rules leaving no room for ambiguity or dispute. Before play began, the 'Number of Beds' required for a win would have to be chalked into this circle, a verbal agreement simply wouldn't do. Needless to say, these boards are the only ones I've seen with this unnecessary design quirk.

The manufacturers of these boards were not ones to miss a trick, making special Shove Ha'penny Tokens for use in place of the age-old solution of a plain old ha'penny. These bespoke tokens are made from a thin disc of Brass with milled edges, the top side nickel silvered and cast to indicate the 'official' nature of what is essentially a brass washer! To be fair, they do work very well, once again removing a lot of the unpredictability of using a mixed-bag of old coinage with differing thickness and weight.

The Rules of the Game of Shove Ha'penny

Since writing this piece almost ten years ago, little if any additional information has come to light about the Shove Ha'penny Control Association, though boards and tokens continue to come up for sale, an indication of how popular these relatively expensive items would have been. However, I recently acquired what would have been the 'official' rules for the game as prescribed by this 'august' body. Dated 1931, and with what seems a hefty shilling price-tag for such a slim volume of rules that presumably most players knew already! This booklet was originally included in the purchase of one of these slate boards, along with two sets of the Official Discs of the Shove Ha'penny Control Association. The rules themselves are pretty standard, in fact they're almost identical to a set of rules produced at a later date by John Jaques & Son Ltd, including the unusual 'Handicapping' system shown below. More interesting are the adverts that have been included in the booklet, the sum of which go a long way to answering the question of what the Shove Ha'penny Control Association actually was...

There's no mention of who actually manufactured these boards, either on the slates themselves or within the rules, but usefully there are a number of other items advertised that give a strong clue. These include slate scoreboards for Billiards and Darts, as well as two designs of slate-shelved Meat Stores, the 'Eureka' and 'Colstor'. Just a little research online confirms what Arthur Taylor had already revealed in his excellent 'Played At The Pub' book, that all these slate items were produced by Goddard & Son, producers of Slate and Slab products from a base in Battersea, London. Goddard supplied slate beds to many of the Billiard table manufactures of the time, Mr R.S Goddard himself inventing the unique ‘Multum In Parvo' (Much in Little) practice Billiard Table that the mighty Thurston Billiard Table manufacturer developed. I think this finally puts to rest the idea that the ‘Association’ was anything other than a bit of opportunistic marketing by a successful family business, attempting to exercise some measure of control, and therefore extend their interests in, the burgeoning market for competitive Shove Ha'penny.

The war years were a peak time for the game of Shove Ha'penny. A staple of village Tap Rooms and Public Bars almost everywhere. Boards were also supplied to the military, and the RAF in particular, for servicemen's recreation at home and overseas (a rare 'Wide Arrow' stamped board I acquired is now in the Jaques of London private games collection). So an inexpensive, highly skilled traditional pastime that quickly joined the ranks of pub and club league competition, and needless to say caught the eye of businessmen that were ever-alert to the potential of a new games market to be exploited.

I'd say that the vast majority of Shove Ha'penny (and Pushpenny) boards that are still played in pubs, or have subsequently come up for sale, are homemade or at best locally made by a skilled woodworker. Often re-purposed from redundant furniture or perhaps a cut-down bar counter, and as the name suggests, played using the smallest currency of the day. Little opportunity for money to be made from the game then, other than the pints that accompany an afternoon game or evening league match. Hence the desire here to codify the game, and sell the idea of just one 'official' manufacture of true 'league standard' boards and discs. Other manufacturers certainly produced boards in great quantities around this time, mostly from what Goddard infers as 'inferior' Mahogany, but only Goddard & Son attempted to take control of the game as a serious competition by producing 'definitive' rules, and 'league standard' slate boards of a patented design.

That there are so many of these slate Shove Ha'penny boards still out there is of course a testament to the (albeit limited) success of this strategy, as well as the undoubted quality of the boards themselves, It's clear however that Goddard, via their Shove Ha'penny Control Association, didn't in fact achieve the control of league competition they appear to have sought. Perhaps there just wasn't the desire from players to follow Darts as a standardised national game.

This rules book shows there were three designs of Shove Ha'penny Board available, the top quality 'Players' at £2:2:0, the 'Challenger' at £1:5:0, and the 'Imp' (right), the most basic slate at just 8/6. I have a couple of these Imp slates, they're very common, but I had no idea until now that they came from the same stable as these more expensive boards.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Long Alley Skittles in Ilkeston, Derbyshire

Weekday afternoon session at the Spanish Bar
With the pub trade still firmly locked down as part of the ongoing response to this dreadful pandemic, and with little hope of release until April at the earliest (May if you'd actually like to drink 'inside' a pub!), the pleasures of pub-going remain frustratingly out of reach for most of us. It's a tough time for all regular pub-goer, tougher still for those that rely on their local pubs and clubs to sustain friendships and contact within the local community. It's harsh on licensees and bar staff too, people who's lives and livelihoods are intrinsically linked with what is, after all, one of the most social of all retail trades. I'm certainly missing the pub, but for licensees who've been rattling around empty premises for the best part of a year it must be a particularly challenging time.

The Dartboard at the Three Horseshoes
If we didn't know it before, I think many of us certainly know now that it's not 'just' the unique British beer experience we're missing. Indeed for some of us it's not the drinking at all given that there's ample opportunity to enjoy good beer at home these days. The shared social experience, the neutral space, the space to be alone when needed, the history and heritage, the unique atmosphere of the pub is what we're all missing. A Zoom call and a few cans might be a great way to stay in touch, but it's no substitute for proper pints in the pub with friends.

So the latest news on the long-awaited re-opening of pubs is quite depressing I have to say. It's clear that we're still such a long way off a return to normal 'pubby' engagement. I guess we all accept that some aspects of our lives may have changed forever, and that the hugs, handshakes and casual intimacy of the very best pub experiences are on hold for the time being. But sharing space with friends, acquaintances, even total strangers, is the very essence of what makes pubs special. Most pubs will clearly survive this disaster, they've weathered much worse over the years. But if they're ever to get back to being the unique social spaces we know and love, and not merely venues for eating and drinking in the company of your own self-selected social circle, we desperately need to return to a time where we can pop-in to the pub on a whim, move around the place freely, and dare I say share a table, a pint, maybe even a game with friends and strangers, all without undue anxiety or fear of breaking the rules.

Afternoon pints and Dominoes at the Spanish Bar
Of all the many positive aspects of pub-going that have been disrupted by this pandemic, it's perhaps the one closest to my own heart that's suffered the most. The hugely important, and highly social competitive games leagues, one of the last links with an era of true socially-inclusive pub-going, and the lifeblood of so many unpretentious local boozers.

All pub games leagues were mothballed around a year ago as infection rates rose and social gaming was necessarily restricted. Some leagues were lucky enough to wrap-up the Winter season ahead of lockdown, but the Summer was a total washout for team games and contact sport, and of course it soon became apparent that the following Winter season would also have to be be cancelled. However, most league organisers held to the belief that this Summer would see the pandemic sufficiently under control for competition to resume. It's now clear that another Summer will come and go without full league competition, hugely disappointing in itself, but the concern is that many of the smaller, perhaps already struggling leagues, may not in fact survive this enforced hiatus.

It's doubtful whether the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire version of Long Alley Skittles will suffer unduly as a result of this enforced layoff. It remains a popular game throughout the region, and pubs with skittle alleys are still relatively common. There is of course the distinct possibility that some venues for the game won't survive the seemingly endless rounds of restriction on their trade, particularly those without beer gardens or the ability to meet the ridiculous 'Substantial Meal' edict that unfairly targeted wet-led pubs last year.

We know that some pub owning companies have supported their licensees throughout this pandemic, probably as well as they can under the circumstances. But equally we know that others have fallen well-short in this regard, and many licensees are likely to emerge from this pandemic saddled with unsustainable debt, finally pushed over the edge and out of business. That we're then likely to see yet another feeding frenzy for valuable pub properties, often by businesses with little or no regard for our unique pub culture and heritage, seems sadly inevitable. Hopefully Ilkeston's more traditional boozers, including the ones that continue to support its most traditional old pub game, will come through this intact and ready to resume competition in the Winter season should it be at all possible.

The Spanish Bar, Ilkeston

These photographs were taken a couple of years ago on one of our big boozy days out in Ilkeston, taking advantage of the towns recently reopened rail station at a time when the notion that pubs might close en masse was barely conceivable. As such it's yet another blog post awaiting a return visit to firm up some details, maybe even catch a game of skittles in progress. Obviously that never happened, but with reopening on the horizon I felt the time was right to get it out there, even if it's likely that things have changed a little at both of these excellent pubs. The town itself has morphed in recent times into quite a destination for the beer and pub lover. Recently opened micropubs and a specialist craft beer bar complement a range of older traditional locals, some of which have retained much of their heritage and community focus. It's also a stronghold for the local game of Long Alley Skittles.

First impressions of the Spanish Bar might be that it's quite a modern, fairly typical town-centre sports bar. That's certainly the impression I got from the outside at least. In fact it's quite a cosy two-roomer that's perhaps best known for a long-standing commitment to real ales, and a regular award winner with the local CAMRA branch. It's a proper locals pub too, and with a good crowd in for a slow weekday afternoon, which is when we popped in for a couple of pints and a game of Dominoes. It certainly helps that the Spanish Bar is an all-day every-day opener under normal circumstances, increasingly rare these days. The pub fields teams in local Darts and Dominoes leagues, and of course a couple of Skittles teams call the Spanish Bar home.

The Skittle Alley at the Spanish Bar (above & below) is verging on 'plush' by the standards of most alleys in Derbyshire, and would be a strong contender for 'Best Skittle Alley in Bloom' should such a competition actually exist! In fact the Spanish Bar is renowned as having one of the best beer gardens in Ilkeston. The tradition in this part of the country has been for outdoor skittle alleys in yards, beer gardens, or set out on the car park, but more recently the trend has been to cover the playing area against the worst of the English weather. I would imagine that the Spanish Bar skittle alley was originally an outdoor one, but it's now sheltered on all but one side. There are two leagues for Long Alley competition in the Ilkeston area, the Ilkeston & District Long Alley Skittles League, and the Border Skittles League which comprises venues in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Non-slip Rubber at the skittle alley throwing point

The Three Horseshoes, Ilkeston

The Three Horseshoes
 sits on the very edge of the town centre, and is a pub recently revived! I recall a very brief visit to this pub just a year or so before the current owners took over the reigns in 2013. Back then it was a very traditional ex-Hardy & Hanson's boozer that had fallen into the acquisition-hungry hands of Anglia's Greene King Brewery. My kind of basic unspoilt boozer for sure, but more than a little frayed around the edges, and somewhat unloved to be honest. I arrived at the end of a long day, the light fading fast, and with very few customers in the bar the place wasn't exactly looking its best. I'd also missed the chance of exploring the outdoor skittle alley so headed home with every intention of returning another day. Fast-forward to our big day out in Ilkeston and the pub had changed beyond recognition. In fact so much so that it was only much later, viewing and editing the photographs I'd taken that day, that I even realised we'd been drinking in the same pub.

The interior has been thoroughly modernised, though the pub still retains separate bar and lounge areas with traditional bench seating, and there's a cosy welcoming feel throughout. The beer range is also much improved from its short term of neglect under Greene King ownership. There's also a smart new function room at the rear and a very attractive patio garden area, but what of the pubs traditional Skittle Alley!

Well the alley is still there and thankfully still in use, though you might be forgiven for missing it at first glance. I'm not sure what form the original Skittle Alley at the Three Horseshoes took, an outdoor one from memory, so probably just the usual steel frame and foot-shaped throwing mark, rudimentary lighting possibly, a return chute/pipe for the balls certainly. Perhaps it still survives under the fresh new slabs that are a feature of the pubs much improved garden.

The 'improved' skittle alley lies adjacent to the new function room (home to landlord Scott Ryder's impressive collection of Hardy & Hanson's Brewery memorabilia), and has been cleverly included as part of the patio slab layout, something I've not come across anywhere else in the Long Alley Skittles area. A thoroughly modern interpretation of a very old design that neatly fulfils the needs of the game without imposing on the all-important Summer beer garden trade.