Thursday, 3 September 2020

Beauchamp Arms, Malvern, Worcestershire

The sprawl of settlements that lie at the base of the spectacular Malvern Hills, and the many pubs thereof, have become a happy hunting ground for us in recent years. Pubs of all shapes and sizes, well-patronised by locals it would seem, some with a good reputation for the beer and/or food, and perhaps surprisingly for such a touristy area, not all of them are dull, managed, food and family venues.

Top of the list for us is the very highly regarded Nags Head on the edge of the historic Great Malvern Spa Town. A really great beer pub in my experience, with good food in the adjacent restaurant, a tidy beer garden, and a true 'pubby' atmosphere in the low-beamed somewhat labyrinthine interior. Yes, it attracts a slightly upmarket clientele, but this is a pub that’s anything but exclusive, in fact it's one of my (many!) desert island pubs. Down the hill at Barnards Green you’ll find The Morgan, a regular Hereford Pale Ale and Cheese & Onion Roll stop for me. It's a locals pub that also attracts the tourists like ourselves (including the odd Morgan car enthusiast I'm sure). Perhaps a smidgen more earthy than the Nags, but a pub you’d be more than happy to take your mum to, particularly in the Summer months when the beautifully maintained patio garden really comes into its own.

Which brings me to the largely residential area located to the north of Link Common, a more urban, or at least suburbun part of the wider Malvern community centred on the smaller Malvern Link rail station. The pubs in this area are of particular interest to me, being somethat less touristy, and a fair bit more 'Darts & Dominoes' in character. Practically all of these pubs are traditional 'locals' with a strong pub games interest, and this includes a cluster of venues for the local Mens and Ladies Skittles leagues.

The Beauchamp Arms certainly fits this mould. A fairly typical, largely unspoilt town centre boozer situated within a row of shops and other local amenities. It's also one of the closest pubs to the rail station, though equally accessible via a pleasant walk across the common from Great Malvern. An attractive, grade II listed building to the front, a pair of shallow bay windows flanking the entrance being the pubs principle historic feature. Inside, the pub has been opened-out at some point to a single bar area, though it's easy enough to discern the original three room layout from its 19th century origins as a Showell's Brewery pub.

Bar areas to the left and right feature original bench seating which follows the line of those big bay windows. Note too that the original heating pipes that would have kept drinkers warm in the winter are still in situ below this seating (right), a once common feature of basic bar rooms like this one. A number of Bell Pushes (above) also survive in what would have originally been the Lounge or Smoke Room, though now unused of course. This highly civilised aspect of bar service has now almost entirely vanished from pubs, though ironically table service is now back in vogue under the current social distancing rules. These bell pushes would have been used to summon a waiter or other member of staff for table service in the 'posher' of the three original rooms, usually incurring a small service charge for the privelage.

Today the Beauchamp is an entirely wet-led pub, a place for a chat over a pint, as well as the pub staples of games, televised sport, and until the recent national shut-down, a growing reputation for live music in the function room/skittle alley at the rear of the pub.

That almost all of the pubs in the Malvern area have now re-opened following the lockdown is heartening to see, but pubs like the Beauchamp will take a long time to get back to anything like normal under the current rules and restrictions. Bar rooms that would normally be alive with the rattle and hum of Darts, Dominoes, and Cribbage play are inevitably struggling with the social-distancing rules. Traditional pub games that are the lifeblood of community locals like the Beauchamp are exactly those which are deemed too risky, and therefore out of bounds. I very much look forward to a return visit to the Malverns area in the near future, ideally in happier, more socially interactive times when the Beauchamp Arms and other community locals in the area are free to trade at their very best.

The function room to the rear of the pub is entirely self-contained for entertainment of all kinds. There's a Pool Table, Dartboard, separate bar, and the kind of Skittle Alley that can be packed away so as to avoid it being a tripping hazard when not in use. The slatted playing surface is of course permanent, but the left-hand retaining wall is removable and stored behind a set of doors which conceal the actual business end of the alley (below) when not required.

The Beauchamp is active in just about all the local games leagues, including those for Mens and Ladies Skittles, all now mothballed of course until next Summer at the very earliest. It looks as if the Malvern & District Cribbage League may have just managed to wrap up competition ahead of pubs and clubs closing in March, sadly not all leagues were quite so lucky.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Plough Inn, Hereford

When pubs were forced to close way back in March, there was a great deal of uncertainty around how, or indeed 'if' many of them would ever find a way to open again. Even now, and allowing for the ongoing threat of local lockdowns, some pubs have of course not reopened. Sadly some may never reopen. Of those that have, it's far from certain how many are trading at anything like a profitable level, which is worrying given the widely held belief that things may take a turn for the worse, particularly as Winter approaches and beer gardens start to lose their appeal.

From a customer perspective, safety is probably the biggest single issue determining whether people are happy to return to the pub. Everyone deals with risk differently, and it's perhaps inevitable that some are putting caution ahead of the resumption of their drinking pleasure at this time. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty for pub-lovers like myself ahead of reopening was how the necessity for social-distancing was going to work in such a highly social environment. Just how good an experience would going to the pub actually be when so much of the casual human interaction that makes the pub special is effectively denied to us! Well many pubs have been open for a few weeks now, and those of us who feel safe to do so have had a good opportunity to see how things look under the new guidelines.

I have to say that for the most part it's been an entirely positive experience. Of well over a dozen venues that I've visited recently, from village inns, to town-centre locals and micropubs, the systems in place have worked well. Customers are for the most part following the rules, and it has been possible to socialise, albeit at more of a distance than most of us would like. Of course traditional games of all types, and the leagues that support local competition have sadly all-but disappeared from pubs for the time being.

Most pubs are still very quiet of course, and whilst the media continue to hawk for advertising with the usual sensationalist reporting around anything to do with alcohol, examples of over-crowded pubs and people ignoring the rules are few and far between in my experience. Most people seem to understand that if pubs are to remain open, they really do need to follow the rules no matter how onerous they are, or what their opinion of them might be. This very welcome 'Indian Summer' of pub-going remains a fragile thing that could end at any time, which makes it doubly important that we get out there and safely enjoy the pub experience while it lasts.

One thing I haven't had much of a chance to test under the current restrictions is the ease, or otherwise, of finding new material for this blog. I think that many of us envisaged there would be quite strict controls on personal movement within pubs. Certainly no hanging around at the bar or wandering about between socially distanced groups. With all that's happened, and all the changes and preparations required to reopen safely, how would already stressed licensees and bar staff react to a polite request to take a few photographs in their pub, perhaps even explore parts of the building that are currently not in use? I have to say, I was expecting to receive, and fully prepared to accept a firm but fair 'No!' in this regard.

But that's to forget that most licensees work in the hospitality industry for a very good reason. They are, for the most part, eminently hospitable people! Of the hundreds of pubs and clubs I've visited over the years, only a couple of licensees have flatly refused to allow me to take pictures, and the vast majority are more than happy to show-off their pub, and keen to chat about the trade and their own part in it. It helps of course that I choose my time carefully, usually aiming to visit at the least busy times of the day when staff are less rushed and there's less likelihood of startling the locals with my camera. As an aside, this is why so many of the photos on this blog are of seemingly empty pubs.

The Plough certainly wasn't empty when I popped in recently, it's just that it was an absolute scorcher of a day in Hereford, and the garden has many shady and attractive corners for a cool pint and a natter. It's in the garden that you'll also find the pubs creeper-clad Skittle Alley (right), one of the principle reasons for my visit of course.

Now the first time I attempted to photograph the skittle alley and interior of the Plough was around 5 years ago. Unfortunately, on that occasion new licensees were in the middle of moving in to the pub, and in no position to give me a tour, so I thought it best not to ask. I took a quick photo of the then creeper-free skittle alley (left) and determined to return another day. So given the current difficult situation, with many pubs only recently reopened and finding their feet, I was just a little more apprehensive than usual when I finally got to return to the Plough. I really needn't have been though, because the welcome was warm, and the licensees happy to accommodate me and my roving camera.

The Plough sits a short way out from the town centre, a pub I'd describe as something between suburban community local, and modest roadhouse on the busy main road out of Hereford toward Wales. The current mock half-timbered corner pub was built in the 1930's by the Hereford and Tredegar Brewery replacing a much older Inn of the same name. The original layout of Public Bar and Smoke Room has been opened out somewhat, but still survives to the extent that two distinct areas remain. One of these is now effectively a games area with Pool TableDartboard, and until recently a traditional Quoits Board, now relocated to the skittle alley (see below). Sadly both the mens and ladies leagues for Quoits in Hereford folded quite recently, and I think it's been a while since the Plough fielded a team in competition anyway. Nevertheless, it's good to see that the board is still at the pub and available to play on request, though you'll have to bring your own Quoits as the pub currently has none available. The Plough seems to have had a skittle alley from before the 1930's rebuild, but whether the current one is in the same location I'm not entirely sure.

One thing that's become apparent to me over the last few weeks is that during the run-up to reopening, many licensees have not only prepared well for the new social distancing rules, but also taken the opportunity to give their pubs a bit of a spruce-up. This has clearly been the case at the Plough Inn which is immaculate throughout, and I'm pleased to say that the licensees were not merely happy to show me the pubs skittle alley, they were positively keen to show off their recent handiwork. It's often the case that during the off-season, skittle alleys can look a bit tatty and unloved, frequently used as storage space for garden furniture and the like. The alley at the Plough is as tidy as you'll find anywhere, freshly painted and ready for play whenever that might finally occur.

In much better times the Plough Inn field teams in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League, the towns principal skittles league for over 100 years. Seasoned skittlers might wonder why the Hereford league use 10-pin bowling style skittles rather than the usual stubby pins of the West Country game. Initially I thought this was a relatively modern convenience, reusing redundant pins from bowling alleys. Since then I've seen numerous team photos from the very earliest days of the league around the turn of the century which clearly feature this unique style of pin. It seems that Hereford folk just do things differently when it comes to pub games.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Coach and Horses, Derby

Derby and its pubs rarely feature on this blog, which is perhaps surprising given that it's been one of my most frequent pub and beer destinations of the last 30 years! The self-styled 'Real Ale Capital of England' has always had a good reputation for its traditional pubs, but came to prominence as a serious beer enthusiasts destination around the time the Brunswick Inn reopened as a specialist alehouse in the late 80's. This at a time when pubs that were truly free of tie and able to offer a wide range of beers were something of a rarity, the market dominated by regional and national brewers. The later addition of a micro-brewery at the Brunswick, as well as the revival of the nearby Alexandra Hotel by the Tynemill group (latterly Castle Rock) would only increase the attraction of Derby to boozy day-trippers like ourselves.

Derby remains an essential destination for beer and pub fans, boasting several small breweries and dozens of specialist beer pubs, as well as some great traditional old boozers if you know where to look. What it lacks though is a strong local or regional pub games tradition. Not an unusual state of affairs for one of the Midlands larger cities of course, traditional pub games continue to be pushed to the fringes of towns almost everywhere. It's disappointing nevertheless, particularly given that Derby lies at the heart of a skittles tradition which is still popular throughout much of the county as well as the neighbouring counties of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

I've searched long and hard in the Derby area for pubs where the local skittles game is still played, sadly with little success up to now. Long Alley Skittles, as it's known in this part of the East Midlands, remains predominantly an outdoor game, played through the summer months and in all weather conditions on alleys located on the car park or beer garden of pubs. Which is why the car park is often my first port of call when visiting pubs in an area where Long Alley is still played.

Because even where the game hasn't been played for a good few years, the distinctive metal 'frame' that the skittles stand on, and sometimes the foot-sized depression which marks the throwing point, can often still be found in the grounds of the pub. Not so in Derby though! I've yet to find a single pub where an original skittle alley survives, least of all one where the game is still actually played. That is until my most recent visit to the city, albeit this is not in fact a surviving old skittle alley. Rarer still, this is an entirely new one!

The Coach & Horses is a large locals pub situated just a short walk from the town centre in the leafy suburb of Chester Green. This part of Derby is probably best known to beer enthusiasts for its micropub, The Little Chester Alehouse, the first of its kind in Derby, and as it happens the first micropub I ever visited shortly after it opened in 2012. There are one or two other pubs nearby, though sadly the nearby Garden City appears to have closed for good, a pub that had an example of the rare traditional pub game Ring The Bull. So the Coach & Horses fights the corner for more traditionally styled pubs in the area, a substantial two-roomer with the pub staples of Darts and Pool in the smaller public bar, and a busy schedule of league Dominoes in the plusher lounge bar.

It's not at all clear whether skittles was ever played at the Coach & Horses prior to this most recent revival, or indeed whether there was a Derby league for the game, but the pub now fields a team in the Belper & District Skittles League, probably the nearest Summer league available to the pub. In fact it was a casual match at one of the venues in the Belper league that inspired locals to set up a skittle alley at the pub in the first place.

At first glance you might think there was a long history of skittles play at the Coach & Horses given the evidence of not one, but three separate 'frames' on and around the car park at the rear of the pub. The truth is that none of these are more than a few years old, and the game has only been established at the pub for a few seasons. The diamond-shaped concrete frame shown below, and the small indentation in the tarmac below that, mark the position of the first skittle alley created at the pub. For reasons known only to the pubs keen skittlers, a new frame was then created further out on the car park, the position of this one indicated by a diamond of steel circles set into the tarmac. These frames are necessary in Long Alley Skittles to give a firm flat footing for wooden pins that are taller than in almost all other skittles traditions, and somewhat top-heavy as a result.

The most recent, and presumably final position of the skittle alley at the Coach and Horses is on a purpose-built raised platform at the edge of the car park (left & below) seen here during the leagues off-season, a convenient home for some of the pubs outdoor seating. This slightly elevated position is much less prone to interruption from vehicles coming and going at the pub, but it also affords the opportunity to install a permanent ball-return pipe down the length of the adjacent wall. Note that the alley has been christened 'CJ's Alley' in memory of a popular local at the pub who passed away recently.

This new alley had only recently been completed when I visited the pub early last year, and I fully intended to return and observe a league match when things got going in the Summer. Unfortunately time, and the national lockdown that has forced all pubs to close and most league games to cease, got the better of me. Pubs are now reopening, but it's unlikely that social games like skittles will resume until next year at the earliest. When skittles does eventually resume, I'll certainly be aiming to revisit the Coach and Horses for a pint or two of the excellent Draught Bass, and a ringside seat at the new Skittle Alley one fine Summer evening.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Fox Inn, Wilbarston, Northamptonshire

The Fox at Wilbarston has already featured on this blog, but that was more than eight years ago now and as we all know, eight years is a very long time in the pub trade. Since then the pub has changed hands more than once, and typically for a rural village pub, some of that time has been spent closed, future uncertain. The nearby George at Ashley is the current mothballed pub in the Welland Valley, its own future far from certain, the Queens Head down the road at Sutton Bassett has almost certainly closed for good, and whilst my own old village local the Red Lion in Middleton may be in better shape, it's currently trading as an Indian Restaurant, not a pub. So you'll perhaps understand why it's so pleasing that the Fox Inn has emerged from the recent national lockdown largely unscathed, and is now open for safe, socially-distanced trade.

The Fox sits at the very centre of the village on a crossroads opposite Wilbarstons other great survivor, the Shop & Post Office. This road would have been a great deal busier in the days before Wilbarston and nearby Stoke Albany were bypassed in the 70's, indeed there are records of around ten pubs that would have served locals and thirsty travellers in the village at one time or another! The Fox remains a real focal point for villagers and visitors like myself, many of which arrive seeking refreshment after a walk along the popular Jurassic Way footpath that follows the south side of the valley.

I've no idea when this photo of the Fox Inn liveried as a 'Free House' was taken, or which (if any) local brewery would have owned the pub back then. Certainly toward the end of the 20th century the pub seems to have been a distant outlier of Burton-on-Trent's Marston's Brewery estate, and more recently it was sold as part of a package of pubs to Greene King of Bury St Edmunds. The pub is now in the hands of Hawthorn Leisure, a pubco with no brewing interests as far as I can tell, making the Fox effectively free of 'brewery' tie again.

The age and importance of the pub as a wayside Inn can be gauged from the substantial size of the cellar, which unusually has two barrel drops, the lower of which is shown in the foreground here
Free or not, there was a very real possibility that the Fox might close for good before current licensee Shirley Morgan and her son Andrew Warhurst took on the pub last Summer. With the help of a few locals, the new team at the Fox immediately set-to sprucing-up what had become a rather tired looking pub, and I have to say that in the short time that we've been living in the Welland Valley and visiting practically all the pubs on a regular basis, I don't think it's ever looked better than it does now. Local beer is flowing again, the kitchen is up and running, and there are plans afoot to bring the pubs three letting rooms back into use taking the Fox back to its full 'Inn' status.

In truth, these ups and downs in recent years have done little to affect my appreciation of the Fox. It remains a typical and very traditional village local, thankfully avoiding the kind of serious decline that so often leads to permanent closure or inappropriate gentrification. It's also one of just a handful of pubs in the area where the connection with the regions most traditional pub game has been maintained. It wasn't so long ago that practically every pub in the area had a Northamptonshire Skittles Table. The George in Ashley, Royal George Cottingham, Plough Inn Drayton, Sun Inn Great Easton, Talbot Gretton, Red Lion Middleton, Sondes Arms Rockingham, and White Horse Stoke Albany all had tables until relatively recently. Now only the Spread Eagle in Cottingham and the Fox Inn maintain the tradition of skittles play locally.

These two photographs were taken several years ago when the Skittles Table and Dartboard were located side-by-side in the busiest part of the pub, just to the right of the front entrance and adjacent to the bar counter. In fact this would have been around the time I was playing for a Red Lion midweek team, and if I remember correctly we actually used the Fox as a home venue for a short time following the untimely closure of Middletons village pub at the halfway point of the season. I certainly recall playing either a league or cup match on this table at some point, and used to cycle to the pub on occasion to get a bit of practice in during the quieter afternoon sessions.

The skittles table sat neatly in the bay of a window, hence the sturdy metal grill across the back to stop wayward cheeses smashing into panes of glass. When a match was being played the rattle and clunk of cheeses crashing into boxwood pins would tend to dominate the bar area, so both the Skittles Table and Dartboard have now been removed from the main trading area of the pub to somewhere less intrusive.

So the only major change in the layout of the Fox is the creation of a Games Room (below) in what was originally a separate dining area. Now don't get me wrong, I think there's nothing better than having traditional games like these situated at the heart of the pub, on show and part of the general goings-on that make pubs such special social spaces, but in this case I think this is a good move that makes a lot of sense. There's no doubt that at many pubs, dining and pub games (and skittles in particular) make for uneasy bedfellows, so moving the noise of play away from the main bar areas will undoubtedly make the pub a more attractive space for those not actually playing. It should also help safeguard traditional games like these at the Fox, something that could so easily have been lost in the refurbishment.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

White Swan, Newark, Nottinghamshire

So it's just over three months now since pubs were forced to close, and finally we're on the verge of many of them reopening for on-sales (unless of course your local happens to be in Leicester!). My last pint actually sitting in a pub was on the 18th of March, the last time I was in a fully open pub for a takeout of beer, just two days later. Three whole months without our beloved boozers just didn't seem possible back then. This was going to be a short-term, drastic solution to save lives, and hopefully save the Summer!

There's been plenty of talk since then about what we're missing and how keen we all are to get back to the pub, but it seems that the closer we actually get to the big day, the more caution has crept into the discussion. Because the reality is that many of the pubs we're missing the most are those least equipped to reopen safely and profitably under the current rules. Some of course may never reopen...

There are three pubs local to me that I'd particularly like to spend time in right now. Small-town traditional locals serving great beer for the most part, pubs that I love and aim to visit as often as I can under normal circumstances. Of these three, one has already declined to reopen on the 4th July, and I can't in all honesty see the other two working within the guidelines to trade safely, particularly given their customer base which is predominantly made up of older drinkers. So the principal attraction of these pubs to me, traditional multi-room layout, relatively small, highly sociable places for drinking, chat, and of course pub games, and with little or no opportunity for outside drinking, also represents the main stumbling block to their reopening. A situation that's likely to be repeated at thousands of great local pubs throughout the country.

This is all very worrying to me, because pubs like these are not exactly the cash-cows of the hospitality sector, even when trading relatively successfully. Many limp along on the goodwill of modestly paid staff, and licensees who work ridiculously long hours for very little return other than the 'vocational' pleasure derived from running a community local. That several of the property companies who actually own these pubs have shown scant regard for their tenants predicament, continuing to demand rent on non-functioning businesses throughout this period of closure, will already have signalled the death-knell for some of the more marginal businesses.

So the choices available to customers over the next few weeks will present us all with something of a moral dilemma. A lot of pubs are aiming to open their doors on, or close to the 4th July. Of the pubs that I'm most likely to visit, I'll just have to use my own judgement on matters of safety. Perhaps equally as important to me though, is whether the (necessarily) limited social experience on offer is anything like the one that attracts me to pubs in the first place! I really want to get back to the pub, but probably not so much if it means drinking in an environment more akin to a restaurant, because it's the social side of pub-going that matters to me the most. One thing is certain though, if pubs are ever to get back to anything like the 'old-normal' that we know and love, their licensees and staff are going to need our support during these 'new-normal' times, even if it means a lesser pub experience than many of us would like.

So let's take a look once again at what we're all missing. In this case a town-centre pub during the 'old normal' of just a year ago in the historic market town of Newark. The White Swan sits at the very edge of the town centre on what I've come to regard as an inner ring road enclosing the commercial heart of the town. It's a pub I've taken almost no notice of over the years if I'm absolutely honest.

As far back as the early 1990's we were regular visitors to Newark, taking advantage of cheap day returns on the train from Leicester for boozy days out. One of the key attractions for us was the 'exotic' Mansfield Brewery ales served onboard the Castle Barge, a novel floating pub on the River Trent. Another regular haunt was the nearby Old Malt Shovel freehouse which had a better than average range of beers, and just happens to stand directly opposite the White Swan. Back then the focus was firmly on the beer rather than pubs, of which there were many. In fact Newark remains very well pubbed to this day, and with no shortage of good beer pubs. Unassuming boozers like the White Swan just didn't figure in our plans at all, though with hindsight I wish they had, particularly those that have subsequently closed and been lost forever...

So I have to admit that until recently the White Swan has remained neglectfully outside my field of vision. Which is a shame because the classic 'mock tudor' frontage conceals an attractive, if slightly threadbare multi-room interior that I felt immediately at home in when I popped in last year. Having said that, the pub is accurately described as having no real ale by the local CAMRA branch, a serious disadvantage in a town regarded as something of a beery destination these days. What's not so apparent is the full-set of pub games that are a major feature of the pub.

At many of the more traditional pubs in town, those which have yet to join Newarks increasingly vibrant beer scene, pub games are still very important. In fact they're the lifeblood of a pub like the White Swan which is very much a locals pub in the old style. Newark is an Eastern outpost of the Nottinghamshire Long Alley Skittles tradition, as well as being home to the unique Lincolnshire version of Doubles Darts, recognisable by the all-black Dartboards used in the Newark and Lincoln Leagues. Standard trebles Darts, Fives & Threes Dominoes, and Pool are all played enthusiastically at the White Swan, and outside in the car park can be found the steel frame used to set the pins in a game of Long Alley Skittles.

There are still perhaps half a dozen pubs in the town itself that are active in the Newark & District Long Alley Skittles League, most of which have outdoor alleys like this one, though many are now covered to some degree providing protection for skittlers against the worst of the British weather. I don't think there's a team playing out of the White Swan at present, due in part to the fact that the pub was under temporary management awaiting new tenants/owners when I visited last year.

The small polished cup shown above is the James Hole Challenge Cup, a small but significant relic in a town still dominated by the impressive Castle Brewery site (right), home to Hole & Co Ltd until the brewery closed in 1983. As a major local brewer and pub-owner, it would have been entirely natural for a brewery like Hole's to sponsor games leagues and competitions like this in the town. Whilst Hole's Family Ales are long gone, many of their pubs are still going strong, and I'm pleased to say that the Newark & District Dominoes League is also still active in the town.