Thursday, 3 October 2019

Devil Amongst The Tailors - Some East Midlands Venues

Pegging the scoreboard of a Devil Amongst The Tailors Table in an unknown bar 
Although something of a rarity in pubs these days, and rarer still to come across one in use, the classic ball-on-a-string skittles game of Devil Amongst The Tailors (also known as 'Table Skittles' or 'Bar Skittles') remains strongly associated with the bar and games rooms of the more traditional pubs and clubs. A thoroughly old-fangled game that appears to have changed not-a-bit since it was originally developed as a miniaturised indoor version of alley skittles (possibly in the early 19th century, nobody knows for sure). It's a game that people of a certain age remember with some fondness from their youth, and yet sometimes struggle to remember exactly how it's played (there's a good video here detailing how to play the game).

The Ship Inn, Mevagissey, Cornwall. The Dartboard has survived, but not so the Devil Amongst The Tailors which was important enough in its day to command its own table in the bar.
This form of table skittles would have been very common as a pub game until relatively recently, certainly the equal of Darts, Dominoes, and Card Games in the popularity stakes. My dog-eared 1979 guide to the Real Ale Pubs of Leicestershire & Rutland lists several pubs with a Devil Amongst The Tailors in the city including classic estate pubs like the Royal Leicesters (right), which is perhaps surprising given that Leicester has it's own very different Table Skittles tradition which hardly get a mention in the guide!

There would have been numerous competitive leagues for the game, only a handful of which survive today. Devil Amongst The Tailors was one of the games included on the 'Indoor League' series, the famous Yorkshire Television pub games show presented by cricketing legend Fred Trueman. It even features in a scene from The Beatles film A Hard Days Night in which Ringo disturbs a game in progress at the Turks Head, Twickenham.

The catastrophic decline of this and many other traditional pub games toward the end of the 20th century, means that very fine vintage and antique examples of the game crop up regularly in the trade, some of which I'm happy to say are making their way back into pubs where there is a renewed interest in this and other traditional pub games.

The 'Lads of the Village' at the Rose & Crown, Bradford Abbas, Dorset. More famous for their alley skittles prowess, but clearly they liked the table version as well.
In common with most traditional pub games, it's easy to learn the basics of play on a good quality skittles table, but it certainly rewards more serious practice. I was recently treated to a master-class in the game at a pub in Derbyshire from an elderly gentleman who'd been playing the game for most of his adult life. The skills on show, from all-too-regular 'floorers', to clearing seemingly impossible broken frames was something to behold, and brought home to me just how inexperienced I was as a player of this great game.

It's a game that when set up in the bar ready to go, invites curiosity from groups of all ages, and I like to play Devil Amongst The Tailors whenever I come across a good league-standard table. With this in mind I thought it would be timely to list a few of the more accessible full-size tables in my home region of the East Midlands, in the hope it might encourage wider appreciation of this classic bar-room game.

Derbyshire

Bulls Head (Little Hallam Hill, Ilkeston) - Possibly the last surviving venue for the game in an area that once had a thriving Table Skittles league (Long Alley is still going strong). The table, an old Jacques model (left), is on permanent loan to the pub by a local, and set up ready for play in the right-hand bar. The skittles are kept behind the bar counter.

Leicestershire

Geese & Fountain (Croxton Kerrial) - An award-winning specialist beer pub on the road from Melton to Grantham that has recently acquired an old, handmade skittles table.

Nottinghamshire

Blacks Head (11 Burton Rd, Carlton) - Friendly community local with a good skittles table (right) set up and ready to play in the smaller left-hand bar. There's usually a good crowd of locals on hand to offer advice on the game. The nearby Nags Head (106 Carlton Hill) also has a good table with pins available from the bar.

The Crown (Bathley, Newark) - One of the former venues for the defunct Newark table skittles league. The Crown has an indoor skittle alley, and the handmade table skittles set still see's use in the cosy bar for friendlies and socials.

Old Malt Shovel (25 North Gate, Newark) - Probably your best bet for a game in Newark town centre, which was home to a table skittles league until relatively recently. Try also The Watermill (67 Mill Gate) and Royal Oak (17 Castle Gate), both of which had league skittles tables on my last visit, though whether they are currently set up for play I'm not sure.


Muskham Ferry (North Muskham, Newark) - This popular riverside pub has a very good skittles table (above) in the rear bar room, handmade in the Newark style for league play.

The Newshouse (123 Canal St, Nottingham) - This is our go-to pub for a game when in Nottingham, the table (right) is always set up and ready for play in the right-hand bar-room, just ask at the bar for the pins. Also home to Nottingham's only Bar Billiards table as well as other traditional pub games.

Stag Inn (67 Nottingham Road, Kimberley) - A very fine skittles table takes pride of place in the right-hand bar area.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Fishermans Rest, Belper Derbyshire


I think I've featured Belper on this blog more often than just about any other town of a similar size. This is mainly due to its position at the centre of a thriving local skittles league of course, but also because the town is positively thick with very fine pubs. Pubs that feature good beer naturally, but also pubs that are just 'good' in the old-fashioned sense of being welcoming places to have a drink and a chat.

I aim to tour some of Belpers fine pubs at least twice a year, choosing the winter months for preference when fires are lit and the hum of conversation is concentrated in the bar rather than the beer garden. Conversation you're likely to be drawn into in a way that simply doesn't happen in many parts of the country. It's a north Derbyshire thing I think, and one I've always had a liking for.

Our most recent trip was to check-out the recently re-opened Railway, a pub that's never been on our radar previously, but now thoroughly revived and in the hands of Lincoln Green Brewery, saviour of many pubs in the Derby/Notts area. Unsurprisingly, the Railway proved to be an ideal first-stop and waiting room for the nearby rail station, but games don't currently feature at the pub so it was just a quick pint and onwards to another revitalised pub, this one on the very edge of town.


The Fishermans Rest is one of the many recent Marston's castoffs, a brewery that seems more interested in kiddies ball parks and laminated pub-grub menus than proper drinkers pubs these days. The new owners have transformed the pub, though without removing any of its essential pubbiness. Other than the original brewery livery on the gable-end, every trace of big-business blandness has been replaced with a genuine characterful local pub offering that includes great Derbyshire ales and cider, locally sourced food, and a strong commitment to the traditional games of the area.

At first glance, the pubs website might give the impression the focus is on a high quality food offering, and whilst that's undoubtedly true it's certainly not the only attraction. 'Our vision for the Fishermans Rest is a cosy comfortable country pub that welcomes everyone and offers something for everyone...'. That's what it says, and from our albeit limited experience of the pub on a Friday afternoon, I think this sums the place up very nicely.

The walk to the pub is slightly less than a mile from the town centre, a walk that follows the winding course of the River Derwent. We thoroughly tested the 'cosy' and 'comfortable' promise to the full, arriving wet-through from an unexpected Derbyshire downpour. I can also confirm we were made very welcome, wet dogs and all, and immediately drawn into conversation by a pair of Derbyshire holidaymakers who looked well settled when we arrived. Licensees Tim and Laura were busy front of house, something I always like to see at a pub, and also very good company as the skies cleared and I squelched out to the back of the pub to size-up the skittle alley for a few photos.

The interior of the pub may have had a few touches of comfort added under new ownership, but the Skittle Alley is as traditional as it gets. The frame sits just below the beer garden at the rear of the pub, the 'throw' somewhat uphill, and the whole entirely uncovered and open to the elements. That's how most alleys are in this neck of the woods, the only concession to comfort an awning where the scoreboard is chalked and players can spectate the action.

Long Alley Skittles is played in the Belper & District Skittles League, and the Fishermans team have spent the 2019 season edging toward the top-end of League Division Two. League play is likely to have concluded by the time you read this (skittles games in the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire area are rarely postponed for the weather!), with the Fishermans Rest team in very real danger of promotion to League One! Whilst it's certainly the case that everyone plays to win in pub games leagues, it's also true that not everyone views promotion to the more serious leagues with the relish of the professional sportsman. I wish them luck for the 2020 season...

The painted spot in the foreground marks the position of the 'Chock Hole', the throwing point which is (unusually) slightly downhill of the frame at the Fishermans Rest


As the outdoor skittles tradition comes to an end for 2019, indoor competition commences in the Belper & District Darts and Dominoes League. Away teams must be looking forward to visiting the Fishermans Rest for a game this year. There may well be an embarrassment of riches for pub-goers in Belper, but there can't be many more welcoming venues for players than the Fishermans.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

New Inn, Viney Hill, Gloucestershire


One thing I've noticed time and again at pubs with a notable gaming interest is just how low-key and largely underpromoted this important aspect of pub life can be. Traditional games that may be unique to a pub or local area, and in some cases literally a part of the fabric of the building, are taken for granted by licensees and locals to such a degree they resemble nothing so much as a secret society to visitors.

Skittle Alleys tucked away out of sight and mind. Games boards and playing pieces kept safe from harm or theft, but equally safe from the kind of casual use that might enthuse newcomers to the game. Is it any wonder that so many pub games leagues are struggling to attract new players.

Quoits O'clock in the bar of the New Inn
I spend a fair bit of my spare time reading books and old guides, as well as one or two bang-up-to-date blogs that focus on the subject of pubs, and I've noticed that the gaming interest I know exists at particular pubs is often ignored, and this by assiduous writers who can be relied on to reel-off the name and origin of practically every beer on the bar, every brewery mirror on the wall. Which is not to say I'm in any way frustrated with the writers themselves. It merely serves to highlight the fact that pubs really need to advertise their gaming attractions more if they want visitors to notice them.

Which makes it all the more refreshing, and such a great pleasure when I visit a pub that wears its gaming credentials so firmly on its sleeve. I defy anyone to spend more than a few minutes in the bar of the terrific New Inn at Viney Hill, and not notice they were in a pub where the traditional games are taken very seriously indeed.

Mind you, I always find it a pleasure to visit this part of the Forest of Dean. Sadly the pubs are fewer in number than they once were, and the food trade undoubtedly more important to those that do remain. But the pubs are, by and large, still very-much proper 'locals'. Welcoming to tourists and visitors like myself, but still catering to the all-important social needs of the local Forest community.

I've made an annual pilgrimage to the Forest of Dean for several years now, principally to visit the more traditional boozers and their unique games heritage, but the attraction of getting there on the heritage rail service from Lydney is a factor too. The Dean Forest Railway runs just a few short miles into the forest, but takes in villages and pubs at Whitecroft and Parkend that are well worth visiting. From there the walking can be a bit hilly, but pleasant nevertheless with both Bream and Viney Hill within easy striking distance on a fine day. Conveniently for me, this area encompasses the majority of the venues in the Royal Forest of Dean Quoits League, of which the New Inn is perhaps the pick of the bunch for this unique regional game.


Indeed the New Inn might be regarded as something of a shrine to the gentle game of Quoits. The traditional white-painted stone table (above) is set-up and ready for play at all times in the bar, you really can't miss it, and all those trophies on the shelves above are for Quoits! That's an awful lot of winning for one pub, and a pretty clear indication of how seriously the game is taken at the New Inn.

Licensees Sue and Ian are both enthusiastic players in the local league, as are most of the locals we met on the late Tuesday afternoon when I popped in for a pint with my partner, all of which absolutely love the game as both competition and a highly sociable pastime. A sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with as it's one of our favourite pub and garden games too.

I don't know whether it's a common thing across the Quoiting region, but it seems everyone that plays the game at the New Inn has their own personal set of Quoits in much the same way as serious Darts players have their own set of arrows. We stayed for a game, using a set of older styled convex rubber Quoits, kindly lent to us by one of the locals.

Ian explained that the Quoits, which are flat when manufactured, can be modified to this shape by soaking in oil and stretching over the top of a cider bottle. This produces a Quoit that more closely resembles the heavy convex Steel rings used in the once-popular outdoor game. How this affects their performance is unclear. Perhaps they fly a bit truer! Or maybe it's just that they land with a bit less bounce!

The unique Quoits scoreboards used in the Forest of Dean league (below) go up to 15, with players aiming to score each number in a game. We've found that 15 is not a particularly easy score for a novice to achieve with just four quoits, particularly in the heat of competition, so we played to 10 which suits our more modest skill levels. Players in the Forest sometimes play a simpler Darts style scoring game too.



So Quoits and Darts are the more obvious games played at the New Inn. What's not so obvious, unless you examine the various fixture lists and league tables on the notice board, is that the pub also has a Skittle Alley. Indeed this was something I didn't know about until it was mentioned by the licensee, and I'd done my research prior to the visit. I understand that there was an alley at the pub many years ago before this part of the building was converted to a small nightclub style venue. When this fell out of favour the locals were keen to reinstate skittles at the pub, initially installing the kind of mobile alley more suited to gardens and fetes than league play. This proved adequate for the job, but something more permanent and robust was soon required so the team spent a weekend building the alley shown above.

Whilst the New Inn appear to be one of the form teams in Quoits, the skittles team are less successful, a middling team in the bottom league of the Royal Forest Of Dean Mens Skittles League. The league itself seems to be healthy enough, with five divisions of up to 12 teams, though in common with many leagues around the country there's a certain amount of pessimism about the future of the game and ongoing difficulties getting teams up. Unlike the Quoits, which is simply not big enough to sustain two leagues these days, Skittles in the Forest remains a game segregated by gender with women playing in the smaller Royal Forest Of Dean Ladies Skittles League on Thursday evenings.


There's a good quality Shove Ha'penny Board in the bar too, complete with coins, though it doesn't get a lot of use these days and could do with a bit of a polish

Friday, 23 August 2019

Sir Charles Napier, Leicester

A little off the beaten track as it is, I'd recommend making the effort to visit the Sir Charles Napier. The pub is a classic inter-war years community local, recently refurbished, but still retaining three separate rooms including a cosy wood panelled lounge, and more functional games oriented bar. The interior is considered of sufficient merit to be included on CAMRA's inventory of Real Heritage Pubs, and more information on this and many other unspoilt classics can be found on the excellent searchable website: www.heritagepubs.org.uk.

Traditional, and some not so traditional games play an important role at the pub. League Dominoes, Darts, and Table Skittles are all popular, and compete for space with the more recent additions of Poker and Quiz nights.



The Skittles Table at the Sir Charles Napier is the somewhat rarer Leicester version, distinctly different to the more common Northamptonshire tables found in the south of the county. The pins and cheeses are the slender hardwood variety unique to the Leicester game, as opposed to the more chunky Boxwood or plastic used elsewhere. This makes for a very different game, one where the higher scoring 'Tips' (Whackups in Leicester) and 'Floorers' (Nine-a-Ball) of the Northants game are much harder to achieve.

The table is turned round and 'parked' in an alcove when not in use. It's a very smart and well maintained table, and the team presumably want it to stay that way. Skittles night is on Wednesday, with play in the South Leicestershire League which covers quite a wide geographical area including Earl Shilton, Syston, and Wigston.


Darts, Dominoes, and Skittles trophies jostle for position in the trophy cabinet.

2019 Update

I recently had the opportunity to revisit the Napier and take a few more photos with the kind permission of the licensee, including a few of the unspoilt and attractive front lounge bar that was just a little too busy to photograph on my last visit. Whilst the pub seems to have had a lick of paint in places since I was last there, it could probably do with a sensitive makeover now with some of the upholstery looking a bit threadbare in places. Nevertheless, it's still well worth the walk out from town, and I found the handful of early-doors locals chatty and welcoming in the more basic public bar. It's not entirely obvious from the Lounge Bar, but two or three real ales are usually available.



Whilst Darts and Dominoes are still played at the Napier, sadly the Skittles team have moved on taking the original table with them. There's still a decent old Leicester Skittles Table in the bar (below), but with an incomplete set of pins it's unclear how much use it gets these days. With the nearby Tudor closed, future uncertain, the traditional Leicester game appears to be struggling in this part of the town.



Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Raglan Arms, Rugby, Warwickshire


It seems a very long time ago that a pub with a Northamptonshire Skittles Table featured on this blog. I guess familiarity breeds complacency when it comes to covering your own local pub game, indeed my own village pub has a table that's yet to feature on here. Even then it was an afternoon visit to Rugby and not Northants that led to this post.

Despite a great many trips to Rugby over the years involving numerous good pubs (most of which are still with us I'm pleased to say, though sadly not our old favourite and former Hoskins Brewery house The Peacock), this would be my first visit to the Raglan Arms. A slightly negligent state of affairs you might think given that the Raglan is undoubtedly my kind of pub. But as the current relief landlord explained to me, even though the pub is on the very edge of the town centre, and barely a stone's throw from some of its very best boozers, it seems to get missed by visitors to Rugby, myself included obviously! This is a great shame as the Raglan has an excellent reputation as a friendly and welcoming locals pub, as well as being one of the towns premier destinations for real ale. It's also a pub that opens all-day every-day throughout the week, which as anyone who visits pubs on slow midweek afternoons will know, is an increasingly rare and welcome thing.


The Raglan has recently had a bit of a spruce-up too, reopening in the house style of new owners Black Country Ales, a small West Midlands brewery and pub company that's helped secure the future of many traditional pubs like the Raglan in recent years. In fact the pub very nearly closed for good way back in 2007, with plans submitted to redevelop the site as residential flats. Thankfully the Raglan was rescued on that occasion by local businessman David Hines, revitalising the pub as a popular real ale destination and CAMRA award winner in a town not exactly short of great beer pubs.

From the front entrance there's a separate quiet Snug to the left, before the pub opens out to the main bar with a raised games area at the rear. This is where the Dartboard and Skittles Table are located. Keep going and you'll eventually find yourself in a partially covered beer garden to rear of the pub.

Anyone that's visited one of Black Country Ales more recent acquisitions will recognise the overall look of the pub. Very traditional in appearance with stained wood and brass fittings throughout. It very much reminds me of Black Country Ales pubs the Salmon and Kings Head in Leicester, even down to the televised beer list, a necessary requirement given the number of beers on tap.


The skittles table is a long-term fixture of the pub, although actually owned by the home skittles team and not the brewery. A beautifully maintained WT Black & Son table, it's early history can be found stencilled on the underside (below). Once you realise this information is hidden away underneath the table, it's very hard not to go looking for it, though it's probably wise to explain to the bar staff what you're doing before getting down on hands and knees and crawling around on the carpet for a better view!


The numbers seen here tell us that this would have been the 80th table produced by the Northampton company, and that it was constructed in 1957, probably in September of that year. I believe the other dates refer to a series of refurbishments by WT Black & Son, dated at 1963, 1971, and 1973.

By modern standards these dates might seem unusually frequent. A full restoration of a skittles table today would probably only occur when it was truly worn-out through a decade or more of play. But it has to be remembered that when this table first went into service, it would have been used for league matches several times a week. Add to that a whole host of cup, charity, practice, and casual weekend games, and you can imagine it would have taken quite a hammering in a way that few tables do these days. I've little doubt the table has been refurbished since then as it's in very good condition, but by who is not clear as WT Black & Son ceased business toward the end of the 20th century.


At the time of my visit, the home team were skittling in the Summer season of the local Dunchurch & District Skittles League, but were actually playing their games at the nearby Webb Ellis pub rather than on their own home table. This was an enforced relocation due to the refurbishment of the Raglan earlier in the year, and the team are set to return to the Raglan for the forthcoming Winter season. Darts is played in the Rugby LVA Darts League, though quite why there's a trophy at the pub from the Leicester Inner City League is not entirely clear...