Sunday 21 May 2023

White Hart, Bargate, Derbyshire

It's been a long time since I spent quality time in a part of the country where I could almost guarantee finding some serious pub games interest. My own neck of the woods was a banker for Table Skittles not so long ago, but whilst the game is far from being dead, certainly most of the tables seem to be gone from those pubs and clubs that survive, and the leagues practically invisible to those of us not actively involved in it. Whilst skittles as it's played in the West Country is one of the few that remains well supported, pockets of Derbyshire maintain their own tradition of skittles play with a measure of enthusiasm that's matched only by their enthusiasm for pub going itself.

Belper in Derbyshire is a town that's garnered quite a reputation amongst beer and pub enthusiasts, an area that somehow, against all prevailing trends, seems to actually increase in pub choice practically every time I visit. Belper is the pub town that time forgot, still awash with pubs of all kinds including many steadfastly traditional boozers, and populated by folk who clearly still love a pint in the convivial social atmosphere of the pub rather than home alone with a bottle or can in front of the telly. I love Belper!

Belper is also that rare thing, a stronghold of one of the most traditional of all pub games, Long Alley Skittles. Long Alley is a game played exclusively in the East Midlands, more specifically parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. The Derby and Notts version of the game differs in that it's often played on outdoor alleys in all weathers, and with balls rather than the unusual barrel-shaped 'Cheeses' found in the Leicestershire game. These alleys are often located in the garden or car park of the pub, Long Alley being a very different game to that played elsewhere in that the balls (or cheeses) are not rolled along what are often rough tarmacked or concrete alleys, but thrown full-toss at a point just in front of the pins. This image (left) shows a typical Derbyshire alley at the rear of the White Hart in Bargate, with the foot or 'Chock' hole, which players must keep a foot in when throwing, seen in the foreground.

The Belper & District Skittles League has emerged from the enforced hiatus of the COVID pandemic with two divisions of sixteen teams for the Summer season. This represents a fair bit of skittling at more than a dozen pubs and clubs in the Belper area. Undoubtedly this is significantly less than in the game's late 20th century heyday, however you're more than likely to find skittles being played, usually on Thursday evenings throughout the Summer, and it's a great spectator sport when not raining.

The White Hart in Bargate village is one of these, a solid locals pub that isn't actually in Belper but it's very close, albeit up a lung-busting climb of around a mile (hint: weekdays there's buses until late afternoon). It's worth the climb though for a number of reasons, not least of which is the award-winning beer range at the White Hart. A hop and a skip further and you're in another great beer pub the Dead Poets Inn at Holbrook. Just a little further still and you could be supping in the Spotted Cow, Black Bulls Head, or Hollybush, a tidy afternoon pub crawl by anyone's standards. Or you could just stay at the White Hart and enjoy the beer and chat, because it's a typically chatty Derbyshire chatty pub.

There's a somewhat noisy bar to the left, particularly when playing host to a midweek Darts match (above) as it was on the night we popped in for a few pints. To the right is what would normally be a quieter lounge, though this too was alive with the rattle and clunk of a midweek Dominoes match (below), traditional pub games clearly still very important to the White Hart.

But pause for a moment to admire the serving hatch at the entrance (left), a rare enough sight these days though Derbyshire seems to have more than its fair share. There's not a lot of room in this entrance to the White Hart, but these hatches are sometimes used to serve customers in what is effectively a third room for the pub. It's more likely that this one serves as a handy counter for the handful of tables at the front of the pub.

It's in the surprisingly substantial beer garden to the rear of the pub that you'll find the Skittle Alley, squeezed into a wedge of hard-standing below the grassy bit, which means the garden affords great views of the skittling action of course.

It's early days in the season yet, but the White Hart currently languish at the bottom of Division 2 without a win. In better known and better funded sports this might be regarded as the relegation zone. Thankfully there's no relegation from the second division of the Belper & District League, nevertheless I'm sure the team would appreciate your support.

Sunday 31 July 2022

Arthur Taylor (dec. July 2022)

(Image c/o John Penny)
Whilst this blog remains mothballed for the foreseeable future, I felt it was important to acknowledge the recent passing of writer, historian, musician, and pub games enthusiast Arthur Taylor. (pictured right 'Spinning' with Mary Ashby, licensee of the Rose & Crown, Bradford Abbas, Dorset)

Arthur was both the inspiration and primary knowledge source for this blog, particularly in the early days when my own enthusiasm for Pub Games was in no way matched by my knowledge or experience of the subject, one which Arthur had researched, written, and enthused about for decades.

My first 'almost' meeting with Arthur was back in 2010 as a hopelessly inexperienced player in a midweek 'B' team for the local game of Northamptonshire Table Skittles, playing at the (now closed) Red Lion pub in Middleton, Northants (left). For reasons I'll probably never know (1), Arthur had decided to visit the pub on a Friday night to observe a match in the Market Harborough League, a match that I regretfully failed to attend. This was toward the beginning of research for a proposed new book on Skittles, and the Red Lion was to represent a chapter on the venerable Northants game. At this time Arthur also wrote occasional pieces for The Telegraph's weekly Pub Guide feature, and rather thriftily he used the Red Lion as material for the July 23rd column (2).

So I missed the man on this occasion, but as it happens his visit had coincided with the recent publication of his new book, 'Played At The Pub - The Pub Games of Britain', a copy of which he kindly donated to the then licensees Kevin & Fiona Barby. This would be quite literally a game-changer for me.

Up until this point I'd been dabbling with a short-lived blog journalling my experiences of playing Northants Skittles in the pubs and clubs of the area. Not one of my greatest work it's true, but I was already considering expanding it in an attempt to document all of the old Skittles Tables and their venues in the area. Arthurs book inspired me to go one step further and attempt to cover the much broader subject of traditional pub games in all their myriad forms, resulting in the near 10 year project documented on this blog.

Arthur would have first come to public prominence during his days as a lecturer in Manchester, taking occasional extra-curricular jobs as an Extra in Granada Television productions (3), one of which was a notable scene in Coronation Street, playing a diner in Wetherfield’s first Italian Restaurant in the early 60's. This connection would eventually lead to a lengthy career as producer and director for Granada, a career which took him all over the country, and indeed the globe, and offered ample opportunities to indulge his passion for Brass Bands, Pubs and of course Pub games.

His first book on the subject, 'Pub Games', was published way back in 1976, the much expanded and revised 'Guinness Book of Traditional Pub Games' arriving in 1992. Other than important early works by Timothy Finn, and numerous more general publications on sports and games, these books can be regarded as pioneering studies of a subject that's so deeply ingrained and taken for granted within pub culture as to be virtually invisible. Whilst writers continue to find value in mass participation sports such as Football and Cricket, pub games of all types have long been regarded as unworthy subjects for non-fiction.

That Arthur's next book on the subject, 'Played At The Pub' (below), is still regarded as the definitive work on Pub Games, is testament to both his deep knowledge of the subject, and his skills as an entertaining and informative writer. It's also a slightly sad indictment of the inexorable decline of pub gaming in our collective conscience that there appear to be no new books on this absorbing subject on the horizon. Where will the next book come from if not from a man like Arthur Taylor?

The world of pub games enthusiasm is a very small one it has to be said, this despite the fact tens of thousands of folk enjoy the pastime on a daily basis. As such it was inevitable that I'd soon find myself in correspondence with Arthur, as well as a handful of other writers and advocates of traditional gaming. I eventually met up with Arthur at the historic Skittles On The Green event in Thrussington, Leicestershire (left), another proposed chapter in his planned book on Skittles. Sadly Arthurs health was such that he was unable to take part in the games themselves, but we enjoyed pints in both the Blue Lion and Star Inn whilst I demonstrated my lack of skills in yet another version of skittles, Leicestershire Long Alley. In common with all pub games enthusiasts, Arthur was also a keen collector of games, and I was delighted to present him with this Stamford Pushpenny board from my own small collection, which I hope enjoyed playing at some point.

We parted with every intention of meeting up again, and though this sadly never came to pass we remained in contact as writing and research continued on his (sadly unfinished) book on Skittles. Indeed Arthur commented with great warmth and kindness when I came to make the final post on this blog, such was his continued interest in the subject.


1. In point of fact Arthur may well have chosen the Red Lion simply because a photo of its antique skittles table is used to illustrate the Northants game on a traditional games website, titled (incorrectly) as being at the Red Lion, Corby: Table Skittles, Devil Amongst the Tailors - Online Guide (

2. Northamptonshire pub guide: The Red Lion, Middleton, Northamptonshire (

3. There's a very good interview with Arthur about his time at Granada here: Arthur Taylor – Granadaland

Friday 10 September 2021

The End

Just a note to say this Blog is now defunct. I was hoping to finish it by wrapping up a few posts that have sat as drafts for some time, but it’s become increasingly obvious over the last few years that the pub trade going forward has very little appetite for the traditions that are the subject of this blog, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to visit and photograph those pubs which still maintain the traditions of game play, many of which simply don’t open at times that are convenient for me to visit.

It’s been mostly fun, but it’s time to move on to something different. Thanks for reading and commenting. 

Thursday 22 July 2021

Bell Inn, St Johns, Worcester

Pubgoers with a keen interest in our dwindling pub heritage could do much worse than spend a day exploring the cathedral city of Worcester. Worcester has a remarkable number of pubs on CAMRA’s list of unspoilt heritage interiors, most of which seem to have weathered the COVID storm and are now open for trade (the notable exception being the superb Bush Inn which had already closed, future uncertain, prior to the recent lockdowns). Of course it’s the interior of pubs that count here, the business end of the pub in almost every regard. Because whilst most pubs retain something of their heritage and historic appeal on the outside, whether it be picturesque thatch, mellow local stone, or solid Victorian brickwork, sadly few have escaped the trend for bland modernisation when it comes to their interiors. The kind of identikit makeovers that show little or no regard for what makes our historic pubs so special and unique.

So, what little remains of these historic gems is precious indeed, and well worth supporting with a visit and a pint or two. The beauty of Worcester is that all its rare pub survivors might conceivably be visited in a single day without too much trouble, and I'd have to say that they’re all well worth visiting. From Worcesters oldest pub, to a classic post-war estate boozer, all unique and attractive venues in their own very different ways. Having said that, it's perhaps worth mentioning that these are not mere tourist attractions, they are for the most part vibrant, sometimes busy locals pubs, in fact some might be regarded as being quite earthy in character, splendidly so in my view.

One such 'earthy' locals pub is the terrific Bell Inn over the river in the village suburb of St Johns (also home to the mothballed Bush Inn). The Bell has already featured on this blog, though every time I’ve been there previously it's been a little too busy to brandish a camera freely, making it quite a brief mention. My most recent visit was a quieter affair, the mid-afternoon lull before the storm of a Friday night session. A smattering of locals in the long bar, several more basking and baking in the garden to the rear of the pub on what was one of the hottest days of the year. 

A classic urban all-day opener (10am Mon-Sat!) on the main road through St Johns, the only nearby competition coming from the Parish Church opposite now that the Bull Baiters micropub seems to have closed. Indeed the pub was originally established to serve parishioners as a Church House, the origin of many village pubs it seems. As much a social centre as beerhouse, though the predominantly local beers on offer are certainly worth sampling. The chat and banter in the bar is constant, sometimes loud, often rude, occasionally lewd, it's that kind of pub. A telly at the front of the bar seems to be reserved exclusively for horseracing, and whilst other sports do feature when requested, I wouldn't say the Bell is a particularly 'sporty' bar. If it's on it's on, if it's not, nobody seems particularly bothered, there's a lot of chat to catch up on.

The main bar originally comprised two stone-flagged rooms, now a single long space with quite a small servery, parquet flooring, and comfortable bench seating. Needless to say it's the heart and soul of the pub, and if it's not too busy (it often is!) this is certainly where you'll want to be with your pint, particularly at weekends when live music features and the locals are in fine, occasionally bawdy voice.

Visitors of a more delicate disposition might find the two smaller 'Snugs' more to their liking. These, and the attractive floor-tiled central corridor that divides them from the bar, are perhaps the most interesting heritage feature of the pub. Apparently these two small rooms were previously used as court houses, the pubs cellar converted into cells to hold the accused. Latterly it's understood that they were pressed into service as small shops, at least that's how one of the older locals remembers them. Nowadays they provide a quieter, more secluded drinking space away from the lively bar area, and on the Saturday night that I made another brief visit to the pub, lured in by a local singer belting out Neil Diamond covers in the packed bar, they proved a popular choice for parties of women, all glammed-up and out on the town.

These last photos are from my first visit to the pub, a very busy Sunday lunchtime session several years ago. As you can see, the Bell is a Skittles pub. The Skittle Alley to the rear of the pub was in use when I visited, not for a regular league match though, more likely a Cup match or perhaps the unique and very traditional Sunday casual session which seems to be a feature of skittles pubs everywhere. The alley itself is quite compact, but behind the curtains on the right of this photo is a much larger function room that helps accommodate players during a match.

At the last count the Bell hosted four mens teams, playing Mondays and Wednesdays in the Worcester Friendly Skittles League, with Ladies skittles on Thursday evenings. Of course Skittles of all kinds remains in stasis at this time, though it's anticipated that league play will resume in September for the Winter season. It can't come soon enough for pubs like the Bell.

The 'Stickers' or 'Stickers-Up', usually young family members from local teams, are paid a small sum to set the pins on match days. Many leagues have a separate competition at the end of the season just for the Stickers, thereby ensuring interest in the game continues into the next generation.

Friday 9 July 2021

Princess Royal, Taunton, Somerset

One of the few positives to emerge from this past year of chronic disruption and uncertainty in the pub trade, has been the truly remarkable show of resilience and creativity that licensees and staff have shown, when any number of the them would have been forgiven for throwing in the towel. I doubt whether I'm the only one who thought the twin ills of an out of control pandemic and an economy on the slide would be the final nail in the coffin for literally thousands of pub businesses, and of course a boom time for property companies looking to cash in on our precious pub heritage. That so many pubs have continued to trade whenever possible, coping with severely limited opening whilst jumping through innumerable logistical hoops imposed by a largely clueless government, gives hope that this particular national institution can rise to the challenge and weather whatever is thrown at it. 

Nevertheless, pubs and clubs continue to close, in some cases permanently, and clearly we're very far from out of the woods with this terrible pandemic just yet. After an initial rush back to the pub this Summer, trade does seem to have slowed somewhat, and it's now more difficult than ever to find a pub open at the less busy times of the week/day. So when we do find a pub maintaining the traditions of all-day opening, with a warm welcome and nice cool pint on a hot midweek afternoon, as I did in Taunton quite recently, it's certainly something worth shouting about I think.

The Princess Royal is one of those sturdy four-square town boozers that seem ever-present and immovable in the urban landscape, and yet so many of them have been lost to other retail or business use in recent years. Located slap-bang in the middle of Somerset's county town of Taunton, and barely a boundary-strike away from the County Cricket Ground, it wasn't actually on my itinerary that day, but the pub looked so bright, inviting, and perhaps most crucially, open, I felt I just had to pop in for a pint. The promise of 'Pub Games' was something of a draw too, albeit that it's still very much the off-season for most of these traditional pub pastimes.

From the appearance and location of the central entrance (above), I'd hazard a guess that the Princess Royal would have been a classic two-room town centre boozer, probably until the 80's when the vogue for knocking through pubs was at its height. Originally part of the long-gone Hanbury & Cotching pub estate, it could almost have been the Brewery Tap given how close the pub would have been to the old Canon Street Brewery. This would date the pub to the early part of the last century, probably pre-war given that the brewery was closed and it's pub estate sold to Starkey, Knight & Ford Ltd in 1923. Starkey, Knight & Ford would itself fall prey to a predatory national brewer, the brewery and brands discarded and the pub estate swallowed up by Whitbread in the 1960's, latterly becoming part of the Punch estate.

The pub we see today is the result of a recent refurbishment, triggered as it was by the retirement of licensees Tim Prosser and Patricia Stone who'd run the pub as a traditional local for 25 years. In fact the pub has changed hands a couple of times since then, the makeover and reopening under new management unfortunately coincided with the very start of the lockdowns and restrictions that have dogged the trade for the last 18 months. So when I visited in June, the pub had only recently reopened again, with new licensees Reece Short and Beth Sandford busy preparing for what has subsequently become a highly successful run of games for the home nation in the European Football Championship.

With social distancing rules in place for another couple of weeks at least, pubs of all sizes are having to be very careful and creative around the potential for crowding, particularly during large sporting events like the EUROs. Some of the more traditional West Country pubs are better equipped than most to deal with these issues thanks to their (currently mothballed) Skittle Alleys. The Princess Royal is one such pub, with a substantial Twin Skittle Alley/Function Room that's currently being put to good use as an overspill to the main bar when things get a bit too busy.

Alley Skittles like this has a long history of play in the West Country, and it remains very popular today. Whilst the game would have initially developed as an add-on to many pubs in the 19th century, often making use of old outbuildings and former stabling, I'd guess that the alley at the Princess Royal was built as part of the original pub, such was the ubiquity of the game in the early 20th century. Whether it was a twin alley as it is now is hard to say, perhaps the two were squeezed in later to accomodate the growing popularity of the game in the post-war years when pubs themselves enjoyed a peak of popularity.

Under normal circumstances, the Skittle Alley at the Princess Royal would be in use throughout much of the week. Both the right-hand and left-hand alleys are used to accomodate around four mens teams, playing Tuesday evenings in the St Austell Brewers Skittles League (formerly the Taunton Brewers League). Ladies play Monday nights in the Taunton & District Ladies League, and of course there are numerous cup and knockout tournaments to be squeezed in around the league action. Let's hope that once the football has finished, and social distancing restrictions finally relaxed, the Skittle Alley at the Princess Royal will once again host this most social of traditional pub games, and enjoy the extra trade that skittles brings to pubs throughout the West Country.

Sunday 27 June 2021

Lethbridge Arms, Bishops Lydeard, Somerset

At the risk of employing a rather flimsy excuse as an introduction to this post, the game of Fives has been on my mind a little more than usual of late. My friend and fellow pub games enthusiast John Penny started it all off with a feature he wrote on the game earlier this year for Visitor Magazine. A much more in-depth and informative piece than I'll attempt here, and I urge you to follow the link and read it from page 20 for a better understanding of the game.

John is of course a Dorset man, as evidenced by his sometimes impenetrable Dorsetshire accent and a deep love of Dorset's national sport, Alley Skittles. John plies his skittling trade, with some success it must be said, at the famous Rose & Crown in Bradford Abbas, and more widely at away matches in Dorset and over the border in Somerset. So a rare pub gaming tradition almost unique to neighbouring Somerset was never going to escape Johns keen eye for long, even if it's now effectively an extinct tradition as far as the pub is concerned.

Fives as a competitive game dates back several centuries, and was widely played throughout the country and latterly exported to the then colonies. A form of Handball that requires nothing more complex to play than a solid wall, a ball with some measure of bounce, and tough or gloved hands. As far as Somerset is concerned, the game seems to have developed and become popular when played between the buttresses of a church tower (indeed surviving walls are still known as 'Towers'), which would probably have been the only suitable 'court' available to ordinary folk at the time. I don't know whether the example shown here on the north side of Carhampton Church is known to have been used for the game, but the basic form and a clearly delineated line a couple of feet up is typical, and would have certainly made it possible.

When the church inevitably clamped down on this potentially destructive pastime, local licensees would have seen an opportunity to bring the game within the confines of their own business, erecting Fives Towers adjacent to pubs, some of which survive to this day. Sadly none of these are now in use, making Fives a pub gaming tradition awaiting a revival of interest. The game of Fives is of course still played in various parts of the UK, though for the most part it's now a game of private school education, most famously the surviving traditions at EtonRugby, and Shrewsbury schools. For our part, perhaps the best way to experience the skill and excitement of the game now is in the Basque region of Spain, where a similar game Pelota remains very popular.

The surviving Fives Towers in Somerset may no longer be in use, but they represent a great opportunity for tourists like myself to visit, often being handy for pubs and of course eminently 'collectable'. A cluster of surviving Towers near Yeovil would make for an easy tour, but I visited an outlier at the Lethbridge Arms in the village of Bishops Lydeard to the north of Taunton. Bishops Lydeard is perhaps more famous these days as the eastern terminus of the West Somerset Heritage Railway, making a visit to the Lethbridge even easier for tourists in the Minehead area.

Visiting a pub like the Lethbridge on one of the hottest days of the year, and in the middle of the latest table-service only restrictions, makes it difficult to get a handle on what the pub is like under more normal circumstances. Everyone was in the garden, making the sprawling interior seem even more expansive than it would be with a smattering of locals in to augment the space. Largely food focussed it seems, which is hardly surprising given its proximity to the rail station, we nevertheless enjoyed a good local beer in the garden to the rear of the pub, overlooked by the towering Fives wall, and near-deafened by the sound of Sparrows at play.

The impressive Fives Tower at the Lethbridge Arms stands as a boundary between the pub car park and an adjacent cottage. Built of stone with a more 'even' red brick facing, the tall self-supported structure is strengthened by sturdy buttresses to the side (right) and rear (below). It's clear that the game would have been played and spectated from the rear of the pub itself. Albeit that it now abuts the pubs busy car park, the Fives Tower at the Lethbridge could quite easily be used for a game even now should anyone fancy a revival.

For more information on Somerset Fives, I recommend this blog post which features several of the surviving Towers, as well as this post on the Eton Fives Association website.

Saturday 19 June 2021

Kildare Lodge, Minehead, Somerset

For many thousands of enthusiastic pub games players, and this blog of course, the last year or so of lockdown and restrictions have all-but pulled the rug from under their particular pub pleasure. I think initially some casual play of Darts and Pool was allowed, but when pubs and clubs closed completely, and more recently when trade was forced outdoors and into ever smaller socially distanced groups, even these limited contact games were effectively banned.

It's doubtful whether any pub games leagues have managed to function since close of play at the end of the 2019/20 Winter season, and for most leagues the resumption of competition seems no nearer, even with pubs open and the promise of reasonably normal bar service. As we've seen in more recent weeks, it's perfectly possible to engage with pubs and other pub-goers for a few drinks, a chat, or bite to eat, but the uniquely 'intimate' and social nature of most traditional pub games has put them very firmly at the back of the queue for a long-overdue opening time. Which made my recent discovery that league competition, in one game at least, resumed at pubs in Somerset over a month ago now, something of a pleasant surprise to say the least. 

North Somerset has long been a regular haunt of mine, and an occasional holiday spot since teenage years. The stretch of coastline around Minehead a particularly happy hunting ground for pubs, beer, and strong local cider. I usually take advantage of the West Somerset heritage rail line for trips to Dunster, Watchet, and of course a day of sun, sea, fish and chips in the attractive tourist trap of Minehead. There are some very fine pubs to be found in the area if you know where to look, one of which, the Kildare Lodge, has been on my to-do list for some time now, so I was delighted to finally pop in for a couple of pints this year.

I find most pubs are attractive in their own way, even the much derided post-war estate pubs can have a unique 'vintage' visual appeal that transcends their somewhat utilitarian origins. Few pubs are as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as the grade II* listed Kildare Lodge though. As you can see from these photos, Kildare Lodge is a truly stunning Arts and Crafts styled building, beautifully maintained for the benefit of locals and visitors who clearly appreciate the pubs unique architecture and ambiance, as well as the very good range of local ales on offer. Originally built as a residence and surgery for a local doctor, the building is now in the hands of Harvey & Sarah Pyle, sensitively altered and re-purposed for its current important role in the local community.

Somerset is, of course, at the very heart of a very well supported West Country Skittles tradition, indeed there are still a fair few alleys at pubs and clubs in the Minehead area for the game. Boules (also known as Petanque) is a relative newcomer, the local league having been established less than 20 years ago but now grown to three divisions. This probably makes Boule the more popular of the two games in this area, certainly during the warmer Summer months when Skittles leagues often contract due to other player commitments. Whatever the reality, it's easy to understand the appeal of Boule as a Summer game at Kildare Lodge.

The three Boule Pitches at the pub adjoin a tidy beer garden, and are immaculately maintained with bench seating for spectating games. It's hard to imagine a better place to enjoy a pint on a Wednesday evening in the Summer, which is presumably why the pub hosts more teams in the West Somerset Boules Association league than any other. The boule association have clearly worked hard with local authorities and licensees to re-start competition safely, the only stipulation for spectators at this time is they must remain seated, no matter how tense and exciting the play gets.

Not benches, these are for the Boule