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 

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.