Monday, 18 January 2021

Table Skittles - The Leicester Tradition

A Leicester Skittles Table. The Foresters Arms, Leicester
I've been asked on a number of occasions since I started this blog for the dimensions of the various Skittles Tables featured. Whilst many of these tables are still common enough and regularly come up for sale locally or online, good examples are not cheap to buy, and in some cases the enquiry has come from overseas where building your own table is the only realistic option. I've answered these queries personally in the past, but I thought it was high time I created a more permanent and accessible record, starting with my own example of a Leicester Skittles Table. A timely post as this particular table is off to a new home soon, and of course Leicester pubs and clubs remain closed for the foreseeable future so accessing a table is difficult right now.

The Leicester Table Skittles Tradition

Syston Social Club
The Leicester variant of Table Skittles is one of those games that if you've never come across a table before, there's every chance that you'll never have heard of it. Indeed I'd hazard a guess that most Leicester pub-goers have never come across the game, particularly given that tables are often hidden away in the function rooms and skittles alleys of suburban locals and social clubs, rarely on display in the bar these days.

Whilst the superficially similar game of Northamptonshire Table Skittles is common throughout Northants (as well as large parts of neighbouring Bedfordshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire), the Leicester game is confined largely to the city, its suburbs, and a handful of villages in the North-West of the county. In fact the Leicester game is regarded as something of an oddity by the few Northants skittles players I've spoken to who've actually heard of it! Sadly it's also a game that's been in steady decline for many years, such that it's now something of a rarity in its home town.

Quite why a local Leicester version of the game exists on the very edge of the much wider Northamptonshire Table Skittles tradition is not at all clear. My own theory is that whilst the game almost certainly developed as an offshoot of Northants Skittles (there are too many similarities for it to have emerged independently), it rapidly evolved to emulate Leicestershire's other important local pub game, Long Alley Skittles.

Long Alley Skittles. The Black Dog, Oadby
It's been suggested that Northamptonshire skittles may have developed as a smaller indoor version of Old English Skittles, a virtually extinct game that was once common throughout much of South and Eastern England. Certainly it shares some similarities in both play and appearance with the much larger alley game (though only the Cambridge version of Table Skittles is actually played to the same rules now). Similarly the Leicester game may well have developed as an indoor bar room version of Leicestershire's other unique traditional pub game, Long Alley Skittles, both of which are played in the same area of the county and nowhere else.

The Leicestershire version of Long Alley Skittles is a very noisy game, hence Skittle Alleys are usually located in a separate outbuilding to the main pub. These would have been sparsely heated at best, perhaps even open to the elements as many still are in the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire area where a similar skittling tradition exists, such that many leagues are active only in the Summer months. It's therefore only natural that players would want to keep their skittling hand in during the colder Winter months with an indoor game that requires similar skills.

Birstall Social Club
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Leicester Table Skittles and Long Alley is in the style of skittle pins used, both of which are tall and slender (above & right), and both feature a slightly taller 'King Pin' as part of the set of nine skittles. This is in stark contrast to the fatter, stubby Boxwood pins of the Northants game which more closely resemble the huge Hornbeam pins of Old English Skittles, neither of which game features a king pin incidentally.

The small Edam shaped 'Cheeses' of the Leicester game have been made from a number of different hardwoods over the years, one of which is the very dense tropical wood Lignum Vitae. This wood has also traditionally been used for the barrel-shaped cheeses of the Leicestershire Long Alley game. In fact it's quite possible that a set of three cheeses for Leicester Table Skittles could have been turned-down on a lathe from a single Long Alley cheese, recycling the expensive (and now rare) wood when no longer up to League standard. Another feature of the Leicester game which bears some similarity to Long Alley is the 'Motte', or throwing point.

The 'Motte'. The Tudor, Leicester (closed)
The throwing point in the Northants game is usually defined by a simple line or removable baton of wood, positioned on the floor at the appropriate throwing distance for the game. The actual throwing position along that line is only limited by obstacles such as the walls, the bar servery, or immovable furniture such as bench seating. This is important as in the Northants game it's sometimes desirable to bounce a cheese off the padded sides of the table in order to knock down an awkward broken frame of skittles, a tactic that may require a throw from an acute angle. In Leicester Table Skittles however, no bouncing off the side walls is allowed and the throwing position is therefore more strictly defined, as indeed it is in Long Alley Skittles. In Long Alley, one foot must remain in what's known as the 'Chock Hole' until the cheese is released from the players hand. This restriction is replicated in Leicester Table Skittles by the use of a welded steel 'Motte' (or Mot), within which both feet must remain during the throw.

The Skittles Table

A Leicester Skittles Table appears at first glance to be almost identical to the more common Northamptonshire made WT Blacks & Son or Pepper Bros tables, but put the two side-by-side and the differences become more obvious. 'Blacks' and 'Peppers' tables are the most commonly found examples of the Northamptonshire style, and whilst the two are recognisably different in style, they do seem to have been manufactured to a strictly defined league standard. Less is known about the manufacture of Leicester tables (sadly I've yet to find details of a maker on any of the tables I've come across), but they do appear to be made to a standard pattern which suggests there was at least one common local manufacture.

A typical W T Black & Son Northamptonshire Skittles Table with the chunkier Boxwood Skittles and Cheeses of the Northants game. Gardeners Arms, Northampton

Dog & Gun, Syston
The principal differences that mark a Leicester Skittles Table out from the more common Northamptonshire models are the cushioned side walls, and the length and design of the playing surface. In the Northants game the side walls are usually upholstered in leather and thickly cushioned, originally with horsehair. This is necessary because players occasionally direct a cheese into the side wall, bouncing off and giving angles of attack that would otherwise be impossible. In the Leicester game there's none of this bouncing of cheeses off the walls, and hence the padding is much thinner and the profile somewhat different. In practice almost all of the tables I've come across in Leicester have had their padding refurbished with often brightly coloured vinyl. Leather originals like the one shown here at the Dog & Gun in Syston are now quite rare.

Sir Charles Napier, Leicester
The playing surface is usually lino covered, and the diamond-shaped 'frame' which marks the position of the pins is located further back than in the Northants game. In fact the playing surface and whole table itself is longer than the more square-form Northamptonshire tables. The rear 'trough' which receives the fallen skittle pins on a Northants table is shaped in a 'V' to match the rear of the 'frame'. This is important as none of the 'dead wood' of fallen skittles and cheeses is removed during a players turn, but pins and cheeses tend to fall quite freely into the trough and out of play anyway. The Leicester table is cut straight across at the rear which would tend to make the fallen pins less likely to drop off the playing surface and out of play, but in the Leicester game any cheeses that remain on the playing surface between throws are removed by those players resetting the pins in the 'wood yard', making it somewhat less of an issue than in the Northants version.

The Star Inn, Stoney Stanton
As you can see, the styling of a Leicester table is significantly different to that of the Northants version. They tend to be a bit less 'engineered' than the heavy-duty Blacks and Peppers tables, and the top playing surface is designed to lift off the 'legs' making storage easier when not in use. The canvas 'Hood' at the rear of the table is not nearly as pronounced as that of the Northants game. Presumably there are less instances of wayward throws and dangerous flying wood in the Leicester game where the cushions are not used as an aid to play. It's worth pointing out that despite all these subtle differences, it's quite common to find a Leicester Skittles Table in use for the numerous 'county' leagues, all of which use Northants style pins and cheeses that are usually made from plastic. I don't doubt that the Leicester game is played on Northants tables on occasion too.

Dimensions & Features of the Leicester Skittles Table

The following measurements were taken from a skittles table that was originally in use at Birstall Social Club, latterly in my ownership following a major refurbishment of the club and now in the possession of a pub in Buckinghamshire. The original standards for these tables would undoubtedly have been imperial measurements, but I'm giving them in metric here to cover all bases/countries. I'd also say that there will almost certainly be variation between different tables (I've seen two side-by-side in a club where the all-important height of the playing surface is different by as much as a couple of inches!). Insofar as playing is concerned though, height, width and depth of the playing surface, and the dimensions of the frame are the only really important standards.

Overall length of the Table (A) = 153cm
Total width including sides (B) = 99cm, the Lino playing surface width a little less at 92cm
The height of the playing surface (C) = 58cm
The distance from the front edge of the table to the start of the walls (D) = 29cm
Depth of rubber protection on the (rounded) front edge (G) is 8cm
Height of side panel at rear (E) = 96cm, at the front (F) = 78cm
Height of 'Hood' (H) = 70cm

The 'Frame' marking the position of the skittle pins (I) is 41cm square
The distance from the front edge of the table to the front pin (J) is 65cm
The distance from the rear edge of the playing surface to the rear pin (K) is 8cm

Pins and Cheeses

Perhaps the single most distinctive feature of Leicester Table Skittles is the Skittle Pins and Cheeses used, both of which are smaller than those of the Northamptonshire game. This has a significant bearing on how the game is played, and it's certainly true that a good player in the one game will not necessarily be as successful in the other. The Skittle Pins stand 16cm high, the King Pin a little taller at 18cm. The Lignum Vitae Cheese shown here is 8.5cm in diameter and 2.5cm thick.

Skittles and Cheeses (L-R): Northamptonshire (Boxwood), Leicester (Beech/Lignum Vitae), Leicester (Plastic) 
The wood used for skittle games has always varied to some degree, but even more so now given that some of the hardwoods used have become rarer and hence more expensive. Leicester skittle pins are made from a hardwood, typically Beech, although older sets I've come across are turned from closer grained fruitwood (left). Whilst the pins are of a similar height to Northants skittles, they are much thinner in profile and a set of nine always includes a 'King Pin'. I have cheeses made from the very dense and durable wood Lignum Vitae, but Laburnum seems to be the wood of choice these days. Again, these are significantly smaller than Northants cheeses. Note that whilst modern sets of cheeses are turned with a flat face and curved edge, the older sets made from fruitwood that I've seen are shaped with a curved face making them appear more like a discus. The combination of thinner pins and smaller cheeses make for a very different game to Northamptonshire Table Skittles.

The Motte

Rules and Conventions of the game

It's difficult to say at this time how many leagues are still active for the game of Leicester Table Skittles, perhaps less than half a dozen at the last count including Mens, Ladies, and Mixed leagues, as well as those which are exclusive to CIU affiliated clubs. Needless to say the precise rules are likely to vary for the different leagues and tournaments played, so I don't plan to go into these in any great detail here. Nevertheless, there are fundamentals of the game which apply to all leagues. Leicester Table Skittles is played in the same way as most skittles games in the UK, that is to say each player has three throws at nine pins to achieve the highest score possible. The pins are reset if all are knocked down with either the first or second throw, giving a maximum score of 27. As in many skittles leagues and competitions, each team sets a combined score that the other team aims to beat, the match played over an agreed (usually odd) number of legs.

A good Northamptonshire Skittles player would normally expect to achieve scores in excess of nine more often than not, which is to say that whatever pins were still standing after their first throw, they would consider it a poor throw to not clear them on the second throw achieving what my own team called a 'Tip'. A 'floorer', all pins down with the first throw, might also be expected at least once a match by a good player. In the Leicester game, with thinner pins and smaller cheeses, scores greater than nine are typically rarer even for a good player, and when they are achieved, these 'Whack Ups' as they're known, are regarded as newsworthy enough to have their own competitive table in some leagues. 'Floorers' in the Leicester game are presumably very rare indeed.

Monday, 16 November 2020

A Compendium of Pub Games Images - Pt.29

There really is no shortage of books, journals, blogs and other online writing about beer and brewing. It's a micro-genre with seemingly limitless potential for saying much the same thing, in slightly different ways, about a subject that's always attracted passionate interest, though perhaps none more so than in recent years with the arrival of so-called 'craft' beer. But then that's the very nature of the keen enthusiast, there's always another angle on your passion to write about, and rarely a shortage of fans to read about it. Quite why beer and brewing (and wine and spirits for that matter) generate such a demand for the written word, and yet the pub, the stage for so many of lifes dramas, trails so far behind, has puzzled me for many a year.

Pubs are certainly taken for granted, particularly by the 'locals' who use them more than most. Whilst enthusiasts like myself visit pubs just as often, if not more so than regular social drinkers, our 'passion' for the boozer is probably regarded as unusual, dare I say 'geeky' by the mass of regular pub-goers. So the pub, arguably as interesting a subject as the beer that passes over the bar, seems to be so deeply ingrained in normal day-to-day life that it's simply not regarded as being particularly newsworthy by most people, let alone worth taking the trouble to write about!

But if pubs are a neglected subject in print, it's perhaps ten-times so for traditional pub games which are rarely the subject of the written word. The current go-to book for the subject remains Played at the Pub by Arthur Taylor. This book was published over ten years ago now, and right now there seems little sign of a follow-up (although rumours persist that a book on skittles by Arthur is in the pipeline), which perhaps says something about the commercial viability of the subject. Slightly strange given that under normal circumstances, almost every day there are literally tens of thousands of men and women playing games at the pub, often competitively in long-established leagues. Yet this rarely warrants a mention, even in guides which feature the kind of pubs that rely heavily on league games play for their success. And it's not as if the field lacks personalities, just no one with the inclination to document them it would seem.

So we have to look to the past for information on these commonplace games. When the 'new' games of Darts, Billiards, and latterly Snooker took hold, there was a ready market for books on the subject. The cheap post-war booklet on Darts shown above even had a chapter on the humble game of Shove Ha'penny, presumably written for the benefit of wealthier folk venturing forth into a working class world of pubs and beerhouses they were probably unfamiliar with. The three-ball game of Billiards in particular spawned a whole library of books on technique and shots, often written by, or with the help of notable players of the day, and sponsored by the many cue sports manufactures at the time.

The booklet shown here is a War Office publication. This edition was produced in 1957, which was around the mid-point of the post-war conscription known as National Service. The many thousands of servicemen called-up at this time, when they weren't involved in peacetime duties at home or abroad, would have been pretty desperate for recreational diversion. This booklet covers the rules and practicalities of play for just about every team and competitive sport imaginable, but it's particularly interesting in the context of this blog for the inclusion of rules for Quoits and Skittles. The rules for Quoits were supplied by the English Quoiting Association, so pretty standard stuff that can be found easily enough elsewhere.

The Skittles section is a bit more interesting. The rules given are for the basic form of the game that'll be familiar to skittlers everywhere, but the equipment is for what's now known as Old English Skittles, heavy Hornbeam pins and discus-shaped Lignum Vitae 'cheeses'. A common enough game back then, but now played at just the one pub in Hampstead, London, to rules that are unique to the game (and the Cambridge Table Skittles League). Dimensions for the 'alley' and frame are included, as is a guide to felling the various broken skittle frames that is a major feature of this kind of skittles.

Another genre of books that really blossomed from the early 20th century onwards were guide books to the numerous 'Inns' of the country. Never 'pubs' mind! These were invariably produced for motorists, newly mobilised and eager to explore the more genteel highways and byways of Britain's countryside, possibly with a stopover in a traditional roadside Inn. Most are pretty dull affairs it must be said, focussing exclusively on 'famous old inns', market town hotels, and well-appointed roadhouses of the day. Not the back-street boozers and tumbledown village alehouses where drinking, Darts and Dominoes were the principal attraction.

This one from 1951 is better than most in that the focus is on Midlands Inns only, giving more detail than there would be in a national guide, and not merely a skim of the most upmarket or historic 'usual suspects'. The author was also keen to seek the assistance of the local brewers, which clearly put a different slant on things. There's a very good illustrated chapter on the breweries, as well as a rare acknowledgement that customers liked to play games, as shown in the terrific set of photographs shown below. I can't help thinking Norman Tiptaft really 'liked' pubs, even if the word Inns was probably more acceptable to the publishers.

This facsimile of an 18th century publication details the various games of Skittles once popular in rural areas of the country, presented with a moral zeal typical of 'educated' gentlemen of the time. It's a real eye-opener, and as clear an indication as your likely to find of what was regarded as the 'degeneration' of the game in Britain.

The author makes a strong argument for promotion of the 'manly exercise of skittle-playing' over the more 'effeminate' games lately introduced such as Cards and Dice. Games redolent of an '...over-fed age of people', their souls '...insipid with ease and sloth' leading to 'bog bellies, swelled legs, gouty feet, and other ailments of the loaded corpse'. Quite! Skittles is regarded as both good exercise, and in it's original form, a game of high skill and for recreation only, rather than an excuse to '...guzzle and drink'. Hmm!

The most basic version of the game of Skittles in this publication makes the current 3-ball, 9-pin standard played today seem like a childrens game in comparison (which is not to say that modern skittles is not a highly skilled game in experienced hands). The rules are, it must be said, quite bewildering to these eyes. There being different heights and scores for different pin positions in the frame, the highest scoring being the tall 'King Pin' at the centre, followed by the four corners or 'Nobles', then the 'Commons'. Even then, scoring depends on how the pins are actually toppled, the higher scores achieved by 'tipping' one pin onto another rather than being directly struck. It's fascinating if slightly impenetrable stuff, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of a book like this is that someone would take the trouble to travel the country and research the humble game of skittles at all!

That almost nothing on pub games ever makes it to print makes this hefty tome on a single West Country Skittles League all the more remarkable. Ron Holpin was heavily involved in the game in the Bristol area for much of the time this book covers, and as a local sports journalist, he obviously felt duty bound to record aspects of the Thornbury & District Skittles League that few others would even regard as noteworthy. It's a pretty dry affair for the most part it has to be said, details of every season, notable results, and the finishing league tables make up the bulk of the book (details that until recently would have featured in most local newspapers). But in amongst the dry detail are amusing anecdotes, and much social history around the game, those who play it, and of course the pubs and clubs where the game has been played in the immediate post-war years onwards. Whilst not exactly a bedtime thriller, it's a useful document, and would that all leagues produced something similar as a social document before the players who shaped the game are no longer with us.

Enthusiasm for the game of skittles, both competitively and as an important social pastime, is made clear throughout the book, even extending to a short chapter on 'other' skittles games. This includes the unique East Midlands game of Long Alley, illustrated with details of play and photographs of a game in progress (below). On a trip to the Midlands, Holpin visited notable Long Alley venue the Gate Inn at Loscoe in Nottinghamshire, arriving just as a game had commenced against Belpers Duke of Devonshire, a league match in the Belper & District Summer Skittles League. Outside of a handful of specialist pub games books, Arthur Taylors included of course, this may be the only time the humble, somewhat 'primitive' game of Long Alley Skittles has featured in print. The low-key nature of skittle alleys in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, often located outdoors and therefore easily missed by visitors, mean that this game is perhaps taken for granted more than most.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

The Hurdler, Stamford, Lincolnshire (updated October 2020)

The Hurdler is one of only two classic estate pubs which remain in the upmarket town of Stamford (the other being the nearby Danish Invader, the Drum & Monkey and Northfields both having closed since this was originally posted in 2012) A large, open-plan locals pub with a central bar that I've no doubt would have been multi-room originally. Built to serve the needs of the post war housing which surrounds it, and like most pubs that are firmly embedded in their local communities, the Hurdler is a sport and games pub through and through. In fact the pub is named after a local sporting hero David Cecil (Lord Burghley), gold medallist at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. A sprightly hurdling gentleman on the pubs swinging sign commemorates his athletic prowess.

Cribbage, Darts, Dominoes, and Pool are the principal league games played at the Hurdler today, but the pub also field a team in Stamfords unique Pushpenny League. The league is currently running with just six pubs/clubs, a parlous state for any pub game league to be in. Let's hope the pubs of Stamford can keep this game going where others have sadly fallen by the wayside.

Update October 2020

Another sparse post from the early days of this blog, featuring a pub that I've been meaning to revisit for some time. In fact I have revisited The Hurdler a couple of times since then, just not with a camera in tow. So, what's new at The Hurdler?

Well it's had a bit of a refurb, though nothing too drastic. In fact I didn't notice any changes at all until I compared these photographs, so think more spruced-up than knocked about. As seems to be the case throughout their estate, Everards have ditched their familiar green livery for a slightly less 'corporate' blue, though thankfully they haven't gone the whole hog and painted everything pastel grey!

The most noticeable changes to the Hurdler on this most recent visit were the alterations for social distancing. The most notable being the ugly (and now entirely unnecessary given that the rules have changed to table service only!) Perspex screens across the bar servery, as well as a bit of floor tape around the sensibly spaced tables. The way things are looking at the moment, these are here to stay, though hopefully not for ever. It's a roomy pub inside anyway and with plenty of front and back garden space, so social distancing was hardly an issue on the late-Summer afternoon when I popped in for a pint. The recent 10pm curfew and enforced table service had been confirmed that day and was much more of a concern to the licensees. Wet-led estate pubs like this do more trade than most in the run-up to last orders, and the feeling was that this will hit their crucial weekend trade very hard indeed.

As you can see from these images, the Hurdler might be regarded as Stamfords premier games pub. In far better times than these the pub fields teams in all the local leagues, with match nights occurring throughout the week. Womens Darts and Pushpenny feature on Tuesday nights, Pool and Cribbage on Wednesday, with Mens Darts and Dominoes filling the Thursday slot. Needless to say, none of these leagues are currently operating, a particularly tough situation for pubs like the Hurdler which rely on the steady weekday trade that games bring throughout the year, particularly during the Winter months when the attractive garden to the rear of the pub is out of action.

I'm not entirely sure whether Darts and Pool were still being played at the Hurdler at the time I visited. Certainly not on a quiet midweek afternoon with just a small group of locals holding court near the bar. With table service now the rule, even these non-contact games are effectively barred from the pub, putting the three Dartboards at the Hurdler out of use for the time being.

The following images are from the original post back in 2012. At this time there were a couple of Pushpenny Boards in the bar, and of course the local Stamford Pushpenny League was up and running from around Autumn until early Summer. The league is currently defunct owing to social distancing rules, but has shrunk even further since my original blog post. The 2019/20 league fixtures (above) show the league running with just four teams from three pubs in the town, which by any standards represents a traditional pub game on the verge of extinction, a sad situation given that the Stamford League is one of only two for the game of Pushpenny in the country. Whether it will survive this latest setback remains to be seen.

These two Pushpenny Boards were kept in the bar when I visited back in 2012. Needless to say there's no sign of them now. The nearest was in regular use, made from a single piece of Mahogany and with a beautifully polished surface which is typical of these locally made competition boards. The other board is a little more workmanlike, and is in fact the reverse of a commercial Shove Ha'penny board (below). The principle difference between a Pushpenny Board and the more common Shove Ha'penny is the spacing of the nine beds, significantly wider in Pushpenny to accommodate the larger Pennies used in the Stamford game. The sloping run-off at the rear of this Pushpenny board can be clearly seen in the image above, a feature rarely seen in Shove Ha'penny but typical of these handmade Stamford boards.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Alma Tavern, Worcester

I guess it's inevitable that as the COVID lockdown was gradually eased, and businesses of all kinds finally allowed to reopen, some would question why pubs seemed to have been favoured ahead of other, perhaps equally deserving businesses and resources. In fact we know that there are some who question why pubs have been allowed to reopen at all given the potential for issues around alcohol and social distancing.

At this point I feel duty bound to disclose a personal interest. I love pubs! Pubs are important to me, perhaps more-so than they are to most regular pubgoers. Certainly I much prefer to drink my beer and cider in the mixed social environment of a pub rather than at home. But I also appreciate the way that pubs at their best are important social hubs, of huge importance to their locals as well as visitors like myself, and often the wider community through events and the huge amount of charitable fundraising that many pubs engage in. Of course if you don't like or use pubs, or merely view them as just another licensed restaurant option, this love of the pub might be a little difficult to understand.

Because pubs are not just about serving alcohol for profit, despite what certain sections of the popular press might have us believe. For some, particularly the elderly, they may be their only lifeline with a genuine shared social experience, and even those of us in a more privileged position still rely on the neutral space pubs provide for a genuinely 'open' social experience rather than a self-selecting, perhaps even insular one. Where else can you rub shoulders with such a wide social mix with the implicit understanding that conversation is not only possible, but often expected. Individually, pubs are special for all manner of reasons, but collectively the pub as a concept is special for entirely social reasons, something I believe may have become apparent to even the most casual of pubgoers during this dreadful pandemic. We can drink beer anywhere, the pub experience is only truly open to us at the pub.

Which brings me nicely to the Alma Tavern in Worcester and its hugely popular mascot Alma Bear. Along with all the nations pubs and clubs, the Alma closed its doors in May for what many of us believed at the time would be a relatively short time. As we now know, it would be months before a light appeared at the end of the lockdown tunnel. What has also become apparent is that many pubs, the Alma included, didn't just sit back on their laurels waiting for things to get better. A takeaway food and off-license service helped maintain a semblance of normality for many regular pubgoers, and many pubs have strived to maintain their connection with the local community through online events and charitable fundraising. Licensee of the Alma Tavern Will Bradley went one step further, taking to the streets as his alter-ego, Alma Bear!

While I was enjoying a pint and taking these photographs at the Alma Tavern recently, I was a little perplexed at the the almost constant tooting of car horns outside on the busy Droitwich road. That was until the barman helpfully explained about Alma Bear, the pubs locally famous furry mascot. Alma Bear was originally created by the licensee to help boost interest in the pubs Saturday Kids Craft Club, as well as being a popular attraction for childrens parties and the like. With the lockdown knocking all these initiatives on the head, Will decided that everybody could do with a bit of a cheer-up, taking Alma Bear 'on the road' with regular walkabouts in and around Worcester for socially distanced meet and greets. So Alma Bear was outside the pub that day, working the Saturday afternoon crowd, all thumbs-up and waves to great appreciation from the many travellers in and out of the city. Talk about popular! Practically everyone was waving back, huge smiles all round, a real tonic in these difficult times. This is what pubs at their best are all about, and this is why those of us who love them have welcomed the return of pub-going with such enthusiasm.

In common with almost all the pubs I've been to since reopening, the Alma has probably never looked better. De-cluttered and clean as a whistle, it's an attractive pub to be in even with the ubiquitous bar screens and social distancing signage. Another feature that's common to pubs at this time is the removal of the Dartboard. I doubt there's much of an issue around actually playing the game, more that it just doesn't fit in to the current social distancing regime where we're duty bound to choose a table and stay there as much as practicable. Televised sport is still on offer though, as is good food and a couple of decent real ales.

League Skittles and the pubs Skittle Alley are currently out of action too, but still serving a useful purpose as the pubs well-equipped function room, due to be pressed into service for the afternoon Football when I visited, part of managing the pub to help reduce crowding in the main bar areas.