Published on May 28th, 2013 | by Nottingham Drinker0
Dobbers, Nurdles, & Aunt Sally – A Sampler of Traditional Pub Games
It’s probably safe to say that games of one kind or another have been played at the pub for as long as pubs have been in existence. From simple counter or dice games such as Nine Men’s Morris, through the many different varieties of Skittles, right up to present day Poker Nights and even virtual gaming with a Wii console. Gaming and Beer drinking are natural bedfellows, and the pub is the ideal venue for them.
Sadly, the current popularity of pub gaming varies considerably. Alley Skittles for example is still very popular in the West Country and West Midlands, yet many of the traditional games most strongly associated with the pub, such as Dominoes and Cribbage, have shown a marked decline in recent years. Even the current pub staples of Darts and Pool don’t seem as popular as they once were, and it’s the busier town centre pubs which have seen the biggest decline in pub gaming. This is a great shame, as there can be little more relaxing and pleasurable pastimes than an evening spent with friends, perhaps over a pint or two, accompanied by a little competitive gaming of a type which has been enjoyed by pub-goers for generations.
Thankfully, there are still a great many pubs where traditional games can be found and played, and often for little or no financial outlay (other than the beer of course). This short list represents a few of my own favourites, mostly centred on the Midlands region, including some local to Nottingham itself. Needless to say they all serve a decent pint too, but it’s worth taking the time to enjoy the many other attractions that these pubs offer, and playing traditional pub games wherever you find them.
Brunswick Inn, Malvern Rd, Worcester – The licensee of the Brunswick is a keen enthusiast of traditional pub games. The extensive collection at the pub includes such rarities as Evesham Quoits, a Rings Board, and a slightly baffling Shove Snooker board; as well as a few funny foreign games such as Sjoelbak and La Grenouille. But this is no precious, ‘look but don’t touch’ collection, all the games at the pub are available to play, and the licensee is keen to encourage their use. Should you exhaust the gaming possibilities of the Brunswick, I recommend crossing the road to The Bell, an interesting old pub with a very fine Skittle Alley of a type found throughout the West Country and West Midlands.
Butchers Arms, Eldersfield, Gloucestershire – The increasingly rare game of Indoor Quoits (also known as Evesham Quoits, Step Quoits, or indeed Dobbers!) can still occasionally be found in the West Midlands/Welsh Borders area. The Butchers Arms has a lovely old board, accompanied by its unique and slightly unusual scoreboard. At first glance this may seem like an upmarket ‘foodie’ pub, but drinkers are very welcome, with local ales served direct from the cask and a fine garden for the summer months. The Quoits are often played on weekend evenings when the locals come over all competitive after a few pints.
Cock Inn, Broom, Bedfordshire – This excellent, multi-room village local is on CAMRA’s list of unspoilt Heritage Pubs. Unusually, there is no bar counter, the beer coming straight from the cask to the cellar door. The local Bedfordshire game takes the form of Table Skittles (sometimes known as Hood Skittles), a game more commonly found in Northamptonshire where it is thought to have originated. The games room is quite small, and the throw for the skittles is by necessity on the diagonal. Skittles play may not be possible if a Darts match is in progress as both games share an ‘Oche’.
The Embankment, Arkwright St, Nottingham – Four vintage Billiards Tables take pride of place at this spacious club, including at least one made locally by Elston & Hopkin Ltd of Goldsmith St. Gaming on a more robust yet equally skilful level can be found in the basement of the club, where an excellent Skittle Alley is available for functions. This is probably one of only two venues near the city centre for the local game of Long Alley Skittles, the other being an outdoor alley at the Plough Inn, Radford.
Queens Hotel, Queens Rd, Beeston, Nottinghamshire – Nottinghamshire shares at least one skittling tradition with near neighbour Derbyshire. Whilst the game of Long Alley Skittles is certainly not thriving to the degree it once was, those that play in the various local leagues still approach the game with great enthusiasm, and a healthy level of genuine competitiveness. Skittles at the Queens is played in a covered alley which permits play in both the local summer league and the Derby/Notts Winter Border League. The pub itself is a fine community local with a strong tradition of games play, which includes a fine old Devil Amongst the Tailors, once used for league play, but now available for a casual game on request.
Queens Head, Newton, Cambridgeshire – Another unspoilt rural gem from CAMRA’s list of Heritage Pubs, and a regular Good Beer Guide entry. The games room features one of the finest Devil Amongst the Tailors tables I’ve seen. Thoroughly play-worn, and showing the deep patina of age, this table has clearly seen many years of play. Darts, and an old Mahogany Shove Ha’penny board are also available, as is a large solid wood Nine Men’s Morris which was presented to the licensee by the local CAMRA branch.
Jackson Stops Inn, Stretton, Rutland – At one time the game of Pitch Penny would have been much more common than the rarity it is now. The simple act of attempting to pitch a disc into a hole bored into a Bench or Settle is about as simple as pub gaming gets, but no less a game of skill, and of course highly competitive if you want it to be. The Jackson Stops is one of only a handful of pubs where this game has survived (although the similar game of Toad in the Hole has been very effectively revived in Sussex), known locally as Nurdles, and the subject of a World Championship in the small snug where the game is located.
The Tobie Norris, St Pauls St, Stamford, Lincolnshire – Stamford’s main claim to pub gaming fame is Pushpenny. A very similar game to Shove Ha’penny, but using smoothed old pennies, and slightly different spacings on the highly polished Mahogany boards. Pushpenny is still played in a local league on Wednesday evenings, though sadly this has now shrunk to just five teams at the last count. The boards are jealously guarded outside of league play, but a very good board can be found in the rear bar of the excellent Tobie Norris pub.
Newshouse, Canal St, Nottingham – Bar Billiards is a game which could have been specifically designed for pub play. Unlike with Pool, a Bar Billiards table is only played from one end, and can therefore be squeezed into all but the tiniest bar. As far as I know there are only two Bar Billiards tables in the city of Nottingham (the other is at the nearby Vat & Fiddle), making league play unlikely in the near future. The Newshouse also has a full size Devil Amongst the Tailors, the original bar room skittles game.
White Hart, Newbold-on-Stour, Warwickshire – I’ve included this welcoming village local for its two classic pub games, one for viewing on Summer evenings, the other a game to challenge the locals at. Aunt Sally is traditional to Oxfordshire and surrounding counties, and can be seen played at pubs throughout this area of the Cotswolds on Thursday evenings in the summer. It’s quite a spectacle, memorably described as being a bit like skittles, except that you throw the pins at the ball! Inside the pub on a lintel above the fire can be found one of the oldest, simplest, yet most tricksy of all pub games, Ring the Bull. Nottingham folk will be familiar with this game, one of the most famous examples being located at the Olde Trip to Jerusalem. If you do fancy a game with the locals, it’s worth remembering that ‘home’ advantage counts for everything in Ring the Bull!