Right up your alley!
The traditional pub game of London Skittles is about to be revived at The Black Lion
Here’s a good trivia question: what’s the local connection between Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir Alan Herbert MP and Errol Flynn? The answer is . . . at one time or another they are all known to have enjoyed a game of London Skittles at The Black Lion pub near Chiswick Mall. ‘Actually, we’re not completely sure about Errol Flynn,’ smiles Buzz Cousins, who has recently taken the helm at the riverside pub. ‘But one of our older regulars insists that he played here, so that’s fair enough.’
The reason Buzz is reminiscing about London Skittles (there are many regional variations and just as many rules) is that the historic pub game is about to make a welcome return to The Black Lion for the first time since 1963. ‘The alley has been here all those years, but it has only been used as a seating area,’ he says. ‘There was an alley at the last pub I ran in Hampshire and skittles nights there always proved a huge hit with all ages. When I came to The Black Lion I got chatting to a few of the regulars about the game, including members of A.P. Herbert’s family – he was President of The Black Lion Club at one time – and they said in passing, “wouldn’t it be fantastic to have the alley back in action.” The whole idea really sprang from there.’
London Skittles has a long history as one of the most popular games in the capital’s taverns. Evidence suggests it was introduced by Dutch seafarers and there are pictures of seventeenth century Frost Fairs on the Thames showing players on the frozen river. At the beginning of the twentieth century Skittles was still thriving, with over a hundred alleys in the pubs of Edwardian London.
Now, however, there are only two other alleys still in use, one in Hampstead and another in the East End.
The game is beautifully simple. Nine wooden pins are placed in a diamond formation on a frame and the aim is to knock them down in as few throws as possible. In days of yore, rather than using a ball to do this, players employed a heavy discus-shaped piece of tropical hardwood called a cheese. This was hurled full toss directly at the pins. ‘We’re using wooden balls, not a cheese,’ Buzz confirms. “Throwing a huge lump of wood down an alley just over 22 ft long would be too dangerous in this day and age. We’ve got to observe Health and Safety regulations!’
Skittles is usually played over five legs, with each player having one turn per leg. During each turn a player has three throws or balls to knock down as many skittles as possible. These must be bowled underarm and, ideally, should not bounce. A player’s score during each leg is equivalent to the number of pins knocked over; after all the legs have been completed the winning individual or team is the one that has demolished the most pins.
The official re-opening of the alley will be held later this month, with the first balls being thrown by ex-England Cricket captain Bob Willis and relatives of A.P. Herbert. Then, over the summer, the alley will be available for bookings for social and corporate evenings, with food and drinks laid on, and in the autumn Buzz intends to put some teams together and start a competitive league. ‘I want to be able to offer something that little bit different at The Black Lion, and coming down to play skittles should make for a really fun social evening.’
June 14, 2011