FEATURE: Road to recovery after game-changing events

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

King Garold rules: Gary ‘Garold’ Murdoch made a Toad in the Hole table for the Free Haus, Brighton
King Garold rules: Gary ‘Garold’ Murdoch made a Toad in the Hole table for the Free Haus, Brighton

Related tags Sport Pub games Skittles Toad in the Hole

Something strange is happening in Brighton. Strange, even for Brighton.

As the city by the sea emerged from the pandemic, curious small tables covered in lead began appearing in pub corners, quickly surrounded by customers uttering shrieks of delight as they flung brass discs at an aperture in the centre.

It was, as Sussex drinkers like to tell baffled visitors, toad in the hole, not the sausage in batter dish but an ancient game of mysterious origins played only in these parts, now snappily rebranded as simply ‘toads’, enjoying an astonishing boom.

While pubs in Lewes have for decades solidly kept the game alive with their own league, in Brighton the past few years have seen some 30 new tables spring up. The city already has its own league with 16 teams across two divisions and it continues to grow.

Without too much exaggeration, it’s all down to one man. Gary Murdoch, known to everyone as Garold, is a regular around the better beer pubs of Brighton and does maintenance work for a children’s nursery as well as local brewer Brighton Bier.

The lead bows out over time as the dents from the toads expand the surface, so no table plays the same.

Good with his hands, just before the pandemic he was asked by Dan Smith, then manager of the Free Haus (now at The Drop), whether he could knock up a toads table for his new downstairs games bar, like the one at the Hand in Hand, the only table in Brighton at that time.

Garold certainly could, and the Free Haus became home to a new team calling themselves the Modern Tossers, after the cartoon. Word got around and soon the orders were flying in like toads, the brass discs, rhythmically hitting lead. “It really took off after lockdown when people could stand up in pubs again,” he says. “It costs nothing and it’s simple to play – but difficult to master. It’s deceptively easy.

“And it seems to go with drinking beer. All my tables are in good pubs with good beer, independents, and there’s always a buzz around the tables. It can be a joyous game.”

To add interest, every table Garold makes is different, each made from upcycled furniture and scrap lead, varying from ornate Victorian designs to minimalist industrial chic, to suit the venue. “I even make the angles differently, and the lead bows out over time as the dents from the toads expand the surface, so no table plays the same.”

Toad Gary Murdoch with rules
The first rule of Toads is...

He makes the brass toads himself, too, and expects it to keep him busy as more pubs join. “We could have three divisions in Brighton next season and there are new tables in Worthing, Eastbourne, Chichester and Bognor. The furthest they’ve gone is the Elder Beer café in Newcastle and the Verdant Brewery taproom in Cornwall.”

But the fortunes of many traditional, regional pub games are more mixed. For many teams and enthusiasts, Covid was the final nail in the coffin of a pastime that had been ailing for a long time.

James Masters is better placed than most to have an overview of the state of play. He’s the founder of Masters Traditional Games, a warehouse of games just across the road from the Campaign for Real Ale headquarters in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Flipping through his sales data he can see the ups and downs in demand for equipment across an extremely fragmented market in which games can vary in how they’re played not only from region to region but from town to town. It’s mostly downs.

“Western long alley skittles in particular was badly hit by Covid,” he says. “Some leagues shut down – though in the past month a couple seem to have rekindled.”

Bar skittles, also known as devil among the tailors, is also down, but Northamptonshire, or ‘hood’ skittles is up, along with indoor pub quoits, played in the Welsh borders. But Masters fears for the future of the dangerous-sounding steel quoits, played around Wales and, on a slightly shorter pitch, in North Yorkshire.

Shove ha’penny, with strongholds in south Wales, Bristol and the New Forest, is in decline, while the older version of the game, push penny, still played in Kent and Lincolnshire, is “very threatened”.

People have pre-conceived ideas about it being old men throwing balls, they don’t realise how lively and vibrant it can be.

Bat & Trap is down but, thanks in part to the interest of brewer Shepherd Neame, could be making a comeback in its home county of Kent.

Aunt Sally is holding its own in Oxfordshire, and there are still around 700 bar billiards tables in play from the Channel Islands all the way up to Orkney – we know this because there’s a map, frequently updated, on the British Bar Billiards website.

James Masters’ interest in traditional games extends beyond sales, as you can tell by the personal toads table squeezed into his cramped office. He also maintains a comprehensive and detailed online guide and he is curating the beginnings of a national museum above the warehouse, hoping one day to open it to the public, including schools, so children can learn about what he describes as a “valuable intellectual heritage”.

Yet, it would surely be a tragedy if these games to end up as mere museum exhibits. They should be bringing life, and custom, to pubs. And the resurgence of toads is one sign of hope.

Long Alley Skittles

While in recent decades many pub owners have made a commercial decision to convert alleys into restaurants and function rooms, western skittles has survived in various forms across a large swathe of England, and until Covid the annual British Championships attracted up to 1,000 contestants and their fans.

Lacking a recognised governing body, from 2004 the tournament was organised by Serious About Events, which continues to run successful skittles weekends at venues around the West Country.

skittles crowd
Skittles players

“There’s been a natural decline in the game and we’ve seen diminished numbers of divisions,” says Rachel Hosking who founded the business with her father Brian Pengelly in 1994. “Getting youngsters involved is proving harder. Traditionally they’ve started as ‘stickers’, or ‘sticker-uppers’, putting the pins back, then they want to play themselves when they grow up.

“But we do get lots of younger people on our weekend events. People have pre-conceived ideas about it being old men throwing balls, they don’t realise how lively and vibrant it can be, the passion that’s involved.

“Skittles is sexier than darts, it could knock it off the telly. It’s very inclusive, all abilities. The atmosphere is electric.

“It’s very much a community-based sport and that helps pubs. Perhaps it’s too localised, though. There’s no game as diverse. The only things that unite skittles are nine pins and something to throw at them.”

The need for more dining tables has been a problem “but lots of pubs are using their initiative and trying to create multifunctional spaces – pull back the carpet and there’s a skittle alley.

“We’d love to get the championships going again, but we need a sponsor,” she adds. “There are thousands of players, still, so it could be a good collaboration for a brand.”

Balls wearing out is a problem for us.

Around John Penny’s Dorset home, the skittles has returned to pre-Covid health with five divisions of 13 teams in the Yeovil & District League. His own team, the Merkins, are based at the Rose & Crown in Bradford Abbas, scene of Eldridge Pope Brewery’s famous ‘Lads of the Village’ ad campaign – which included the earliest known film footage of skittles being played in 1936.

Penny hosts the Pub Games Facebook group which aims to keep track of the more arcane sports under threat.

“The more we promote games, the more we promote pubs,” he says. “I have no doubt they’re good for business, even if players have only a couple of pints each, and they continue after 9.30pm when the diners have gone.

“When the pandemic closed pubs, skittlers never went away. Some older teams are struggling for players but there are new teams – one with players in their mid-30s swept the board here last season.

“Yes, the game has contracted but it has always waxed and waned.”

A different code of long alley skittles is played in the East Midlands. The Derbyshire town of Belper is a hub for the game, and Dan Newton, the young-ish landlord of the George & Dragon, helps run the local league.

“There were three divisions with 12 teams each before Covid,” he says. “Then we lost all the Ashbourne teams and now there are just two divisions with eight teams in each.

Dan Newton, George & Dragon, Belper
Dan Newton at the George & Dragon, Belper

“People’s habits have changed so we’re starting games earlier in the evening. With 10 in a team plus their supporters, a skittles night can add 30% to our trade. It varies, though. Our A team is deadly serious while the B team treat it as more of a social occasion – they must drink 10 times as much!

“Balls wearing out is a problem for us. They are traditionally made from applewood around here and a local tree surgeon has made a couple for us, but it’s a nightmare.”

Northamptonshire Skittles

Skittles in Northamptonshire is a different animal, the nine pins set on a table indoors. It seems to be growing, perhaps, like toads, benefiting from a relatively small footprint, with customers guarded from flying pins by a netting cowl that gives it the name ‘hood skittles’.

It’s been played at the Eykyn Arms at Gayton since 1963, lessee Karen McArthur believes, and right now it’s growing in popularity.

“We have two teams here that bring in a good crowd including spectators,” she says. “And the number of teams in the local league is going up from 14 to 16 next season.”

Her main worry is an old table badly in need of repair. In common with other games, worn-out equipment is increasingly hard to replace.

“The last turner of Northants pins is in his eighties and nobody makes the tables any more,” explains James Masters. “It’s such a good game, though, and when any equipment comes on the market, we try to put buyers and sellers together.”

James Masters hood skittles at museum
James Masters with the hood skittles

Anthony Hughes of Lincoln Green Brewing managed to get hold of a table for the company’s Station Hotel in Hucknall – perhaps the only Northants table to be found in Nottinghamshire.

“The story behind it is one of my not really knowing skittles is so geographical,” he admits. “As a child, I lived in Great Addington in Northamptonshire and my parents would take my brother and I into the Hare & Hounds in the village. It had a skittles table – we loved it, and I wrongly assumed it was the standard for table skittles.

We are starting to see new pubs take [Bat & Trap] up again.

“Opening the Station, I wanted something suitably traditional for the new games room. A friend of a friend collects traditional games and had the table for sale – they really are incredibly hard to find – and I got it, only for Nottinghamshire folk to scratch their heads not knowing what to make of it.

“It does get played, though. It’s a favourite for kids visiting the pub, which feels kind of right considering how I enjoyed it with my brother all those years ago.”

Bat & Trap

Bat & Trap suddenly popped into the news this spring when brewer Shepherd Neame unveiled a blue plaque at Ye Old Berverlie in Canterbury to commemorate the revival of the old game at the pub a century ago.

Its origins go back to the 14th century when it involved clobbering a ball sprung from a ‘trap’ on the ground as far as you could. In the tamer, beer garden-friendly version, devised at the Beverlie to entertain soldiers returning from World War I, you only have to hit it between two posts. The Canterbury Bat & Trap League laid down rules and the game spread to pubs all over Kent.

Need more details?

For more information on traditional pub games, see James Masters’ www.tradgames.org.uk​ and Mark Shirley’s Shove It, Chuck It, Toss It​ blog at https://pub-games.blogspot.com​.

Now the League is working with Shepherd Neame to reinvigorate Bat & Trap in the wake of the pandemic, during which the number of teams in the county fell from 96 to 30.

“Most pubs around here are reliant on food now and are using the pitch for extra tables, so standards have dropped,” reports league spokesman Jake Janes. “But we are starting to see new pubs take it up again. It’s a great game any age can play, male or female.”

Ye Olde Beverlie's General Manager Scott Senior
Scott Senior of Ye Olde Beverlie

Scott Senior, general manager at Ye Olde Beverlie, pledged that Bat & Trap will continue at the pub “for years to come”.

“It’s definitely good for business. We have two teams bringing in players and supporters every week and can take an extra £100 or more in a night. We’ll be adding another team this year and we’ve had a lot of enquiries about hiring the pitch for evening events, leavings dos and birthdays.”

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