At the Tudor Arms, Shepherd’s Patch, near Slimbridge, it was time for this evening’s fixture in the Stroud and District Skittles League Division A between the home team, the Patch Rats, and great rivals Chalford AFC. The game of skittles is slightly different in every town, but in the Stroud and district league it features 9 slightly bulbous pins and three balls (otherwise known as cheeses). It is the ancient and noble ancestor of the rather more glamorous sport of ten pin bowling that graces every decent out of town trading estate.
My friend Debra and I got a pint and settled down in the audience area, outside the alley but adjoining with just a glass panel behind the alley itself as physical division. There was a steady stream of players to and from the bar.
I focused on the action. Before releasing the cheese, each player briefly adopted a pose entirely of their own devising, like a catalogue of illegal moves that had been banned from Indian classical dancing on the twin grounds of taste and safety. Players would contort their bodies low to the ground, maybe with one leg stuck forward whilst cradling the cheese to their bodies, looking up at the skittles, composing themselves, rocking a couple of times, inhaling, snorting, then bursting forward and releasing the projectile at a running speed. A rugby player lining up for a conversion would be proud of such a contrived physical performance. From our position behind the panel, our perspective on this was an unending series of meaty arses reversing up to and gyrating against the glass.
For a seemingly simple game, there were a lot of rules and variations to learn. I started asking questions, about the scoring system, what was going on, who was winning, and got the same reply each time;
“Eh, do you not have skittles where you’re from? What do you play in pubs?”
The thought of a pub without an alley was a difficult one to comprehend. The passionate players play 5 or 6 times a week, and the Stroud and District League has 5 gents and 2 ladies divisions of 14 teams. Gloucester has so many teams it is split into 4 leagues of numerous divisions each. Skittles is life.
What did we play in pubs? I said sometimes darts and pool but mostly we got drinks and chatted to one another. This was met with confusion. Why would you do that when you could be playing skittles?
I asked if women played and was told they had their own leagues, desegregation having been resisted predominantly by women who preferred ladies only nights. I could see their point.
Eventually when they were satisfied that we genuinely didn’t play much in the way of skittles up in Manchester, and therefore of our consequent inherent inferiority, the players relaxed to my presence and began to open up about what was actually going on. The match consisted of two halves. Each team put five players forward for each half, at the end of which the cumulative score determined the winner. Each half was worth 2 points in the league, and if you won both halves, you gained an extra 2 points bonus. There were 8 legs in a half, where each team would play all 5 of their nominated players in turn. Each player got three shots at the skittles per leg. Rarely were they all cleared. The skittles are small, well spaced, and the cheeses light. Knocking them all over in one is known as a ‘Flattener’ and a rare event. To get three flatteners in your go is so rare that Wikipedia states it was most recently achieved in 1960. They’re probably still buying the round that followed. This is a tough game full of disappointment and with little in the way of reward or gratification. No wonder the bar was doing a roaring trade.
Slowly I started to make sense of the scoreboard. As half time approached, it was clear that the Patch Rats were losing and would need a strong second half to take anything out of the evening. Debra, who’d worked in another pub up the road with a strong Skittles team asked if “It was chips and rolls for the interval?”
The players were scandalised.
“Oh no, not here. We’re traditionalists round here. Ham, cheese, and bread it’ll be.”
I chatted further during half time. One player was a farmer who claimed 12 generations farming in the village, and sadly told me that his wife had put a stop to it, moving them to Sharpness, 4 miles away.
“I’ve still kept a bit of land though, on the quiet, with 60 head of cattle and 30 sheep. Might build a shed, just so I’ve got my roots down.”
He told me the move had come after a child they’d fostered had burnt their house down.
“I don’t think we’ll be taking on another.”
The second half began, with the Patch Rats needing a win to avoid the whitewash. The landlord took the last turn in the leg, and with a glorious flourish, managed to miss the whole lot three times in a row, a performance that was met with jeering and taunting and the sarcastic ringing of the alley bell that would normally be reserved for a ‘Flattener’. Wearing an American football shirt and a 70s porn star moustache, he visibly shrank in stature and slunk back behind the bar in shame. I wondered uncharitably if perhaps the captain felt unable to demote their landlord to the B team.
Skittles has games within games. Certain combinations of scores prompt a mass outbreak of betting amongst the team known as fines. 8 down means all players flip 2ps and the active player calls heads or tails to win them, 9 down is 4p, and a spare (all 9 down in two goes) is 10p. Each player must arm themselves with clunking pockets full of shrapnel before setting out and every team has their own ancient and slightly different combinations.
At the far end of the alley, a lone youth jumped and scrambled to replace skittles all night. Known as a ‘Sticker’ he was on £20 pocket money for the work, and was without doubt the most bored looking person I have ever seen in my life.
The evening continued. Skittles is played at a relentless pace. Despite a brave comeback, the Patch Rats couldn’t make up for a poor first few legs and conceded the whitewash to Chalford AFC. Glasses were downed, hips were hoorayed, and the final scores written on the board and in the official scorers books. Patch Rats dropped to 5th in the division.
“Too good for us tonight.” was the verdict of the non-playing captain, a gentleman approaching his 80th year as he stood next to me in the gents after play. I never quite know what to say to strangers who chat in the gents, that most public of private places, so I recalled and delivered the line given to me by an ancient fellow called Reg in the gents at the Swan in the Rushes, Loughborough when I was a student.
“In here,” I said, “We can old hold our own.”
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