Pub games: skittles

Beneath London's bars, a small band of enthusiasts are throwing cheese. Time Out loosens a good arm for a crack at the skittles 'world championship'

  • Pub games: skittles

    Bowled over: the hidden skittles alley beneath the Freemasons Arms in Hampstead

  • Society is in freefall and we’re headed for the pit. We scream abuse at lollipop ladies, barge past pensioners to grab plywood bargains in furniture megastores and pull our hoods up when the sun shines because 50 Cent would approve. Tradition counts for little these days and yet, in the capital’s nooks and crannies, the old way of life can still be lived.

    Hampstead’s streets usually echo to the sound of Tesco lorries, Chelsea tractors and ecstatic songbirds fed on the costliest bread – crusts removed, no doubt – but every now and then, from beneath the floorboards, comes an almighty clatter as a disc of lignum vitae scatters chunks of hornbeam.

    At the foot of Downshire Lane, adjacent to Hampstead Heath, sits prize-winning gastropub the Freemasons Arms – one of only two venues left with a 21-foot London skittle alley. Nearing extinction, London skittles – played with nine pins – was once commonplace across the city.

    But it’s now only found in NW3 and at Powerleague Norbury (once known as the National Westminster Bank Sports Ground) in SW16. Today, on a warm, sunny Saturday – FA Cup Final weather – the Freemasons is hosting the London Skittles Championship, dubbed with tongue firmly in cheek ‘The World Championship’ (‘Sort of like the Americans do with baseball,’ says Freemasons chairman Peter Greene).

    ‘Our heyday was pre-WWI,’ Greene informs Time Out. ‘Downstairs, by the side of the alley, there’s a print of the 1674 Frost Fair on the Thames, and you can see men playing skittles on the frozen river, so it goes back a long way.’

    ‘There were two or three hundred London skittle alleys at the game’s height,’ adds club historian Guy Tunnicliffe. ‘I compiled a list, and I knew of 160 pubs that used to play the game – that’s since 1900. And here’s an indication of how popular skittles once was in the Freemasons – they played six nights a week! When I started in 1987 we’d meet three nights, which is now down to two.’

    In various forms, skittles is played across the world, but it’s believed London skittles is the original British strain. Evidence suggests Dutch seafarers brought this particular version to the Thames (way before the rules were formalised in the nineteenth century) and as betting was a side industry to the game, it naturally spread inland.

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