Pub games: skittles

  • Unlike American tenpin, London skittles uses a thrown ‘cheese’, not a rolled ball. A cheese, weighing 10lb (4.5kg), is made of a very hard, self-lubricating ironwood from the tropics called lignum vitae; while skittles are shaped from hornbeam, also a hardwood, and related to beech. A set lasts a lifetime. The aim is to knock down all nine pins in as few throws as possible. The worst score is five (which you automatically get for knocking down five or fewer skittles).

    A rare ‘floorer’ is the pinnacle, where all pins are downed with one throw. Three floorers on the trot will earn you a place in London skittles history. Seventeen were recorded in 1934, but it’s a feat not managed since 1960.

    Back at the 2006 World Championship, we hit an early problem. There can be few global tournaments where play is delayed by a leaking dishwasher. ‘This has happened before,’ explains Greene, as wine buckets, bins and mops are located to contain the flow. James Parry-Jones points out that since the room was built in 1933, the River Fleet, which runs directly under the alley, has sometimes flooded in too.

    Fortunately, liquid and London skittles are easy bedfellows. Members’ favourite arm lubricants Timothy Taylor Landlord and Fuller’s London Pride are on tap upstairs. ‘Two pints gets you in the zone but,’ Tunnicliffe warns, ‘if you go beyond four pints, the game becomes difficult.’

    Even if my competitor in the Preliminary Round had drunk 400 pints, passage to the quarter-finals would have been a miracle. I receive a 13-3 ass-whoopin’ at the hands of Parry-Jones, although I manage a par three with my final fling and receive light applause.

    Out in the garden among the hooraying Hampstead set, Greene, Tunnicliffe and my tormentor Parry-Jones join me to drown my skittles sorrows and wax lyrical about the greats of skittledom. ‘The old-timers were incredible,’ enthuses Tunnicliffe, ‘but they practised every night. Before the war there were three different divisions in London alone. Frank G de B Hart was a fantastic player. He won the London Championship three times in a row. Mr Hart died two years ago, aged 90. He was a master. Then there was a guy called Ivor Waters who played for National Westminster Bank in Norbury. He was a wiry Welshman, and he died in the alley. He was the greatest player the bank had. He won their championship year after year. At 80, he was playing a match and he had a heart attack. He was winning when he died.’

    The final game is blurred by a sixth pint, but reigning champion Steve Barnes keeps ownership of the silverware in convincing style (5-2). Tunnicliffe takes his defeat lightly, but maybe he’s just happy to be with old friends. ‘I was worried London skittles was going to die when I started,’ he recalls. ‘I came down here three times a week and there’d just be me and an old guy called Cliff Smith. From that, we generated and generated. If you had thousands of people interested, it would be too much, but we could have any number of members helping out here if we played every night.

    ‘People are always looking for new pastimes and brewers like Young’s could cater for that by installing alleys in its pubs. I know London skittles is an old thing, but it’s an old thing that could be reintroduced. I’m sure it could be done.’

    Freemasons Arms, 32 Downshire Hill, NW3 (020 7433 6811). For more information visit

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