Ten pounds of ‘cheese’ and some skittles
| from left: Steve Hutchinson, Peter Greene, Paul Robinson, Tom Lederer, Mark Fawke, James Parry-Jones in the Freemasons’ skittles alley
In the basement of a Hampstead gastropub, an archaic and historic game still thrives
FEW pub-goers can claim a place in the history books, but in the unassuming basement of a Hampstead gastropub, the players of an ancient sport are making history every Tuesday night.
The Hampstead Lawn Billiard and Skittle Club, situated in the Freemasons Arms pub in Downshire Hill, is the last remaining group in England to regularly play London Skittles, a game dating back more than 500 years.
Now, with membership numbers dwindling and costly repairs required in the wake of the summer floods, the pub game once enjoyed by Charles Dickens is facing extinction.
Peter Greene, the chairman of the club, said: “A lot of our members have died – which is a problem, and two world wars and the telly have taken their toll. You’re witnessing history in the dying.”
Members come from as far as Acton, Heathrow and Alexandra Palace to throw a 10lb (4.5 kg) “cheese” made of super-dense lignum vitae wood at a diamond of nine hornbeam pins.
It is generally believed Dutch seafarers brought this version to England around the time of Charles II.
Many of the cheeses used at the club are more than a century old and the rules and terminology of the game are similarly archaic.
If you knock over all the pins it is a “floorer”; if you miss all the skittles but get the cheese as far as the board or “apron”, you are treated to a resounding cry of “bollocks” from all assembled.
Players set a score which is “replied” to by their opponent, and at the end of the match everyone, including the two “stickers” who referee, must be thanked.
The pins left standing after a throw are the “leaves”, each with its own name – the novice, the rook, the long two, fork’s three, the fender, the waterloo, the limpus five and the dreaded “big bog”.
Mr Greene said: “It’s a great game. I suppose we want to keep it going because it’s traditional, but there’s something about it that gets you hooked. It’s more challenging than ten pin bowling.”
The Freemasons’ 21ft alley was added by the skittles enthusiast landlord Bernard Levy when the pub was rebuilt in the 1930s and the marriage of beer and skittles continues to this day.
“There’s divided opinion over whether drinking makes you better,” explained club champion Steve Hutchinson. “A couple of pints can get you in the zone, but you can lose it if you keep drinking.”
The combination has proved successful with office parties and stag nights, which the group is happy to accommodate, but what they really want is more members.
Their newest member joined 10 years ago and the only competition they face is the part-time players of the Norbury Skittles club, who they play once a year for the St Dunstan’s Shield in the London Championships.
“We call it the world championships just for the hell of it, but they [Norbury] haven’t beaten us in as long as I can remember,” said Mr Greene.
He added: “I feel like a custodian now. We like playing but unless we find new members to play it after us, it will probably die.”
This Saturday a London Skittles Open Day in the Freemasons Arms will demonstrate the charms of the game to newcomers from 2-10pm. There are lighter cheeses for girls and experts on hand to advise.
And with the last-known skittles-related fatality in the 17th century, it’s a safe bet too.
n For more information go to www.londonskittles.co.uk