‘Beyond four pints is tricky’: the London skittles world championship, Time Out, 2006

‘Beyond four pints is tricky’: the London skittles world championship, Time Out, 2006


Beneath London’s bars, a small band of enthusiasts are throwing cheeses. Lee Gale loosens his one good arm for a crack at the London skittles ‘world championship’

[I wrote this while a stay-at-home dad, and I think this was the only thing I had published in the whole of 2006. I tried to write it in the daytime but it was impossible with all the screaming and nappy changes. So for two nights running, I got up at 2am and worked till 6am when the babies woke up. Babies – hard work. It’s funny – I now work fairly close to the pub where I entered the London skittles world championship. I went in with my colleagues for a Friday dinnertime pint and thought, ‘I recognise this place!’]

Time Out, 2006

Society is in freefall and we’re headed for the pit. We scream abuse at lollypop 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 had. Hampstead’s streets usually echo to the sound of Tesco lorries, Chelsea tractors and ecstatic songbirds fed on the dearest 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 gastro pub the Freemasons Arms. A favourite with wedding parties and high-rollers in the music industry, it’s one of only two venues left with a 21ft London skittle alley. Nearing extinction, London skittles – played with nine pins – was once commonplace across the city, but is now only found in NW3 and a pavilion 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 firm tongue in cheek ‘the world championship’ (‘Sort of like the Americans do with baseball,’ Freemasons chairman Peter Greene assesses). It’s a knockout competition open to anybody who turns up by 2pm.

‘Our heyday was pre-First World War,’ Greene informs. ‘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 200-300 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, and as betting was a side industry to the game, it naturally spread inland.

Unlike American ten-pin, 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 of the game is to knock down all nine pins in as few throws as possible. A dire score, and the lowest you can get, is five, while a ‘floorer’ – a rare occurrence – 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 alone, but it’s a feat not managed since 1960.

In the 2006 world championship, we hit an early problem. In sport, there can be few global tournaments where play is delayed due to a leaking dishwasher. What starts as a drip along the back wall turns into a pan-ceiling gush. ‘This has happened before,’ explains Greene, as wine buckets, bins and mops are located to contain the flow. James Parry-Jones points out that at certain times since the room was built in 1933, the River Fleet, which runs directly under the alley, has flooded the room too.

Fortunately, liquid and London skittles are easy bedfellows. Members’ favourite arm lubricants are Timothy Taylor Landlord and London Pride on tap upstairs. Landlord is a brew from Keighley, West Yorkshire, and may be the first instance of a northern bitter that travels well. ‘Two pints gets you in the zone, but there is a limit,’ Tunnicliffe warns. ‘If you go beyond four pints, the game becomes difficult.’

Even if my competitor in the Preliminary Round had drunk 400 pints, my passage to the quarter-finals would have been a miracle. Very much the Zaire of the tournament, 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 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 following the war. At 80, he was playing a match and he had a heart attack. He was winning when he died.’

The semi-final between tournament favourite Steve Hutchinson and Tunnicliffe proves to be a blinder. Through the afternoon, competitors had talked about the Zen of skittles, of reaching ‘the zone’, where mind and body meet and a player is at one with his game. It occurs in all pub sports. Although no floorers are thrown, this tie is played on the edge. For 20 minutes there is near silence and the temperature noticeably rises – even the drips from the dishwasher halt. Players’ eyes focus like eagles. Hands swing the cheese with determination, before trained muscles fire with business-like accuracy. ‘It would have made a good final,’ Greene whispers. Tunnicliffe edges out Hutchinson 3-2.

The belated final 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, unless there were more alleys built, 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 their 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.’



World champion Steve Barnes’s five tips to skittles supremacy

1/ Drink lots of beer. There’s a certain amount which relaxes you – it’s different for each person but there is a right amount. I only drunk four pints today because I’ve got a nasty cold, but four pints was enough to relax me for the final.

2/ Don’t throw the cheese too hard because it doesn’t work. Direction is the most important thing.

3/ Hit the front pin at the top right-hand corner. If you hit it correctly, you’ll get a floorer, but you need a nice smooth throw.

4/ Concentrate and relax at the same time. To play your best, you’ve got to be relaxed, but you have to concentrate as well. And that’s where you get your best results.

5/ Never give up. You can be in a position where you think, ‘Oh, things are going wrong,’ but if you’ve still got a chance, go for it. Some shots will seem impossible and ridiculous, and you think there’s never a hope of getting the shot at all, but never give up. Have a go for it.


London skittles

‘London skittles has been in decline since the last war. To save it, breweries have to look at skittles as an alternative to all the other things they put into their pubs. The problem in a lot of pubs is they’re always pressured for space, but there are a number of places ideally suited. The Dukes Head in Putney could easily put an alley back in, as could the Black Lion in Hammersmith, who’ve still got their room out the back. And the White Hart at Mortlake has an alley that’s been covered over, but it’s still there. The future of London skittles all depends on the will of brewers and pub owners.’ Guy Tunnicliffe, Freemasons London skittle club