Floorers And Bollocks: The (Almost) Lost World Of Pub Skittles

By Londonist Last edited 100 months ago
Floorers And Bollocks: The (Almost) Lost World Of Pub Skittles
In the basement of the Freemasons Arms.
In the basement of the Freemasons Arms.
Seven pins down.
Seven pins down.
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Nine pins up.
Nine pins up.

As the heavy wooden disk loops through the air and crashes into the pins, flattening most of them, the cry goes up: "Good cheese!". Both crash and cry echo around a small room, under the Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead. This is London's last functioning skittles alley.

The game thrived in the 1930s, when hundreds of alleys could be found in Edwardian London; but tonight just six players represent the core of the capital's only active team.

"It's one of those things that has almost died out, but no-one's even noticed, have they," says Paul Robinson, a software developer. Not that he's downcast: in the three decades he's been playing, "it's always seemed like it's dying out." And yet it hasn't, not quite.

The hard core who keep it going play by lobbing a wooden disk, the size of a dinner plate but much heavier and known as a cheese (hence the cry), onto a rough diamond (wooden, again) bearing nine pins made, predictably enough, from wood.

Skittles is like ten pin bowling, but more intricate, more immersed in ritual - more English. Names abound for the arrangements of pins left standing: a novice, a double novice, etc. Clearing all nine in one go is a floorer; missing them entirely prompts a shout of "bollocks".

It is trickier than ten pin, too, which helps explain both its appeal to the hard core and its diminishing public profile. Paul, a self-professed "skittles tart" (he used to play elsewhere, in the days when there was an elsewhere), confesses: "I've been playing for 30 years, and I still haven't mastered it." But, he adds: "If you get hooked, you get hooked, really."

To this we can testify. Our initial game results in only a narrow defeat. "You've got a good natural shape to the cheese," says Steve, a pub owner, "which is unusual." The second is heading for defeat as some good throws by our opponent Ian, a Post Office worker, leave us needing to clear three pins just to tie. We lob the cheese, the pins clear, the floor is bare. The feeling of exultation is almost ridiculous.

After that, it is time to go. The 'stickers' collecting the pins are ritually thanked, the cheeses are put away, and the room is left to the memories of lost glory - shields, silver trophies and old photos - that hang along the walls. But the room remains alive: the Skittles World Championships (named with tongue firmly in cheek) are held there on Saturday 24 April, and are open to all. You can find out more about participating here.

The Freemasons Arms, Hampstead, 32 Downshire Hill, NW3 1NT

By Max Rashbrooke

Last Updated 14 April 2010