Sidmouth group’s love of skittles can’t be knocked down

Four of the five skittles players who continue to meet in the Balfour - even without its alley. Pict

Four of the five skittles players who continue to meet in the Balfour - even without its alley. Pictured left to right are Ken Mack, Mike Wood, Tom Cosgrove and Bill Gorman - Credit: Archant

Punch Taverns’ takeover of the Balfour turned the focus onto food, but Ken Mack, Mike Wood, Bill Gorman, Tom Cosgrove and Derek Truesdale reckon there is still money to be made from their beloved sport, even though it is under threat.

Skittles generic picture

Skittles generic picture - Credit: Archant

Londoner Tom was unaware of the game when he arrived a decade ago, but the others, all Sidmothians, have racked up more than a century of knocking down pins between them.

When Ken started playing in 1964 there were dozens of teams playing in nine alleys around the valley; now they have been condensed to the alleys left at the Rising Sun, the Red Lion and at Sidmouth AFC.

The group’s team, Nuts and Bolts, plays at the latter.

Tom, who travelled the world with the Royal Navy, said: “Even in my 10 years here, places around Sidmouth have stopped doing skittles. The refurbishment of the Balfour was good but all that matters is a pub serves a good pint of beer.

Skittles generic picture

Skittles generic picture - Credit: Archant

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“You’ve got to speculate to accumulate. They say you get more money from food, but I disagree with that – if you’ve got two teams of eight players who get through three or four pints each, that’s money.

“It’s a question of reinventing the sport. It needs more publicity.”

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He said there was a lot of ‘one-way traffic’ from regulars paying to drink in pubs, but the establishments could incentivise playing skittles with cash prizes.

Asked what attracted him to skittles, Tom said: “I like the comradeship. They call a spade a spade. If you’re fair to them, they’re fair to you.”

skittles generic picture

skittles generic picture - Credit: Archant

The quintet know that times are changing but still lament the lack of young blood coming in to keep the game alive.

Retired plumber Mike said: “A lot of youngsters aren’t coming into skittles so the alleys are disappearing, and pubs are shutting as well. Youngsters only want to play on their computers – you can’t make them come in.”

The Balfour, the town’s only purpose-built pub, was once owned by Vallance’s Sidmouth Brewery, which closed in the 1970s. Bill, a dustman for 40 years, said much had changed in the area since it was built, particularly the number of houses on where was once green fields.

The 86-year-old added: “Youngsters have got no interest in the game. They’ve got so much else. People are just sitting and watching the telly. It’s sad, but we can’t do anything about it. Three of us are widowers. We stay together to have a natter. We talk about everybody and everything.”

A recent set of results in the Woodbury skittles league

A recent set of results in the Woodbury skittles league - Credit: Archant

Ken, who started playing for one of the two teams fielded by Fords and Sons alone, added: “We were very disappointed when we heard the skittle alley was going. Until then, there were more of us.

“It’s still here but they’d have to move the tables and chairs. They think there’s more money in food.

“We used to have five leagues with 15 teams in each league, and two women’s leagues. Now there are three leagues and one women’s league. We’re lucky – we have people of all ages playing in our team but there aren’t many other youngsters.”

The earliest forms of skittles date back 5,000 years to ancient Egypt and countless varieties are commonly played in the UK, Europe and the United States.

As such, it does not even have standard rules across East Devon – some play with nine pins, others 10, and bowl a ball made of wood, cork or rubber. Ken even remembers one alley that was made of clay and had to be hammered down before each game for a flat surface.

Joan Baker – described as ‘a mine of skittles information’ by Herald sports editor Steve Birley – believes the sport came to the South West from London as a way for farmers to pass the dark winter months. She said that chance to socialise is what continued to draw people to the alleys.

Graham Ruck ‘fell into’ skittles 30 years after being part of the ritual of standing the pins up for other players. Now he captains the Sidbury Lions, who moved to the Red Lion after the nearby Village Inn closed. They are one of 70 teams playing in the Colyton league.

He said: “Skittles is still going strong in Sidbury. It’s thriving – alleys are being closed all over the place but people are going to what’s available. The alleys that are left are really good.

“When you lose an alley, you lose the two teams that are based there. When Beer Social Hall closed last year it caused havoc – it had seven teams. People don’t want to stop playing but sometimes they have to because there’s no alleys. Pubs keep replacing them with dining rooms, but they forget about the winter months.”

Despite the threat to his hobby, he remains upbeat, saying: “I think the sport will struggle on, because people are that passionate. Everybody loves it.

“Friday night is skittles night.” n

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