Playing with time: lost pub games of East Anglia

The Three Horseshoes pub at Warham has a rare example of an old pub game called twister or Norfolk W

The Three Horseshoes pub at Warham has a rare example of an old pub game called twister or Norfolk Wheel in the main bar. Pictured is Sam Colwill. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

From Norfolk Wheel to Suffolk Caves, Trevor Heaton begins a two-part look at the lost pub games of East Anglia.

The Ladies darts team at the George and Dragon at Farnham, near Saxmundham, pictured in March 1983.

The Ladies darts team at the George and Dragon at Farnham, near Saxmundham, pictured in March 1983. At the back is a familiar standard 'London' board, but in the foreground is a Suffolk Five board, a pattern with larger sections with numbers in multiples of five. - Credit: Archant

They used to be as much a part of the life of a pub as brown ale and the fug of Craven A.

But in these days of gastropubs and ever-present pub closures, traditional games seem very much an endangered breed.

A Norfolk Twister at the Alby Horseshoes Inn.

A Norfolk Twister at the Alby Horseshoes Inn. - Credit: Archant © 2009

I'm not talking about the usual trio of 'darts, doms and crib' here – although they are not widespread as they were - but local favourites, games with a genuine dew diff'rent East Anglian flavour. From loggats to phat, caves to Norfolk twister, we have had a long list of pastimes that we have very much made our own.

These games are not 'big history'. They are the sort of thing that can slip under the radar and fade away, unrecorded and unreported. But they are part of East Anglia's social history, so I say: let's celebrate them.

Last outpost: Players in one of the recent Monday night phat drives at The Wherry Inn, Geldeston, ne

Last outpost: Players in one of the recent Monday night phat drives at The Wherry Inn, Geldeston, near Beccles - the last stronghold of a card game which was once widespread across the east of Norfolk and Suffolk. - Credit: Archant

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Or just help keep them going, perhaps. Because although I will be talking in the past tense for many of these games, there are plenty of highways-and-byways of our glorious region where some of the following may still be played and enjoyed. I certainly hope so.

Having said all that, it might seem strange to begin with darts, the most famous pub game of all, still popular and a big 'draw' on television too.

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So where on earth does the 'lost' part come in? It's because the familiar dartboard is, in fact, only one of many different patterns that existed around the country. The dartboard we see everywhere is known as the 'London' pattern, which received a boost in the inter-war years by being backed by the Licensed Victuallers' Association and also through the popularity of the News of the World championships.

But there have been several other patterns, including the Manchester, the Yorkshire (used in the first, regional-only, television series of 1970s pub games series The Indoor League), the Kent, the Lincoln, the Grimsby and the Irish.

One local pattern is the Fives Board, where the sections are wider and the numbers are multiples of five. The game of 'Suffolk Fives' involves three arrows per turn – your match score for the turn is divisible by five. So if you score 60, then you get 12 match points. 'Game' is finishing exactly on 121 match points.

Norfolk used to have its own pattern too, known as the 'Target Board' consisting of four concentric circles. Pub games historian Arthur Taylor was told in 1974 of examples – all made from elm - being used in rural pubs up to the mid-1940s. He believed this pattern might be one of the oldest of all.

I doubt if there are any pubs which still have a Target Board – but there is at least one which still has a 'twister'. Nothing to do with the American party game invented in the 1960s, this twist – or 'Norfolk wheel' – is a very different matter. For a start, it's played on the ceiling, and not the floor.

The historic Three Horseshoes Inn at Warham, near Wells, has one of the last few examples of this game, dating back to the 1830s. The game – it's the one pictured on our cover this week – is described in a 1948 book on pub games as a 'simple form of village roulette'.

The wheel varied from a foot to 18in wide, with alternately-coloured numbered segments.

The twister wheel could be used for a simple 'who buys the next drink?' betting game or played for its own sake, 100-up. The game is deliberately placed in the ceiling so that everyone in the room can see there's 'nuffin rum' going on with the spinner.

Pubs and car games have been synonymous for centuries, and the doyen of them was and is cribbage, probably invented in the 1630s by the poet Sir John Suckling, who was the son of a Norwich MP. That historic link was marked last weekend in the city by the first-ever International Cribbage Day.

A great appeal of the game – apart from its delightfully quirky terminology ('two for his heels', 'one for his nob', 'muggins') – is the use of the cribbage boards which are still a feature of many pubs. These boards, of course, give us that proverbial saying 'level pegging'. One of the real strongholds for the game locally is Thetford, with a league and knock-out competitions.

But around Norwich pubs the standard cribbage board had a much larger 'rival', a board that was a yard long by six inches wide.

This was not designed for 'crib' but for the game of phat, a four-handed partners game with something of the trick-taking flavour of whist. Arthur Taylor, writing in 1974, noted it was played on a 'highly organised league basis' round the city.

But more than 40 years on the picture is very different. These days, just one pub in Norfolk still features the game on a regular basis. That is The Wherry Arms at Geldeston, near Beccles, where phat has been played for about 70 years.

Brian Kinnair, one of the 16 regulars who still meet up every Monday evening, said the game was once commonplace across Norfolk and into Suffolk. 'It was played in a lot of village pubs, and I remember my uncle who worked on the railways years ago saying how they would play a game in their dinner break.'

So what is its appeal? 'It's a very sociable game. It's not too easy, or overly-complicated,' he said. 'Like a lot of card games, you have to remember what cards have been played – but there's also the chance for a bit of banter too. It's a good social evening.'

Like crib, the game has its own quirky terminology – the ten of trumps is known as 'Big Phat', the five as 'Little Phat' – although these days scores are kept on paper and not the traditional phat board.

Numbers taking part are gradually declining – 'we used to get double that' – but the Wherry phat fans are keen to keep the tradition going as long as they can. And it makes for a great talking point for the many holidaymakers who pop into the Broads pub every summer. 'They're really intrigued by the game,' Brian added.

Around Great Yarmouth a different game still holds sway. Euchre is another very sociable whist-style trick-taking game. But, as with phat, the game is struggling to survive in a world with so many other leisure-time distractions.

Back in 2016 Bob Boggis, a player of euchre for just over 50 years and chairman of the DP Leisure Great Yarmouth Euchre league, told us: 'Pub culture has changed, and a lot of local pubs have changed. When I started going as a teenager they were family pubs, with a wide range of people: some quite elderly people, and middle-aged people, and then younger folk.'

Mr Boggis, of Gorleston, learned to play euchre from older punters at the pub he used to go to in his early 20s. Back then you had to have a minimum of six players to a team, playing on three tables, and there were two Yarmouth leagues.

Next time: caves, quoits, shove ha'penny and more…

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