Chucking down the big cheese

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The Independent Online
One of the world's oldest games - and certainly the only one played with a cheese - is teetering on the brink of extinction. In its heyday, London skittles (sometimes called Old English skittles) was the most popular of all pub games in London and the Home Counties. Now there are just two playable alleys. "We are like the last mating pair of dodos," says Guy Tunnicliffe, secretary of the Hampstead Lawn Billiard and Skittle Club.

Skittles it may be, but the London variety is no gentle trundle of a ball at nine helpless pins. From 21 feet, a skittler hurls the cheese, a 10lb block of lignum vitae shaped like a run-over Edam, underarm at the hornbeam pins. It smashes down with all the subtlety of an albatross landing in a bone china convention: crash, bang, wallop. If this game were an actor, it would be Oliver Reed.

But that's a bit misleading. Old English skittles is certainly noisy and energetic, but it wouldn't have survived for millennia without a high element of skill. A P Herbert was an enthusiast. In a 1947 edition of Punch, he wrote: "Forget about the Cup Final, the Ashes and the Guineas: the major sporting event this month is the London skittles championship between F G de B Hart and Lambert."

One of today's top players, Steve Hutchinson, says: "I like to think of it as a game of style and elegance." For a start, it's possible for the cheese to land among the pins and miss the lot. The 14in-high pins are so far apart that a "floorer", where all nine are cleared in a single bombing raid, gets mentioned in dispatches. Even getting eight pins is warmly applauded and the very best players will sometimes take four "strokes" to clear the frame. "This game is so much more skilful than tenpin, where the strikes become monotonous," Tunnicliffe says.

He is living proof that you don't have to be built like the Fridge to play. Tunnicliffe is, frankly, weedy, but he is the reigning London champion, which by default pretty well makes him world champ. Aged 49, he has lived in Hampstead for 25 years but only discovered eight years ago that his local, the Freemasons Arms, had a skittle alley in its basement.

London skittles - one of five pub games on which you can legally gamble - became his passion. He is taking an Open University degree to teach himself research methods, just so he can discover more about the game. Here are some of the facts he has uncovered.

"It's a very old game. It's mentioned by Herodotus and may even have been played by the pharaohs. I found a reference to the Lydians in south- west Turkey playing in the 10th century BC. It probably came from the Dutch game of four corners, which is similar. Bargees coming up the Thames may have brought it over. I've got a print of it being played in Jacobean times. Some games had coloured pins depicting couriers and each one had a value. In 1770, someone commented that playing without coloured pins had made the game far less skilful.

"The Amateur Skittles Association was formed in 1900 to formalise the rules. At the time, there were about 60 clubs which means there were at least 500 players, and probably many more. Our club is now the only public alley, though National Westminster has its own at Norbury, south London."

Another survives at Putney, though the landlord has banned skittles. The only other alley, at Balham, south London, was recently demolished by Young's Brewery to make space for a children's room.

But in Hampstead at least, the game clings on. Tunnicliffe has optimistically just started publishing a newsletter, and the club has secured a large lump of lignum vitae, which will be sliced to replenish its stock of battered cheeses. Meanwhile, tomorrow evening sees the sport's major event: the London Championships, or the world championships for those who take a more global view. This open knockout tournament, with skittlers competing in head-to-head matches, gives the chance to see Tunnicliffe and others attempt some of the sport's trickiest shots. Every formation of standing pins has a name, from Crystal Palace, Cocked Hat, Gates of Hell and Waterloo to the tricky Elephant's Arsehole.

The winner will collect the magnificent Dewar Challenge Shield, dating back to 1901 and bearing the motto Nemo me impune lacessit (no one attacks me with impunity). It's an understandable sentiment for a sport that involves flinging 10lb lumps of one of the world's hardest woods.

The London Skittles Championship takes place from 6pm at The Freemasons Arms, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London from 6pm. Guy Tunnicliffe, tel 0171 267 5806, would welcome any information relating to the game.