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The battle to save a part of Hampstead's sporting history

PUBLISHED: 14:20 09 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:54 07 September 2010

FOR MORE than 100 years Hampstead has hosted one of the most fascinating ancient sports in the world, but now London s last remaining skittles team faces a fight against extinction. The team at the Freemason s Arms on Downshire Hill has been a fixture of

FOR MORE than 100 years Hampstead has hosted one of the most fascinating ancient sports in the world, but now London's last remaining skittles team faces a fight against extinction.

The team at the Freemason's Arms on Downshire Hill has been a fixture of London's heritage through three centuries and has become one of Hampstead's major tourist attractions, currently ranked number eight in Time Out Magazine's 101 things to do before you leave London.

The game, also known as Old English Skittles, has been played in the pub basement since the 1930s, but dwindling membership numbers in recent years has left the team in constant danger of folding.

April will see the return of the annual London Skittles world championships to the Arms, and team chairman Peter Greene is hoping for an influx of new challengers to try their hand at one of the capital's most intriguing and rewarding pastimes.

"It's a unique game, challenging but enjoyable," says Greene. "It's also surprisingly exertive, but you have the added bonus of being in a pub so you can burn the calories off and then put them straight back on again!

"We would encourage anyone interested to come and have a practice first, but everyone is welcome to take part and we'd like to get as many spectators as we can fit in the room."

London Skittles is played with nine wooden pins, and a 'cheese' made from the dense wood Lignum Vitae. The cheese is hurled at the pins from about 15ft away, with the object of the game being to knock down as many pins in as few throws as possible.

The game, which can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and possible beyond, is thought to have been brought to London by seafarers from the Netherlands and is visible in the famous Thames Frost Fair prints of the 1700s. It was first played in Hampstead in 1819.

A test of strength and skill which requires as much brain as it does brawn, it reached its peak of popularity in the 1930s, at which time the landlord of the Freemason's Arms and keen skittles fan Bernard Levy moved the alley into the cellar of the pub.

But popularity and membership has steadily declined ever since, now down to just 12 regular players, something which team member Steve Hutchinson believes is down to flagging interest among today's younger generations, who prefer the more modern challenges of poker, pool and table football.

"Some evenings there are so few of us that we don't even bother playing. It would be a great shame to lose it, it is part of London's and Britain's heritage," says Hutchinson.

"At one time there were whole divisions, hundreds of people playing it. It's suffered a great deal from modernisation, if it looked sleek and smart maybe more people would play it.

"But it's a physical game and there's a great deal of art to it. It takes much more skill than 10-pin bowling, which can get a bit tedious.

"We need new members to join that core group of players."

Team-mate Paul Robinson agrees, but believes the game can still be saved. "It's always been on a knife-edge really, we've been in this situation for a while," he says.

"On an average club night there might be six of us, so it only needs one or two of us to move away for it to disappear altogether.

"We get loads of people coming down to visit. People book the alley for birthday parties, and they all leave saying what a great game it is. It could be turned around, it's a part of our heritage and we need to hold on to that piece of history."

The London Skittles team practice on Tuesday evenings at 7pm at the Freemason's Arms. Practice sessions cost 50p per game and a year-long membership costs £6.

The Freemason's Arms will host the London Skittles world championships on Saturday April 24. For information or membership details call Peter Greene on 0208 889 5596, or visit www.londonskittles.co.uk


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