A league of their own
I'll never be a local here in the Dales. I'll always be an 'offcumden' - an off-comer, someone from the outside. Which means, being the inquisitive creature I am, I want to get to know the locals more than ever. And what better way of meeting people than indulging in their sports and pastimes? Here's a piece I wrote for the regional magazine, The Dalesman, about an ancient game played in this part of the world:
As any Yorkshire man and woman knows, the distinctive sound of leather on willow on a summer evening is part of the county’s heartbeat. Yet, there is another noise - that of metal on metal, which also quickens the pulse and is the soundtrack of a sport that is older than cricket though not as well known: quoits.
The game of Northern Quoits has been played on village greens and in pub gardens up and down dale for longer than anyone can remember. And despite its low profile, the game is in rude health, boasting leagues throughout the Dales, North York Moors, Durham and Northumberland.
Wensleydale has one league ranging from Hawes in the north to Kirkby Malzard in the south and many points in between. Other dales such as Swaledale and Arkengathdale also have their own leagues. Teams travel up and down the dale on weekday evenings during the season, which normally runs from April to August, to test their skills against one another. Most of the teams are centred on pubs with some hostelries having more than one team. Pints are always at hand during games and the evening is sealed with a pub supper laid on by the hosting side.
The Wensleydale Quoits League started over 25 years ago and consists of two divisions. Its chairman Stephen Mason, captain of the Fox & Hounds B Team, West Witton, said: “Before the league I think the teams along Wensleydale were based on pubs and clubs who played each other in a less organised fashion. As for where it all started, there is a theory that the Danes brought it to this part of the world.”
And therein is the mystery of where it all began. Others say that the throwing of a metal ring with accuracy is descended from the discus. There is also a school of thought which puts the origins of the game as something brought back from France during the Hundred Years War. There is also a possibility that American ‘horseshoes’ may also be a variation of quoits.
Quoits was one of the pastimes, along with football, that were prohibited in the 14th Century lest it interfere with the common man’s practice of archery. Once that ban was lifted, it was a popular sport associated with country inns and taverns. Like many games played by the rural working classes, it was transported to the rapidly growing towns and cities of the Industrial Revolution when the rise of the public house also brought about an increase in pastimes that needed little more than a yard or stretch of green upon which to play them. Hence, like games such as skittles and bowls, quoits is played with a pint close at hand and banter between players and opposing teams.
It was the Victorians, in the way that they brought order to most things, who laid down the rules of the Northern game. A gathering of interested gentlemen in Stockton, Darlington and Middlesbrough hammered out the rules in 1881, forming The Association of Amateur Quoit Clubs for the North of England. These were printed in The Field, that bible for country gentlemen, in April of that year. Since then, little has changed.
The playing area consists of two steel pins set 11 yards apart, each in a bed of clay which is three feet square. The pin, also called the hob, protrudes three inches above the clay. Teams have seven players and each is drawn against a member of the opposing side. The pair, who play with two quoits each, take it in turns to pitch their quoit over or as close as possible to the hob. The first player to reach 21 points wins the game. Quoits landing around the pin are classed as “Ringers” and are awarded two points and cannot be beaten unless “Topped” by the opponent. Northern quoits are predominantly made from steel and weigh about 5lbs. A referee from the home side presides over each game and his/her decision per end is final.
Despite the rules set down for the Northern game, there are other variations. In the Long Game, played in Scotland, Wales and East Anglia, the hobs are set much farther apart at 18 yards and a heavier quoit is thrown, almost double in weight to that of the Northern game.
What does not change is the quiet camaraderie, the murmured approval when a ‘good quoit’ is thrown and the occasional ribbing when a poorly aimed quoit or ‘crab’ is removed from play. It used to be a working man’s pastime – the majority of the players coming from the farming community although a new generation of ‘offcumdens’ (newcomers to the area), are starting to appear in teams along the dale and in many instances are the backbone of some teams helping to keep the game alive.
Nigel Chapman, captain of the Hawes side, which has its home ground in the car park of The Fountain Hotel, has been playing for almost 30 years. “There weren’t many younger lads playing when I started then, and to be honest, there still aren’t. It’s regarded as an older man’s sport.” In reality this is a misunderstanding of the game by the younger generation as both strength and accuracy are needed to play a good quality game.
The Coverdale and Middleham teams break that mould; Coverdale being a crowd with a fair few 20-somethings who started the quoits team only four years ago. Middleham on the other hand have been formed for some years and have always attracted a younger generation of player. An older crowd, also with a recent newly formed side, are the gents of Redmire, where the team had petered out a few years ago after, at one time having the quoits world champion playing for them.
“We were using the quoits pits as part of an annual village celebration and enjoyed playing it so much we decided to get a team back together. We love it,” said Redmire resident and retired headteacher Alan Hargreave. “It’s a great way for friends to have a pint, travel around the Dale and make new friends.”
That was four years ago, and since then, in Alan’s words, the Redmire lads have been propping up the league – from the bottom!
In a modern world, where even quoits scores are sent by WhatsApp from team captain to league scorer, there is something timeless about groups of villagers, most of them still in their working clothes, travelling up and down their Dales for an ancient game of skill, a yarn and a good pint. Long may the tradition of quoits continue.
· A quoit’s outer ring is slightly angled like the rim of a saucer, creating a hill side and a hole side.
· A ringer is a quoit fully over the pin or hob and is the ultimate objective of any player.
· A crab is a thrown quoit that hits the boards outside of the clay and is removed.
· A hole or hill gaiter is a quoit which lands upright in front of the pin, acting as a ‘gate’ or blocker and thus preventing the rival player from throwing his quoit over the pin.
· Throws to either side of the hob include a Frenchman and a pot.
· Callipers are used by the referee when two quoits appear to be the same distance from the pin. On occasions the difference in distance from the pin can be measured in fractions of a millimetre.