Keeping quoits alive and ringing

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IF you think a gater is an American crocodile and a ringer is someone with a bell, then it’s odds on you’ve never played quoits.

Hobs, gaters and ringers are all terms associated with this traditional game, which has been played around the pubs and agricultural shows of Tynedale for over 100 years and is still going strong.

Whilst cricket fans may swear there’s no summer sound to beat that of leather on willow, quoits aficionados would disagree. For them it’s all about the clank of metal on metal.

Every Wednesday evening you’ll find members of the Allen Valley Quoits Association throwing rings of steel into clay pits, hoping to circle a metal spike (called the hob or pin) to score a ringer – or ideally the more elusive double ringer.

Watching a match at the Bowes Hotel in Bardon Mill, between the home team and Slaley’s Rose and Crown, it’s clear that it’s a very sociable, yet nevertheless competitive sport.

Men – and it is all men apart from the Bowes’ loyal scorer, Fiona Furlong – stand around the pitch, pints of beer in hand, commenting on the quality of shots.

Meanwhile, Fiona sits amongst a clutch of citronella candles to keep the midgies at bay whilst she keeps things right.

As with cricket, there’s even a bit of ‘sledging’ going on – in a good-natured way of course.

“I think they want that pin moved!”, laughs old-timer Raymond Little as a Bowes Dodger lines up to throw – the earlier quoit having hurtled way past the pit, wheeling onto the grass beyond.

Raymond is recognised as one of the top players in the league, with a cupboard full of trophies at his home in Slaley.

But then he’s been playing since he was a lad. Born in Bewcastle, he later moved to Moscow Farm at Gilsland.

He remembers quoits as always being part and parcel of farming life.

“From a very young age all the farmers used to play quoits, and at that stage – I am going back 60 to 70 years – they always helped one another shearing sheep. After you’d sheared all day, you would have a game. I loved it then and it stuck.

“All pubs at one time had a pit in the back yard and just about everyone played. It originated from American horseshoes – obviously someone decided to join them up and make them into one disc.”

There’s actually some debate over the true origin of quoits. Some say it goes back to the Ancient Greeks, where poorer citizens who could not afford an authentic discus would make their own by bending horseshoes. The Roman Army then adopted it and brought it to Britain.

The original game probably evolved from simply seeing how far a player could throw the horseshoe, to introducing a wooden stake or metal pin.

It’s probably no more than a quaint idea, but wouldn’t it be nice to think that the reason the Bowes Dodgers play is because the Romans, just a quoit’s throw away on the Wall, first introduced it?

Certainly the game was a big feature of mining communities – and this is no doubt why the Allen Valleys, which lends its name to the league – is so involved in quoits.

What has become known as ‘The Northern Game’ (there are several variants across the country) was first properly documented in 1881 in an edition of The Field, and it’s these rules that the Allen Valleys league still follows.

According to Richard Macdonald, the Allen Valleys League secretary, the oldest known quoits club up here was established in the 1850s in Darlington.

The Field rules lay down laws about pitch length (11 yards from pin to pin) and pin size (three to four inches above the surface of the clay).

Players are awarded points for different shots – two for a ringer, when the quoit is around the pin, four for a double ringer.

But there’s strategy involved – for example, you can prevent another player from getting a ringer by setting up a ‘gater’ – where your quoit blocks the pin, presumably like a gate.

Disputes are settled by measuring the distance between quoits with a pair of calipers. And if no calipers are to hand, there is usually a bit of stick around that can be pressed into service.

As Fiona says: “They have used daffodil stems, bits of stick or grass – anything they can use to measure. When they can’t decide, I’ve counted at least eight men round the ring with torches saying, ‘What do you think? Come and have a look at this! ‘”

Although quoits may have a reputation for being an ‘old men in flat caps sport’, there is definitely new blood coming through, which should ensure the game continues to be part of the fabric of our countryside for years to come.

Twenty-five year old Adam Ridley, for example, is one of Raymond’s recruits to the Rose and Crown team, along with his dad, Ken, of Allenshields Farm, Blanchland.

Adam is in fact a third generation quoits player, as his grandad, Ken’s 82-year-old father Albert, is also a bit of a dab hand with the steel discs and is still on the Wallace Warriors team at the Wallace pub in Featherstone.

Adam says: “My grandad will have been playing since the league started. I began playing about ten years ago and grandad put a pitch in at home and showed us how to play. You get the bug a bit.

“I like the game because it’s all about friendly rivalry. Everyone tries their hardest, but it’s good spirited. Yes, there’s a bit of a wind-up and a bit banter…”

Ken adds, “But no biting or kicking! It actually involves a lot of skill. There’s a lot of different shots and you don’t realise when you start how many shots you have to perfect.”

It’s the camaraderie that everyone comments on the most, however. Scorer Fiona says they play in all weathers – even thunder and lightning.

“It’s a very sociable, friendly sport. I remember one night some walkers coming down from Hadrian’s Wall and seeing us out on the quoits pitch – they must have thought we were mad, playing with metal in a thunderstorm!”

And Raymond has made life-long friends through the game. “There’s been loads and loads of great friends and good camaraderie,” says Raymond. “Apart from at the end of the night if you are getting well beat!

“But what I really like about it is there’s no money involved and that, to me, makes it a good sport.”

On the night the Courant visited, Raymond’s team needed only one win to be sure of promotion from the second to the first division (there are three divisions in the league), but it was not to be that easy, as the Bowes exploited their home advantage.

However, he’s confident they’ll make the jump and undoubtedly he’s got a great track record, beginning with Yont the cleugh near Coanwood, going from there to Haydon Bridge, where they were “always the team to beat”, then on to the Boatside where “we won everything in sight”.

He joined the Rose and Crown three years ago, when it became a community pub, to form his own team and they got promoted in the first year.

“This is our third season and we just need one more win. I’m sure we can do it,” he smiles.

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