The Joiners Arms nestles among the hillside terraced houses on Victoria Street, off West Parade. From the outside, it is fairly unremarkable. But inside, there is a feature that is unique among Lincoln pubs.
Tucked into one corner is what looks like a small pool table. On closer inspection, you see that there are no side or corner pockets. Instead, there are nine holes in the playing surface itself. No, it’s not an ancient version of the seaside arcade game where a furry rodent pops up through a hole and you have to bash it with a mallet. It’s bar billiards.
The game may be a derivative of bagatelle, which was popular for more than a century after 1770. In the early 1930s, an Englishman called David Gill observed a game called billiard russe (Russian billiards) being played in Belgium. Gill convinced an English billiard table manufacturer to make a version of the game which he called bar billiards. Pubs were keen to buy tables, and other manufacturers soon got in on the act.
The first bar billiards pub league started in Oxford in 1936 and, shortly afterwards, leagues sprang up in Reading, Canterbury and High Wycombe. After the war, a governing body was formed called the All-England Bar Billiards Association. The AEBBA now supervises the game across 18 counties, mainly in the south of England. There is also a thriving league in York. The Bar Billiards World Championship is held annually in Jersey.
All the shots in bar billiards are taken from one end of the table, so it takes up far less space in the pub than pool. And it’s a much more subtle game than pool. There are three free-standing, wooden mushrooms on the table and, if one is knocked over, a penalty is incurred. When they start playing bar billiards, pool players often fall foul of these hazards.
The duration of a game is governed by a mechanical timer. When the time is up, a bar drops inside the table and the balls are no longer returned. The game then continues until all the balls have been potted.
I first played bar billiards when I was at university and I expect the Joiners’ table will be popular with the many students who live nearby. And, of course, while they’re playing they can enjoy the real ales on offer. The Joiners has four handpumps with an ever-changing selection from microbreweries across the country.
And what about the beer? On my last visit to the Joiners, I had a pint of Habit (4.2% ABV) from the Flying Monk Brewery in Malmesbury. It is an amber ale with a slightly grassy aroma. The bitterness of the English hops contrasts with the biscuity sweetness from the malt.