|The author having a practise.|
In some of my leisure time, I spend Tuesday evenings as an enthusiastic but decidedly average player in The March Hare's mixed darts team (men and ladies) in the City of Nottingham's Central darts league. I love my night out. Playing darts is a very different experience from my day job spent in detailed researching and writing. It's a refreshing getaway that keeps me grounded and recharges my batteries.
The league in which I play involves different pub teams of fourteen players - seven women and seven men and matches are played alternately at home or away. (We were at home to The Fox last night and lost 4-3). Seven games of 501 are played, with breaks for the 'snap' i.e. a bit of something to eat. The food runs the gamut, depending on the landlord, from sandwiches and crisps, to curry and rice, chip butties, sausage and mash...you never know what you're going to get. There's usually a raffle and a number card to help pay for the food and enhance the home team's funds.
|A game in progress with the markers (white tee shirt and blue sweater) standing either side of the board.|
The players in the Nottingham league stand 6ft away from the board at a line on the floor known as the 'oche' pronounced like 'hockey' without the 'h'. Different counties and areas have different distance rules, usually further away that 6ft, which is quite a rarity. Apparently in Nottingham, the pubs were so poky and cramped that there wasn't room for a longer throw.
|Team member Gary Britten at the oche.|
With my historian's hat on though, I began to wonder how old the game of darts was - in the form more or less that it's come down to us now. I thought it might have been medieval, but I was in for a surprise.
There are many unsubstantiated stories about the game going back to Henry VIII who gets credited with the responsibility - as he does for many legendary historical matters that usually turn out to be apocryphal. The story goes that he wanted people to practice archery all year round and since no one wanted to be out in the nasty cold, wet, winters, the practice came indoors with the bottom of barrels and sawn off tree trunks used as a board. However, there is no provenance for this ever having taken place. The same goes for Ann Boleyn supposedly giving Henry a magnificent set of darts in a case. It never happened except in romantic imagination.
There is an idea that the first darts were made from broken arrows that were sharpened and then thrown at the ends of wine casks for amusement. Or perhaps crossbow bolts shot into wine tuns. Another game called 'Puff and Dart' goes back to the 16th century. It was played in taverns and involved blowing small darts through a tub at a numbered target and it's thought it might well be an ancestor of the modern game. It was, however, considered old hat by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne. It could be fatal if one inhaled rather than blowing out and ingested the dart! By the mid to late Victorian period, there was a fairground game known in Britain as 'French Darts' whereby the punters would throw wooden darts at a numbered target. The end of the dart had a metal point and the 'flight' was made from turkey feathers. By 1906 a metal barrel had been patented in the United States and in 1908 darts was judged a game of 'skill' rather than 'chance' in a Leeds magistrates court and began its rise in into popular and especially pub culture.
|My darts, complete with the Scarlet|
Lion Marshal blazon!
Although Gamlin set the number pattern, doubles and trebles were not part of the early game (the outer and inner coloured bands on the board) and the highest score was the bull's eye in the centre. Darts boards were not regularised until the 1930's, and even then, regional variations remained strong. Gamlin, it is thought, was a fairground man himself, and his number invention certainly helped to make sure that the drunk punters visited the darts booth, didn't have a high success rate!
Darts boards themselves, originally made of wood, were, by the 1930's composed of sisal fibre, today's 'bristle' board, which, unlike wooden boards, did not have to be soaked overnight and lasted much longer.
Darts today is an international affair and big business - not without its socio-political controversies such as the banning of the darts 'walk-on' girls in TV darts contests, where some saw the ladies as providing a bit of glamour, and others regarded it as exploitation having no place in current society.
Be that as it may. In my own patch of inner city Nottingham, such matters are far from our minds. To the strains of Roy Orbison Driving all Night on the landlady's CD player, we step up to the oche, set our shoulders, aim our 'arrows' and 'Game on!'
|Team member Janet Cummings demonstrates one hundred and eighty!|