Pass by a pub in Lewes, East Sussex's quaint county town, and you'll likely hear the low, rhythmic clunk! of brass hitting lead. Pause for a moment - perhaps peer in a dusty window - and you might catch the glint of metal as heavy brass coins arc hopefully through the air to land, several feet away, on the soft, sloped surface of a small table. Clunk! This is Toad in the Hole, or just toads, a pub game that's a cross between darts and tiddly-winks. As sure as you'll find Harvey's on tap, you'll see a toads table tucked away in most Lewes drinking establishments - as well as in those among its many surrounding villages.
Exactly where toads got started, it's hard to say - a 1950 Pathé newsreel notes its Elizabethan roots, though the table played in that film (then located in Surrey) includes an ornamental toad sculpture on top seen in some European versions. It seems to be played a bit in Spain - where it is named "juego de la rana", game of the frog - and also in South America - where it is "juego del sapo", game of the toad. Here in England, however, its popularity as a pub game is very much Lewes-based.
But times are changing. In 2021, Brighton set up an entire league of its own, as a flurry of toads tables popped up post-lockdown in pubs across the city, sparking new interest in the game with a younger generation. It's against this backdrop, and following an unprecedented two-year hiatus, that 2022 saw the return of the Toad in the Hole World Championships, the game's annual elite tournament. For local Lewes players, the event stands, as ever, as a chance to compete at what is warmly described as "international" level. For their new Brightonian rivals, on the other hand, it's a chance to flex their fingers and thumbs on the world stage for the very first time, challenging the locals to the crown on their home turf. And for me, subbed in at the last minute, it was a chance to see the experts in action.
As a beginner, simply landing your toads - weighty, warm-in-the-hand brass coins - on top of the table is a solid achievement. Thrown underhand from two metres away, each toad that lands on the table's lead top is worth one point. But it must land square on top - if it slides off or hits the table's wooden back then it is "dead" and worth nothing. Get your toad in the table's hole and you earn two points - and you also get to go collect your toad from the small drawer in the table underneath. Opening this drawer is a little ritual whose novelty is still yet to wear off (and you always collect your own toads, wherever on the floor they've normally rolled off to).
Scoring works down from 31, the same as darts, with four toads thrown each round for a possible of eight points if - and it's a big if - you were to get all four in the hole. (Throwing an eight is such a rare occurrence, Lewes players have a separate spreadsheet in their league for tracking the feat.) Overshoot 31 and you go bust, and your round is void. Beyond that, it's all a matter of technique. Do you throw with the toad placed between thumb and forefinger, or rested on top? Do you try to arc it in, like a frisbee? Do you aim for the hole or just in front, anticipating the toad's onward momentum?
A lot depends on the table itself, and one of the most interesting things for me when starting to pick up the game has been negotiating the sheer variety of tables on offer. The lead top is deliberately soft to cushion the landing of the brass toad, but this means the surface is perpetually being dented, with deep gouge marks and scuffs from previous throws soon leaving tables warped and scarred. Some tables end up pitted with craters, like the surface of the moon, while others are more comprehensively beaten until wildly deformed, with volcano-like calderas that must be countered for in play. An accurate throw here, especially where the edges of the hole have been beaten back and widened over time, makes for an easy two points - but the sloped surface leading to it makes any loss of accuracy precipitous.
The tables used at the Toad in the Hole World Championships (or just 'the Worlds') are particularly important. To preserve both their surfaces and the fairness of play, they are kept locked away all year until needed. Indeed, the announcement that Lewes' local Beak Brewery taproom would borrow a couple of these tables for a friendly session the week before the Worlds caused a minor kerfuffle, with some local concern these would be studied and practised upon by pro players looking to gain an edge. Ultimately, the Worlds tables were not used, and replacements procured instead.
48 teams competed in the Worlds itself, almost all from East Sussex - and with several new teams from the Brighton scene. Not all the teams were from the local leagues, with some banded together from local pub staff or old friends. A few travelled from far further afield - including a team from Didcot, and a long-established group from Lincoln who imported an East Sussex table several years ago. Going into the event, there were several favourites - the reigning champions from Rodmell, Lewes' neighbouring village team who won the last Worlds back in 2019; a Brighton group made up of players from several top league teams; and Lewes' own Black Horse pub crew, former winners and perhaps the town's best hope.
With a friend of a friend injured, I got the chance to step in as a ringer and play for another Lewes side, and together we valiantly put up a decent showing - though not enough to get out of the group stages. Meanwhile, the evening's first shock had just taken place - defending champions Rodmell had been dramatically knocked out by the Brighton group. Clearly, Brighton meant business.
As the evening drew on, the teams were whittled down until play reached what would be a crunch semi-final: Brighton versus Lewes' Black Horse. The Brighton team played well, and the scores were close throughout - but the Lewes team edged a victory. From there, with Brighton vanished off into the night, a remarkably friendly final with another village team was quickly wrapped up, leaving the Black Horse as victors, and world champions once more.
"Sometimes in the world of Toads it goes on the toss of a coin," Black Horse landlord and toads team captain Declan Rowell told me, the morning after. "Whoever wins the toss gets it and that's how Brighton knocked Rodmell out early on. They were even stevens all the way through and both needed a four at the end - and it was just the person who threw the four first, as they won the toss. But it was a massive shock and it did us a massive favour, as Rodmell were definitely our bogeymen. As it was, the whole team played as a team. We threw some good toads - I threw a seven - but it was a team effort that got us over the line."
Of the new Brighton wave, Rowell was impressed - and said he expected they'd come back stronger next time. "It's a matter of time before they win," he continued. "They are a young team and lacked the experience of playing in the World Championships but to get through to the semi-final on their first real attempt was phenomenal. They're going to come back strong, they'll learn a lot from last night. But they'll have a big test winning it next year as we're the defending champions.
"We celebrated till 3am last night," Rowell concluded. "Next I think we're going to go for a toad crawl around Brighton and investigate all these new tables that are popping up. Because it's about time we learned how to play on their tables and what the venues are like." The fight for next year's Toad in the Hole World Championships is on.