The locals were eccentric, the weather bleak, but as Neil Hanson tells Sarah Freeman, his spell as the landlord of Britain’s highest pub was never dull.
When Neil Hanson was landlord of the Tan Hill Inn there was one thing he could set his watch by.
Every weekday, regardless of the weather, the post van would make its way along the winding Dales roads to the pub 1,732ft above sea level. In the back, lying on the mail sacks, was one of its most loyal customers.
“Faith was 78, but looked centuries old; the wrinkles were etched into her face,” says Neil, who found himself behind the bar in the late 1970s. “She lived in a small cottage in a nearby village with her son and nine cats. Local gossip had it that her mother was the daughter of some aristocratic family but had been exiled to the Dales for some unspecified disgrace.
“Faith was the very definition of no-nonsense and every day was the same. As the postman waited quietly for his cup of tea, Faith would lean over the bar and in a voice hewn from a long chain smoking habit, say, ‘whisky and soda for the the love of God’. She’d down three or four glasses and once the postman was done she’d be back in the van with a couple of bottles of Guinness and more whisky to see her through the day.
“Her liver must have been the size of a walnut, but her mind was razor-sharp and she knew every dingy tap room from Sheffield to the Scottish border. In fact, there were only two people she hated. The Methodist preacher who’d bought the pub in her village and closed it down and Hannah Hauxwell. At that time the iconic documentary Too Long A Winter had just been shown, but I reckon Faith thought if there was a film to be made about a weather-beaten old woman battling against the elements in the Yorkshire Dales it should have been her.
“It’s something of a cliche but when they made the regulars of the Tan Hill in the 1970s they broke the mould.”
Alongside Faith there was one of the country’s very last drovers, a toothless man who would regularly walk a flock of sheep to Skipton market and return with just a few pence profit, a police officer known locally as Sergeant Gravelknees after his habit of crawling round car parks in search of vehicles with bald tyres, and Neville and Stan, the two slightly shady Geordies who owned the pub.
It was 1978 when Neil and his then wife Sue joined the mix. Both in their 20s, they were living in a picturesque Peak District village when Neil read an article about Tan Hill’s search for a new landlord.
“At the time I was trying to make it as a freelance writer, which meant most of my mornings were spent drinking coffee and reading the newspapers. We weren’t particularly looking for a challenge, in fact we both knew that we had it pretty good.
“We were living in the caretaker’s wing of the village institute and in return for a very reasonable rent of £1 a week all we had to do was keep the central heating boiler in the cellar stoked and sweep out the snooker room once a week.
“I’d never even heard of Tan Hill and the only bar experience I’d had was as a Blue Coat at Pontins which really wasn’t enough preparation for running a country pub.
“There was nothing that suggested we were the ideal couple, but a few weeks later Sue and I found ourselves with the keys to the pub.”
With the nearest neighbour four miles away and the closest shop a 20 minute drive, it was then the reality of life in remote North Yorkshire became clear. Exposed to the elements the building was in desperate need of repair – the rendering, which had been painted a slightly stomach churning mustard yellow, was full of holes, the glass in most of the windows, stained sepia by tobacco, was cracked and Neil and Sue soon realised that they were sharing the living space above the pub with a sizable population of rats.
“It was pretty horrific. The pub had burnt down in 1973 and Neville and Stan bought it as a wreck. They’d got it reopened, but that really was the extent of their plans. It was a lot like the Slaughtered Lamb in in An American Werewolf in London, but we were sold. I guess we were both incurable romantics. If I’d even expressed a scintilla of doubt about the move I’m sure Sue would have pretended she was disappointed but privately uttered a sigh of relief. I didn’t and so on we ploughed.”
While the building itself might not have been up to much the surroundings were breathtaking. In whatever direction you looked, there was nothing but an unbroken, rolling ocean of moorland stretching to the horizon and Neil has finally got round to writing a book about his time at Tan Hill.
The Inn at the Top is in part a tribute to a way of life which is long gone and a celebration of the Dales people who Neil describes as being blessed with a “lugubrious fatalism to events great and small as stolid and indifferent to the problems of the world outside as it had largely been to theirs.”
“Swaledale is a very insular dale where even people whose family had lived there for two or three generations were considered incomers. When we first arrived I remember one farmer coming up to the bar and asking, ‘Nah then, lad, doest tha ken Swardle yows?’ I looked blank. ‘Thought so’, he said and he stomped off to no doubt tell the rest of the locals an ofcomer with plums in his gob had taken over the pub.”
While Neil suspects the locals thought he and Sue would be gone within a few weeks, they stayed and landlord and regulars soon found a way to get along. However, The Inn at the Top is not entirely rose-tinted – there was the gamekeeper who beat a young boy to a bloody pulp after he kissed his daughter and the farmers who would drop dead lambs on the railway line in a compensation scam against the company responsible for fencing along the track. There was also remoteness.
“There was always so much to do there was never time to get bored, but we used to exchange knowing looks when anyone ever mused that they’d love to retire to a country pub. To people who felt trapped in frenetic city life, Tan Hill might have seemed like heaven, but then they hadn’t lived there in depths of winter.”
In 1978 the snow began in late December and by New Year relentless blizzards had left much of North Yorkshire cut off. At Tan Hill, the new landlords not only had to contend with freezing temperatures, but with the parsimonious tendencies of its owners.
“We discovered they had taken away part of the central heating system as they didn’t want us racking up large bills during the winter,” says Neil. “I honestly don’t think I have been as cold. One day we were doing some work outside and when we tried to get back in the pub the door had frozen. We had no water, no heating, hardly any contact with the outside world, but by then we were determined we would not be beaten.”
Even outside the winter months the weather was rarely kind. Neil reckons it rained for 250 days of the year and on the rest it was either drizzling, siling down, mizzling or dowly. However, the relentless wind and rain was also to prove Tan Hill’s good fortune.
“I remember watching the TV one night and the advert for Everest double glazing came on. I remember thinking why do they only ever talk about soundproofing and not about how it can insulate from the weather, so on spec I wrote to them.
“It turned out they were thinking the same thing and were in the process of looking for a suitable location. Within the week they were up at Tan Hill.”
That advert with Ted Moult on the windswept moor, a slightly younger looking Neil in the background and the tagline ‘Fit the best. Everest’ turned out to be the best publicity the pub could have dreamed of.
“I suspect it would have boosted custom a little, but when one of the local planning officers got involved, the story just snowballed. He said the windows were a desecration of the original building despite the fact we showed him the 11 different styles we had replaced. We had an expert witness from the Design Council and suddenly the national press became interested. As far as I know it’s the only advert to be shown in its entirety on the BBC and the response was incredible.”
As interest in Tan Hill grew, there was soon a decent crowd quietly supping pints most hours of the day and that was a problem. Back in the 1970s, licensing laws were much stricter than they are today, not that the locals cared to be told when they could order a pint.
“We never closed the same day we opened,” says Neil. “Police forces had strict orders to carry out regular inspections to ensure there were no illegal lock-ins. Any pub found to be flouting the laws then had to be visited even more frequently until the landlord was brought into line. Now no police officer wanted to have to drive four miles up an unlit narrow winding road every week, so I suspect we were one of the few pubs to be raided by appointment.
“Every so often we’d get a call. A voice on the end would say, ‘A word to the wise, time you locked up on time tonight’. Come 11pm, we’d lock the doors, move the farmers and their pints into the kitchen and switch the lights off. Once we’d hear the police car pull away it was back to business as usual.”
While the pub became something of a Mecca for tourists and hikers, at its heart it was a meeting place for the locals. However, for Neil and his wife it also became something of albatross.
“There was one point when we thought, ‘you know what, we’re earning good money’ and then we worked out we were both working 110 hours a week.
“Often we’d serve the last round at 2am to the locals and then have to be up at 7am for the first hikers wanting breakfast. When you run a pub like Tan Hill it does take over your life. After a year we left, but we always said to each other that if it ever came up for sale we would buy it.”
Five years later that’s exactly what happened. Neil and Sue returned as owners, but their second stint at Tan Hill is a whole other story, for a whole other book.
Tour with tales from the Tan Hill
The Inn at the Top by Neil Hanson is published by Michael O’Mara priced £8.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.
To coincide with the publication, Neil is doing a series of talks and signings across Yorkshire.
Waterstones, York, September 26, 6.45pm. 01904 628740, www.waterstones.com
Richmond Walking and Book Festival, Richmond School Sixth Form Centre, September 27, 7.30pm. 01748 824243, www.booksandboots.org
Morley Literature Festival, Gildersome Conservative Club, October 8, 7.30pm. 0113 253 9763.
Betty’s Cafe Tea Rooms, Ilkley, October 9, 7.30pm. 01943 608029.
Ryedale Book Festival, The Milton Rooms Studio, Malton, October 19, 10.30am. www.ryedalebookfestival.com.
Castlegate Books, Knaresborough, September 28, 12-2pm, 01423 862222.
Waterstones, Northallerton, October 9, 12-2pm. 0843 290 8515, www.waterstones.com.
Waterstones, Scarborough, October 12, 11am-2pm. 0843 2908577, www.waterstones.com.