Tan Hill Inn - what does the future hold for Yorkshire's highest pub?

Pubs are open again at last and it is time for all of us to help roll out the barrel and keep it rolling too.

And as we do so, our minds we will no doubt go back to those more carefree times before coronavirus.

On a Saturday evening in early February, I was at the Tan Hill Inn in the Yorkshire Dales. The bar was, as usual, full. Next door in the barn, a rockabilly band were about to start shaking the walls but there was more rumpus to come. Storm Ciara was due to strike in the small hours.

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Remember Storm Ciara? Winds gusted up to almost 100mph in parts of Britain and the Honister Pass in the Lake District received more than seven inches of rain over a weekend. Where better to hang out in a storm than at the iconic Tan Hill Inn?

Andrew Hields says staff at Tan Hill Inn are having to get used to reduced interaction with customers because of the pandemic. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Perched aloof and isolated on the roof of the Pennines, this wild card of Yorkshire hostelries is the highest pub in England, indeed Britain. The night was guaranteed to be a blast.

I was there to find out about ambitious plans by new owner Andrew Hields to develop the inn. He took over in June 2018 and had already raised the inn to a whole new level, doubling turnover and customer numbers in the first year.

Andrew was enthusiastic about the future. “Our mission is to replace the ugly, unused areas that no one came to see with usable spaces that people can enjoy. We’re focusing on the central courtyard and out the back, both of which are a bit of a dumping ground at the moment.”

The idea was to draw on the strengths of the location. One is its designation as a Dark Sky Discovery Site, somewhere without light pollution where the night sky can be enjoyed. Even the Northern Lights are sometimes visible from here.

Tan Hill Inn is Yorkshire's highest pub and also one of its best known. (JPIMedia)

Andrew had a vision of replacing an existing shipping container with a stone and glass orangery where people could dine literally under the stars. Added to that, he was hoping to add a micro-observatory with telescope plus star-gazing pods. There were plans too for letting rooms with floor to ceiling glass and even a rustic spa.

All pretty revolutionary for an inn sometimes considered one of the last bastions of simplicity and timelessness. Nicola Townsend is the manager at the inn, having worked there for more than 11 years. How did she feel about the coming changes?

“The plans are very exciting,” she said. “What a staff party we’ll be able to have when all that gets done!” Would the work affect the distinctive traditional character of the place? “As long as the main bar areas are kept the same, it will always be the Tan Hill Inn. The new bits will be seen only by those who come for that.”

Nicola told me that the inn would always remain the place where anything goes. “It’s the randomness that makes a night here,” she said. “People can be comfortable being different.” In what way? “A man came in once wearing a huge inflatable dinosaur costume. We also get a lot of car rallies and they like to dress up and often dress their cars up too.

Last year, there was a Roman-themed rally and people wore togas and turned their cars into chariots. We had a naturist camp here one April and the Naked Rambler himself came by once. On the other hand, people dance to bands in their walking gear.”

The Saturday night was going swimmingly and a veritable river of Theakston’s Old Peculier was flowing. And, sure enough, a group of people were walking round in fancy dress. One man was dressed as a skeleton while another was wearing trousers designed to look like a fox.

It turned out to be a wild night all right. By next morning the rain was horizontal and the wind was up to 70 miles per hour. Outside it was very hard to stand upright.

Inside a survivalist atmosphere was developing amongst those who had stayed the night. Nicola and her staff though were taking the weather in their stride. They had seen it all before and they would see it again. It was winter at Tan Hill and all part of the experience.

Just one month later, of course, a new storm engulfed the pub. Coronavirus shut down it down completely, doing what Ciara could never do.

Today, the Tan Hill Inn and many like it are open again but left counting the cost. “We thought the lockdown would last six weeks, not more than three months,” Andrew says now.

“We spent £15,000 keeping everything powered up to protect the stock and ended up having to ditch the stock anyway, losing another £15,000. Overall, we lost around £350,000 to £500,000 in turnover.”

The pub reopened on July 4 with a booking system for customers. “We actually had 1,000 people wanting to book tables for the first day,” says Andrew. “We were massively flattered.”

For the moment, a visit to the Tan Hill Inn probably does not come with the mayhem it perhaps used to. When customers arrive now, they receive a map of the pub, showing exits, additional toilets and even a shower. There are strict rules on hygiene and social distancing with table service only.

“We are trying to reduce contact between staff and customers as much as possible because that is how the virus could be transmitted,” says Andrew. “It’s awful and alien to us to reduce interaction because we’re a pub after all but it’s what has to be done.”

There is now an outdoor bar but how useful it is will inevitably depend on the weather. “If the weather is good, our capacity can double. But if it starts pouring down,” he continues, “we’ll just have to deal with it.” As if that could happen here...

The plans for taking the inn into a new dimension are still on the table and the mood is very much of a glass half-full not half-empty, but inevitably this is no longer the immediate priority.

“We were just three or four weeks away from submitting a planning application before lockdown started and are still hoping to go ahead but it will depend on trade over the next 12 to 18 months. We’re on a bit of tightrope at the moment and everything has to remain customer-driven so we can get back to where we were.”

Pubs like Tan Hill may have survived the coronavirus storm and are now struggling determinedly back to their feet but the outlook could remain blustery and uncertain. Clearly they need our support now more than ever before. It is time to raise a glass to their future – and on their premises too, not at home. And while we are about it, we should maybe stop for dinner.

Tan Hill Inn may be operating a table booking system when you plan to visit. Check first at www.tanhillinn.com or call 01833 533007. This summer’s big music events featuring Kim Wilde, Big Country and From the Jam are being rescheduled for next year.

Tan Hill – The Story of the World Famous Inn is available at the pub and also via the website.

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