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The Inn at the Top

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by Neil Hanson

The Tan Hill Inn is widely known for being Britain's highest pub. Situated in North Yorkshire, close to where it borders both Cumbria and Durham, and pitched at 1,732 feet above sea level, its isolation ensures it is a tourist magnet – a pub to tick off the 'must do' list.

Inn at the TopBut what's it like to live and work there? It's all very well dropping in for a couple of pints on a bright summer's day when the moors and fells are in their glorious pomp, but how about in the dead of winter when the winds rip doors off cars and the snow swirls into drifts deep enough to swallow a man? Here's your chance to find out.

Neil Hanson, one of my predecessors as editor of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide, is a former landlord of the pub. With his wife, Sue, he arrived there in the spring of 1978 and took over what was familiarly known as The Inn at the Top.

Hanson has now written a book detailing their mostly trying, but often hilarious, experiences as they struggled to make a success of the business despite the best efforts of the weather, their contrary locals, insensitive tourists and, worst of all, the two Geordie businessmen who owned the property at the time.

Hanson's story is engaging and entertaining, the story of two 'offcomers' (as the locals described such outsiders) who, despite displaying a certain degree of naivety, make every effort to fit in.

It's not always easy, as their customers – set-in-their-ways sheep farmers – are not all welcoming or sociable, although such characters are a boon to the author, enabling him to colour the pages with humour and anecdote.

The description of one dentally-challenged local struggling to eat a pickled egg may turn you off your tea but will have you chuckling at the same time.

Wry Recollections and Tall Tales

As Hanson picks his way through such wry recollections and tall tales, he also paints a broader picture of life in this barren part of Britain, relating the history of the pub, the farming traditions that surround it and the brutal industries that once also figured in its past.

But it is in recounting the stories of life at the inn that his book really comes to life – amusing tales of stranded tourists, inept ramblers and late-night lock-ins.

At a time when official closing was 10.30, the pub, as well as existing in its own ferocious micro climate, also operated within its own time zone, seldom closing its door until the last customer deemed it convenient to leave – 2.30 am would be typical.

All this was possible, of course, because the forces of law and order were based so far away that they rarely summoned up the will to see that the licensing act was being properly observed. There were some raids – including one that led to prosecution, prompting a jolly boys' charabanc trip to the magistrates court to receive the fine – but not all were surprise visits.

On one occasion the Hansons were tipped off about a forthcoming raid and, at the scheduled time (for the tip off was that accurate), blacked out the pub and ushered their customers into the kitchen until the raps on the door had subsided.

Sometimes estrangement from the emergency services was not such a boon, however. The winter the Hansons endured at the pub was one of the most severe for years and led them to be stranded for weeks on end, with food and heating supplies dwindling, and desperate rats gnawing at the door in an attempt to find warmth.

The central heating having mysteriously broken down, the Hansons kept themselves warm by being busy but the precariousness of their position hit home when Neil fell down the stairs and almost broke his neck.

With the roads outside impassible and no working phone to call for help, their tenure of the pub could so easily have ended in disaster.

After that cruel winter, the Hansons decided to leave. It broke their heart to do so, as they loved the pub and its bleak but compelling surroundings, but they couldn't work for the absentee owners any longer.

Still, they took with them warm memories to last a lifetime and now, thirty-five years on, Neil has been generous enough to share them with us.

1st edition (2013)

288-page paperback (Michael O'Mara Books)

£8.99

Available now from amazon.co.uk

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