With the Tan Hill Inn back on the market, Sarah Freeman heads to the wilds of North Yorkshire to find out what it really takes to run Britain’s highest pub. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
There is a sign above the bar at the Tan Hill Inn. It says, “Danger Altitude Sickness. Staff are liable to bouts of uncontrollable insanity during which they may be loud, insubordinate, rude or extremely silly”.
There are others too. Mostly along a similar vein and they are not entirely without substance. Famously Britain’s highest pub, Tan Hill is so remote that there are no other buildings for as far as the eye can see and at 1,732ft above sea level, up here grazing sheep pass for neighbours.
It’s been run for the last 12 years by Louise Peace, who has been variously described as kind-hearted, eccentric and foul-mouthed. She doesn’t disagree. Even her engineering husband Mike, who can occasionally be found behind the bar when not working away, diplomatically says his wife’s language “favours the vernacular”.
Today though she is on her best behaviour.
“I do have a reputation, someone once called me the rudest landlady in Britain. I’m not sure that’s true, but people never forget me,” Louise says.
It’s just coming up to 11am and the first of Tan Hill’s customers are just taking the first sip of their pints. A hundred other jobs already need doing, but Louise is slightly preoccupied. An impetuous sort, a couple of weeks ago she decided she’d had enough of the place and put the feelers out via Facebook.
“I just said I’d be open to offers and we would be. The problem is that while a lot of people like the idea of a running a pub like this, it takes a certain kind of person to be able to survive up here and unfortunately there aren’t many of them around.”
As well as being able to act the genial host, pull pints and rustle up a plate of scampi and chips, for potential applicants the ability to mend generators and rescue cars from snow drifts would also come in useful.
Like many of Tan Hill’s previous owners, the Peaces arrived via a slightly circuitous route. Mike grew up in North Yorkshire, but met Louise while working on the construction of Terminal Five at Heathrow. After a visit to a Dartmoor pub, which erroneously claimed to be Britain’s highest, the couple embarked on a tour of altitude defying-inns which eventually brought them to Tan Hill.
“As soon as we walked in we thought it was a lovely pub, but we also knew that it could be even better,” says Mike. “I remember going up to the bar and asking for a couple of menus. It was 2.30pm and was told without much apology that they had stopped serving, but they could give us a pork pie and a sandwich. To be honest, the food wasn’t up to much and the couple who ran it had been there 10 years and it really needed some new blood.”
When Mike later got a contract up at Fort Augustus, near Inverness, they had plans to restore a derelict pub nearby. However, when the asking price doubled overnight, the sale stalled and they turned to the internet.
“I just googled ‘pubs for sale’ and I couldn’t believe it,” says Mike. “There was Tan Hill. I called the owners, Maggie and Alec Baines, and we arranged to come down the following Sunday. By Monday the sale had been all but agreed.”
Over the last decade or so it has been very much Louise’s baby and customers either fall in love with her or down their pints quickly never to return. By her own admission, the TripAdvisor reviews are erratic. Just this week, one likened it to Fawlty Towers and bemoaned its archaic booking system while another said they couldn’t remember a nicer evening in a pub, helped by an impromptu performance by a ukulele band who also happened to be staying.
“Last night we had three tables in and the place was silent,” says Louise, not known for her love of quiet. “I left it for a while, but eventually I said, ‘Come on you three, tell what you’ve been up to today’. Within a few minutes they were all talking to each other. That’s what’s great about this place, you meet people here that you wouldn’t meet anywhere else.
“This isn’t a typical country pub, it’s not a working men’s club and it’s not a fine dining restaurant, it’s just Tan Hill. It takes about a year to get to know how this monster breathes and rattles. Everyone has their own ideas about how they could do it better, but most have been tried before.”
The vast majority of Tan Hill’s customers are tourists. The Pennine Way passes through Keld just a few miles away and walkers and cyclists negotiating the bleak moorland often stop off for refreshments. Most days they are joined by a coach party or two and until a few years ago the odd sheep and a couple of chickens would take up residence by the open fire.
“Environmental health put a stop to that,” says Louise in a tone which suggests she’s had a number of awkward conversations with them over the years. “I told them I wasn’t planning to serve food off the floor, but they weren’t having it. They had to go.”
The regulars of 20 or 30 years ago, who worked the farms round this part of North Yorkshire, are also no more. Instead they have been replaced by a handful of loyal drinkers from further afield, which says Mike has its advantages.
“They live in Whitby, Newcastle and Teesside. The best thing about that is they only come once a month, so we don’t have those regulars that prop up the bar telling the same stories night after night.”
With the lunchtime service under way, the place is already packed and it gets busier as the weather turns. An hour earlier there had been a few pockets of blue sky, but things change quickly up here and they’ve been replaced by dark rain clouds. Still, that’s nothing compared to the winter of 2009 when the snow began falling fast on New Year’s Eve.
“When it starts you can be knee deep in two hours, but that year was particularly bad,” says Louise. “I had gone out to help rescue stranded drivers and ended up being snowed out of the pub. There was no way I could get back and the next morning was no better. We had 60 guests up there and just two members of staff. I rang them up and said: ‘Right there is no way you can deal with them on your own’. I told them to get five of the guests together and set up a working party. That’s what they did and they had a whale of a time for three days.
“Another time I was snowed out there was only a chicken and a cat in the pub. I thought: ‘That’s a food chain right there’. When I finally got back in I was prepared for a bloodbath, but they were just cuddled up next to each other.”
It’s that kind of extreme weather which persuaded Everest Double Glazing to choose Tan Hill to film that now iconic television advertisement from the 1980s and the Peaces dearly hope they are approaching their last winter on the unforgiving moors.
The couple are looking to move permanently to Somerset to be closer to Louise’s grandchildren and, after previous bad experiences with employing managers, they would like to hand the pub over to a new generation.
“In the first nine years I had 31 staff members,” says Louise. “In the 18 months we left it with managers they got through 39. I have been approached by pub companies before who want to buy Tan Hill. I don’t want to go down that route. This is the kind of place that should be run by a family, a family that can invest in it not just financially, but emotionally.
“I love this place. I love the fact that no two customers are ever the same and that you can get a sweet little old lady sitting next to a dirty old biker. I want to leave here still loving it and not thinking I wish I’d gone five years ago. But I’ll be honest, I am closer than I ever have been to calling one of those big pub companies and doing a deal with the devil.”
Before then though the Peaces are planning what Louise calls her DIY Christmas along with the 20 or so guests who fancy spending the festive season at altitude.
“On Christmas Eve we have dinner at 6pm, then go down to Kirkby Stephen for Midnight Mass and then the following day starts with a lazy breakfast and then a couple of hours before lunch the ladies peel the veg and the men lay the table. At 4pm I down tools and so do the rest of the staff. From that point it’s up to whoever is here to do the rest from the washing up to serving drinks. It’s slightly chaotic, but lovely.”
A bit like the Tan Hill landlady herself.