THERE was a loose plan fluttering about this morning like a threadbare flag above a roadside burger bar. But the wind changed and the plan got blown across fields and was last seen snagged on a fence alongside a ragged length of black plastic silage bag and other rural detritus. It wasn’t much of a plan anyway . . .
The plan was quite simple: drive to Britain’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn; leave my wife in the van with a good book and a hot kettle; wander off across miles of Pennine moorland with the sun on my back; then dine and drink in the Tan Hill before repairing to the van for a night beneath the stars.
All has gone well up to the wandering across the miles of moorland bit. Within two-hundred metres of leaving the van I’ve stumbled across an abandoned transmitter station and taken lots of pictures – thinking I’m recording the industrial archaeology of the future. And who’s to say I’m not?
It was a rubbishy plan anyway. All I did was glance at a map and decide to head towards various dips and rises in the landscape, doing a circuit via Great Punchard Head, Water Crag, the interestingly named Wham Bottom (must be a George Michael joke in there somewhere), Rogan’s Seat and Long Rigg.
The Tan Hill stands at an elevation of 1,732ft (528m), making it Britain’s highest pub. It dates from the 17th Century and was built as a barracks, or hostel, for colliery workers. Although its official address is North Yorkshire, three counties converge just outside the back door – North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Durham.
With the local government boundary reorganisations of 1974, the pub found itself in County Durham, but after noisy protests the authorities moved it back into North Yorkshire. Sounds like a load of fuss over nothing, but there you go. Yorkshire folk always know best, apparently.
So long as there’s rain in the clouds and wind on the moors, the Tan Hill will be associated with radio and television personality Ted Moult, who, in an iconic 1980s TV advert, famously scattered feathers inside the pub windows during a howling gale to prove the effectiveness of Everest double glazing. Besides being credited with inventing the pick-your-own-strawberries concept at his Derbyshire farm, it was his finest hour.
Moult committed suicide in 1986. It is said that on stormy nights, when the wind rattles the slates of the Tan Hill Inn, a ghostly feather can be seen drifting past the windows. It’s true.
So I’ve suddenly found myself among the remains of Tan Hill’s impoverished coalmining industry. I say “impoverished” because these pits were nothing more than shallow scratches a few fathoms deep, troubled with bog-water and with little more than horse power to pump the workings and raise the coal.
During their productive peak, which appears to have occurred during the early years of the 19th Century, the miners would have been using methods and equipment that had changed little since the days when the pits opened in mediaeval times – while forty miles to the north-east, in the Durham coalfield, engineering pioneers were laying the first railways, designing and refining colossal pumping and winding engines, and constructing the first steam locomotives.
All notions of retrieving my walking plan are blown away when I stumble upon the remains of a horse gin. I’ve mention these contraptions before, but just to refresh your memories I’ll go through it again because this is one of the best examples I’ve seen.
A horse gin (gin being a corruption of “engine”) was a capstan around which a horse was led in a continuous circle. The capstan wound a rope and the rope hauled a kibble (large bucket with a rounded bottom to prevent it snagging) from the nearby shaft. In this way minerals, spoil and water were removed from the pit.
Look at a large-scale map of any mining area in the country and you will probably see evidence of their existence in old names: Gowerdale Windypits, on the North York Moors, is one – “windypit” being a corruption of winding pit, as in horse-winding pit. Gin pits, horse-winding pits, windy pits, whim pits, horse whims, whim shafts – they were everywhere. And here’s one in the heather a few hundred metres from the bar of the Tan Hill Inn.
I’m on a roll. This walk has turned out to be far more interesting than anticipated. I use the word “walk” with a degree of licence. It’s more a hectic stumble from one heathery mound to the next. And on all of these mounds I find scatterings of coal among the heather – coal that has lain here among the spoil and roots since the last miners led the last horses away from these workings many, many decades ago.
An idea springs to mind. What if I gather a bag of coal to make a fire? Will it burn? Coal is coal, but this has been weathering in a harsh environment since the mid-19th Century, possibly earlier. What the hell. I pick among the heather and soon have a Sainsbury’s bag full of the stuff.
Back at the van I show Anne my haul. She says: “That’s nice.” But I can tell she’s not over impressed. It’s my male intuition. Women don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm for the important things in life. It’s like when you try to explain the subtle differences between early, second-early and early-maincrop potatoes. They listen politely but you suspect they have no intention of retaining the knowledge.
I proudly stash the bag in the back of the van. My hunter-gatherer instincts have been awakened. I am man, the provider of warmth and light. With this bag I intend to create fire. But first, let’s see if the final stage of the plan can be retrieved – the stage concerning eating and drinking in the Tan Hill Inn.
AND FINALLY . . . Old railway goods wagon No 15
THIS is the latest in my collection of old railway goods wagons reclining and declining in obscure locations. This one sits in Ease Gill, just below the back door of the Tan Hill Inn, at an altitude of 1,466ft (447m) and several tortuous miles from the nearest railway line – which closed many years ago.
Hmmm. Just thought I’d mention it. Tyrosemiophiles collect cheese labels, for heaven’s sake.