Pennine Way Stage 10: Hawes to Tan Hill Inn

Published 21 October 2015

Kisdon Hill between Thwaite and Keld, on the Pennine Way
Kisdon Hill between Thwaite and Keld.

“Well, there’s the railway station.”

“What railway station? Hawes doesn’t have one,” replied Catherine, as she peered over the bridge where I was pointing.

“It does. And there’s a train at the platform.”

It didn’t look like it would be leaving the station any time soon though. The little black tank engine, with a set of coaches behind it, didn’t really have anywhere to go. The tracks where it sat were long enough to accommodate the train and carriages, and little more. Hawes station hadn’t seen a passenger service depart from its platforms since it closed in 1959, and even then, for the last five years of its life there had only been one departure a day in each direction.

An old steam train at the former Hawes railway station.
An old steam train goes nowhere.

Goods services limped on for another five years, but eventually the line between Northallerton and Garsdale was finally closed. The track was lifted, and Hawes’s station buildings were left to rot. That was until the 1990s when they were converted to into the new home of the Dales Countryside Museum; at which point the tank engine and coaches were installed.

That said, the little engine may well have to move again one day, at least if plans for the Wensleydale Railway ever come to fruition. The railway has re-opened 22 miles of the old line, and has aspirations to re-open the remaining 18 miles, including Hawes. And if it does, the little black tank engine will have to find a new home. Although, it must be said, that day may be some time away.

Squeezing through a small gate in Hawes
A bit of a squeeze.

We left the train behind to contemplate its future, and set forth on the Pennine Way once more. The first challenge of the day was a kissing gate, one so narrow that it was almost impossible to pass through with a fully laden rucksack. Even the more svelte Catherine struggled, and I – being a slightly more substantial person – had next to no chance. We fought our way through, cursing whoever thought that this kissing gate was of appropriate design for a popular long distance walking route, and as we did one of the rubber feet from my walking poles pinged off, never to be seen again.

The second task of the day was to get to Hardraw. This was distinctly easier thanks to a relatively flat stroll through fields. It wasn’t even that far; just a short distance along the trail, but one which would take us to a pub.

It was a bit early for a pint, but this pub had a special feature in its garden, as a wooden sign on the front of the building made clear. According to it, the pub was owned by D. Mark Thompson, who was an “Innkeeper and Waterfall Provider.”

The Green Dragon pub, in Hardraw
The Green Dragon pub, in Hardraw.

Yes, waterfall provider. For behind the pub is Hardraw Force which is the largest unbroken waterfall in England, at 30m in height. And to see it you have to go through the pub and pay thy toll.

We headed inside to dutifully pay our £2, which – it turned out – had to be given to a distinctly grumpy woman stood in the bar. No sooner had we opened the door and there was a loud and irate “YES?” barked at us. And as for the glare I received as I dared to hand over a £10 note and asked for change…

Later that day we met someone who told us that, because of the state of the service, he did his best to sneak in without paying whenever he could. I couldn’t say I blamed him. It was hardly a friendly welcome.

Having escaped from her glaring clutches, we went outside, past the pub’s small bandstand, where regular brass band concerts are held, and on via a gentle, peaceful pathway to the waterfall itself. By all accounts it was used as a location in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; the place where Marion would find Robin bathing underneath. Or so I’m told. The closest I’ve ever got to seeing that particular Kevin Costner film was when, in 1991 and aged 13, I was accosted in a town centre and persuaded to take part in some market research. This consisted of me watching the film’s trailer and answering some mundane questions about it, for absolutely no reward. Still, at least I’d seen the trailer and knew that I really didn’t want to watch the film itself.

Hardraw Force
Hardraw Force – the longest drop waterfall, even if it does look like it’s just a hosepipe sticking over the edge.

The waterfall drawn by Alfred Wainwright for inclusion in his Pennine Way book was about twenty times the width of what we saw in front of us. To us it looked like someone had merely shoved a hosepipe at the top, and was water dribble out of it over the rocks. But then when Wainwright did the Pennine Way, it apparently rained pretty much non-stop. Could the two be related? Well, quite possibly.

We left the pub, wondering if the waterfall had been worth the £4 charge, and rejoined the Pennine Way as it went along a walled drovers’ path. The path was like a death zone; full, for some reason, of rabbit corpses. And not rabbits that had been caught and partially eaten by some predator. These were just rabbits that seemed to have headed to the path to die, and had then done so. We couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes without seeing at least two creatures in various states of decay, and I did wonder why, of all the places they could have gone, they had all chosen this particular lane. Based on the number of corpses, rabbits from miles around had beaten their way here to expire.

In the same way that some people are completely petrified by spiders, I’ve always been a bit squeamish around dead things. At one time, I’d been known to cross to the other side of the road, if it meant I could avoid having to walk past a dead bird. And whilst in more recent years, my ability to cope with such things has improved, the climb through the graveyard of Hollin Hill was severely trying my recently acquired coping strategies, and it was with much relief that when we stepped out of the walled lane and onto moorland, where the dead animals ceased to be a problem.

The heather topped Great Shunner Fell.
Great Shunner Fell.

We were heading distinctly uphill on a long, gradual climb to the third highest point in Yorkshire, the 716m high Great Shunner Fell.

Some fells have distinct features; a classic outline that can be seen for miles around. But not Shunner Fell which has the kind of shape that suggests someone took a ball of play-dough and flung it on the ground, before sprinkling a load of boulders over the area too, probably as an after thought. There’s no steep climb up, and such is the gradualness of the ascent that it takes the Pennine Way 4km in order to climb just 300m in height.

Grey cloud was wrapping itself around the fell and by the time we’d arrived at the stone built shelter at the summit, there was next to nothing to see at all. The cloud had enveloped us almost completely.

A stone shelter at the summit of Great Shunner Fell.
(Not) sheltering on Great Shunner Fell.

“It is as a viewpoint that Great Shunner Fell excels, the panorama being widespread in all directions,” says Wainwright, although we saw very little; just a cloak of grey, which we dutifully admired whilst huddling close for warmth in the shelter.

At least there was no chance of us getting lost. Several other fells on the Pennine Way are horrendous to navigate in poor visibility and it’s easy to lose your way if you’re not careful. On Great Shunner Fell though, it’s not a problem. Instead it was a simple task of following the flagstones onwards. And where there weren’t flags, there were cairns to lead the way; some of which were taller than myself.

Paving stones on Great Shunner Fell
Paving stones on Great Shunner Fell.

Just as our ascent was slow, so too was our descent as the flags weaved their way through the peat groughs. And as we lost height, so too did we regain visibility and some sense of normality. And then, a mile out of the village of Thwaite, we ended up once more on a walled track that, thankfully, was not lined with the remains of furry creatures. Although if I’d read Wainwright’s comment that there’s no public toilets in the village “so you had better do it in this lane” before-hand, I may well have thought differently about it all.

Thwaite village itself boasted not one, but two benches and we settled on one of them to rest our legs, and share a packet of cheese and onion crisps before heading on once more.

Our next stop was the village of Keld, just a few miles away and accessed by walking along the side of the small Kisdon Hill, whose height was just enough to give a good view of the villages and the River Swale.

Looking down on the village of Thwaite
Looking down on the village of Thwaite.

We were now in quintessential Dales farmland; fields lined with dry stone walls, and the Dales’s traditional two-level barns. There are hundreds of them dotted around the Dales, and the design is rarely seen anywhere else. Usually built away from the main farm buildings, the barns were designed in such a way that the animals could be housed inside on the ground floor, whilst the feed was kept safely on the first. A foolproof plan, at least until cows learn to climb ladders.

Keld is a perfect place to end a day of walking on the Pennine Way. It has a nice hotel with a friendly bar inside, several welcoming B&Bs and it’s at the base of a hill, meaning that you can rest and relax in the evening, and save the hard work for the morning. There’s even a tranquil little waterfall, just outside the village, which is perfect spot to sit down and rest if you need to while away some time until the bar opens.

The utterly enchanting East Gill Force
The utterly enchanting East Gill Force

We sat at East Gill Force now, admiring the water crashing gently over the rocks. It was a beautiful spot, enhanced by the autumnal colours of the trees. The kind of place you don’t really want to leave. We lingered, and hovered, eking it out as long as we could. But time was pressing on and we needed to get to our accommodation. And alas, that wasn’t in Keld, but four miles away up the top of a hill. For whilst Keld may well be a perfect place to spend the night, we were going somewhere even better.

We were staying at the Tan Hill Inn.

These days the Tan Hill Inn sits alone and isolated on the top of Tan Hill. Go back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries however and Tan Hill was a hive of activity. This was coal mining territory, and the pub was surrounded by cottages housing the miners and their families. Over the years the mines began to close – the last going in the 1920s – and as a result the pub’s fortunes began to fade. At the turn of the twentieth century it spent several years boarded up and derelict, although gained a reprieve with trade coming from mostly from local farmers. The rise of the motorcar also helped develop the pub as a tourist destination, back in the days before drinking and driving became something to be frowned upon. Trade was no doubt also helped in 1954 when Keld’s only pub was purchased by a tee-total Methodist preacher who promptly closed it down and converted it into a house; all done in order to save the village from the demons of drink of course. The locals who didn’t want to be saved had little choice but to head up the road to the Tan Hill Inn.

The conversion of Keld’s former YHA into a hotel means the village is no longer dry, but the idea of spending the night at an isolated pub – and the highest in Britain to boot – was just one we couldn’t turn down.

Jumping over a stream on Stonesdale Moor
Jumping over a stream on Stonesdale Moor.

The Tan Hill Inn sits four miles from Keld. Those travelling by car can take the narrow, but steep road up from the village. The Pennine Way instead takes the path over Stonesdale Moor. Waterlogged peat and gushing streams made progress slow, with several large leaps required to cross them. But they were nothing compared to the veritable quagmire of churned up mud caused by diggers and excavators, which were sitting silent and nonchalant; doing their best to persuade passers by that they had not been involved in causing the resulting mayhem at all.

It wasn’t exactly clear what work was going on; if it was to improve the path, they seemed to be going about it the wrong way. We even contemplated heading to the sanity of the nearby road instead. Thankfully the disaster zone didn’t last long. Beyond the mud, the moorland even began to dry out a little, and the paths clearer and defined. Of the pub though, there seemed to be no sign.

Maps were consulted, and signposts were checked. There was no denying it. We were definitely on the Pennine Way, so it had to be somewhere. More worrying was that the light was beginning to fade, and the last thing we wanted was to be out in the moors in the dark, wandering around trying to find the only building for miles around.

The Pennine Way's finest pub, the Tan Hill Inn, just about visible in the cloud, and in the distance
The Pennine Way’s finest pub, the Tan Hill Inn, is somewhere in there.

Eventually it was spotted, appearing almost mirage-like out of the gloom; its simple stone building slowly becoming visible in the fading light. And ten minutes later we were stood outside the front door, noting the several cars and even a caravan that were in the small car park.

We gleefully opened the front door and marched towards the bar, only to find ourselves suddenly stopped in our tracks by the sight of a duck sat in an old iron bathtub in front of the pub’s roaring fire. Next to it lay a dog, dozing in the light of the flames.

The dog, it turned out, was called Sherbert, and the duck was a victim of decades of intensive breeding. Which given it was only four months old, was quite an achievement. We were filled in on the detail by the pub’s landlady. Over many, many years, ducks have been selectively bred to gain weight fast; the fatter the duck, the better the price the farmer would get for it. Unfortunately this means that some ducks grow so fast that their legs can’t support the weight of the body. In other words, it can’t stand up, and do all the exciting things that a duck’s life usually involves. The duck needed an intensive course of physiotherapy and that’s exactly what it was now being provided with, starting with a course of aqua-aerobics in the tin bath.

A very poor quality photograph where - if you're really lucky - you can make out a duck sitting in a bathtub.
A duck in a bathtub. Honest.

The duck’s battles with health duly noted, we headed to our rooms to refresh before returning to the bar for the serious business of the day: sampling the Tan Hill Inn’s wares.

For walkers who set off from Keld in the morning, the Tan Hill Inn comes at a slightly annoying time. Leave Keld at 9am and you’ll reach the top of Tan Hill around 11. Too early for lunch, and certainly too early for a pint, meaning the visiting walker will end up nursing a cup of coffee with a glum look on their face. Such a walker has come inside, seen what they could have been enjoying, and begun to regret the way they organised their itinerary. Even having never been to the Tan Hill Inn before, we’d known that organising our trip that way would be fundamentally flawed.

In contrast, our approach meant that whilst we’d had an unwelcome slog up hill at the end of the day, we did have a full evening to sample the pub’s fine range of ales. And this we did, pulling up a stool at the bar from where we could soak in the Tan Hill’s atmosphere, and prepared ourselves for fully loaded plates groaning with the pub’s fine home-cooking.

The outside of the Pennine Way
Standing outside the Tan Hill Inn.

“Do you fancy a Chinese?” asked the man behind the bar. “We’re getting a take-away.”

We paused, looked at each other and wondered if we’d suddenly got transported into a different universe. One where the pub wasn’t sat on isolated moorland, but instead was sat in an urban metropolis with “The Golden Palace” takeaway next door. We looked outside the window, but it clearly wasn’t. Given the nearest village didn’t even have a shop, the nearest takeaway must have been some way away.

Maybe if we’d been walking the Pennine Way all in one go, we would have taken them up on the offer. On longer walking trips, night after night of pub grub can get a bit tiresome. You begin to long for something different; something other than yet another steak and ale pie, or fish and chips. As it was, we’d been walking for a mere two days. And the Tan Hill Inn’s menu included a giant Yorkshire Pudding, filled with mash, sausages and gravy. There was just no competition, and I knew I’d made the right choice.

As the night went on, the pub felt snugger and snugger. The staff treated everyone as if they were old friends, even if they had just turned up a few hours earlier with soggy boots. Here, in the middle of nowhere, every customer was a local. And when I finished my pint whilst the staff were still wolfing down their sweet and sour chicken with egg fried rice, I couldn’t have been happier to hear the words “Pop round and serve yourself!”

Supping a pint at the bar of the Tan Hill Inn.
A pint in the Tan Hill Inn

Grasping the handpull, I executed the delivery of a near perfect pint of Theakston’s Old Perculier; my first pint poured since my last shift behind the university bar some eight years earlier.

“I think I like this place,” I said to Catherine as I returned to the rightful side of the bar.

“Me too,” she replied.

I knew for sure, this place was going to be hard to beat.



13 October 2018 at 11:48 pm

Your post Hawes to Tan Hill had me crying with laughter. A very funny account, well done.
I’m looking to visit again soon with a friend who likes the idea of joining me on one of my walking jaunts of the highest peaks of England, but hasn’t experienced the bleak landscape, cloud and often rain and peat bog of Northern England!

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