Book review: The Inn at the Top by Neil Hanson

Only an idiot would want to run a rat-infested Yorkshire pub where, it is claimed, the wind is strong enough to ‘blow the horns off a tup,’ mused Neil Hanson as he dialled directory enquiries back in 1978.
The Inn at the Top by Neil HansonThe Inn at the Top by Neil Hanson
The Inn at the Top by Neil Hanson

Within the space of four weeks, Hanson and his wife Sue were ensconced behind the bar of the Tan Hill Inn in Swaledale… new landlords of the most remote, bleak and isolated pub in Britain.

The story of their Dales odyssey – rats, damp, sheep and all – is fodder for one of the funniest, most entertaining and life-affirming books of the year, an affectionate uphill trek through a breathtaking wilderness to meet the tenacious Yorkshire folk who live life at the top.

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At 1,732 feet above sea level the Tan Hill, affectionately known as the Inn at the Top, is the highest pub in the British Isles and notorious for its harsh weather conditions.

When the Hansons took over the pub, which sits on top of a bleak Pennine ridge, it had racked up four changes of landlord in the previous three years.

Four miles from its nearest neighbour and so exposed that the wind was reported to have torn off car doors and forced customers to enter the pub on their hands and knees, the ugly building seemed to have changed little since a 19th century writer remarked that it was ‘the loneliest habitation of the land.’

The annual rainfall was over 80 inches which fell on about 250 days of the year – on the other 115 it was usually just drizzling. In winter, the temperature could drop below minus 20C and the winds blew at 50mph.

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And to make matters worse, there were no mains services of any sort at the pub, just a geriatric diesel generator, a Calor gas cooker, an old pump to supply water from a stream over 400 yards away and a radio telephone.

Add to all this the fact that the Hansons had no experience of the licensed trade or running a pub, no knowledge of farming and a complete inability to understand the dialect of the sheep farmers who were their local customers, and the stage was set for a disaster-strewn tenure.

The Hansons’ Dales adventure had started on a madcap impulse. They were living on the northern fringes of the Peak District when Hanson’s eye was caught by a newspaper article headlined ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Landlord.’

Despite initially dismissing the owners’ plea for new managers as ‘a preposterous idea’ and discovering for themselves that ‘even Heathcliff’ wouldn’t want to live at the Tan Hill Inn, the couple fell in love at first sight with the vast landscape and cloudscape that ‘was never the same for two seconds together.’

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Eager, well-meaning, in over their heads and with only sheep and grouse for company, the Hansons duly set about tackling collapsed rendering, cracked windows and flaking paintwork… and learning to translate the local dialect.

A warm and often hilarious account of tenacity and survival, The Inn at the Top is packed with true Yorkshire-style anecdotes, brushes with the law, late night lock-ins, adventures with colourful locals and weather stories to make your hair curl.

Sit back and enjoy…

(Michael O’Mara, paperback, £8.99)

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