No locals, but a brisk trade at moorland pub
Martin Hesp climbs to the highest inn in southern England for a warm encounter.
The makers of a popular television programme didn't call their series Location, Location, Location for nothing – the geographic situation of a place can make all the difference in many, many ways.
If, for example, you were to go to a bank manager and tell them that you wanted to set up a business to catch passing trade in one of the highest and most remote places in all of southern England, he'd probably look askance. If you told him that your plan was to establish a pub in such an unpopulated spot, he'd laugh you out the door.
However, if you were to tell the bank manager that the location in question was one of the most beautiful uplands in the UK, he might begin to see sense in your apparent madness.
The Warren House Inn, up there in the lonely but lovely depths of northern Dartmoor, is located 1,500 feet above sea-level, making it the highest pub anywhere south of the Pennines – and it is amazingly remote, as our photograph shows.
And yet – despite a complete lack of locals – it does a brisk and healthy trade.
Pubs in this country are closing at an alarming rate – which is why the Western Morning News decided to do this series in conjunction with Otter Brewery in a bid to examine why it is that certain public houses survive where others fail.
On the face of it you'd expect the Warren House Inn formula to be a recipe for disaster. Put one old building, without mains electricity, into the middle of a sometimes bleak and barren landscape (containing not another chimney-pot in site) and then sit back and expect the bar to be full every day? It does seem crazy.
And there's just one other little foible in the recipe which might add to your woes – as landlord you must never, ever, allow the log fire to go out...
But... And it's a big but – there are two other things in the case of the Warren House Inn to take into consideration. The first is the sheer beauty of the location – and the fact that the general public's appreciation for outstanding countryside has grown and grown in recent decades – indeed, country walking has become by far the UK's favourite outdoor pastime, with people taking to the hills in all their protective modern hiking gear all year round, including the depths of winter.
Then there's the person who runs the pub. It doesn't matter how scenic a location – if the landlord or landlady is a knave or a fool, the place will fail. Peter Parson is neither of those things – indeed, having spent a couple of hours chatting with him up at the Warren Inn I have a hunch Peter knows exactly how to play the cards which our imaginary bank manger would suspect were stacked against him.
As a Duchy of Cornwall leaseholder, Peter has been making a success of running the Warren House for a quarter of a century – and here's what he told the Otter Brewery's Patrick McCaig and I during a busy lunchtime recently...
"Without a doubt, we are the most remote pub in the south of England and, at 1,500 feet, easily the highest. But its position is the most important thing – the appeal is the position and the panoramic view we've got of Dartmoor," he said.
"Being on Dartmoor we've got history going back to the Bronze Age – and a lot of people are coming up here to look at the old cairns and the hut circles. And, obviously, there's a vast amount of walkers.
"There are different types – there's the ones that come here with their compass and map reading who want to do 30 miles in a day. Then there are other walkers who want to do something more gentle – they are probably not quite so secure in these surroundings and they'll just walk in the valley below us. It's not only walking; cycling has also become a big part of the trade."
Patrick joined in the chat: "It's nice to have a pub as a beacon when you're out going for a walk when you're not quite so comfortable – it almost acts like a refuge. What's lovely about this [newspaper] series that we're doing is that it's all about different uses for different pubs – giving them the reason to be there and to be part of a community.
"The community is something that forms 90% of our pubs, but here there is no community," Patrick went on.
"So it is the walkers – and people who are genuinely interested in the moor – who are your customers. What we [as a brewery] are finding now is that a lot of people are going out for a walk at the weekend – and mixing that with a lunch at a local pub within the confines of that walk."
Peter agreed, but added a landlord's perspective: "The whole concept of walking has changed. If you go back a few years, particularly on a Sunday, which is most people's day off – we had [legally] limited hours between 12 and two.
"Everyone had to get their day in, and their walk finished, to coincide with that window. Now we're open all day it's a lot easier...
"If you're out with your children and one falls in the river and you get held up – frustration builds, you've got to be in the pub, it's shut until seven... But now we're open all day, it's a lot easier for families.
"We get people throughout the day – they tend to come in during the early afternoon – they've had their walk and enjoyed their day. There's no time limit – they can relax – it doesn't matter what time they get here, because we serve food all day."
This got Patrick pondering: "When you go walking, is the pub used for sustenance or recovery?" he mused. "That's two very different things – do you feed yourself before you go out, or is it a refreshment when you get back?
"And with children – and I've got a couple of kids – I think the idea of walking the hell out of them before you bring them to a pub is fantastic."
All of which is well and good – on a pleasant day in summer... But what about winter, I asked Peter – did people still come to walk in the wilds of Dartmoor on a bleak cold weekday in February?
"You get quite a few retired folk and people like that who come out on a Monday or a Tuesday even in the depths of winter – but at the weekend it's down to weather," he replied.
"You need either very cold crisp weather when it's easy to walk – or you need a bright day. If you get the mist and the rain, that's no good to anybody – you won't get anyone out here then. The weather is very important to us.
"But, as you say about being a beacon..." he added, turning to Patrick. "We have no mains electricity up here so, the generator banging away out the back there, you can always hear that if you come over the hill there. So you know if you're heading in the right direction. I've done that myself.
What's it like living on the roof of southern England, I asked him?
"Lovely. I think it's gorgeous. You get up in the morning and whistle to the dog and just go off for a walk. Two steps out of the gate, and I'm on Dartmoor.
"We do get snow and we get cut off – but as time passes and you have more four-wheel drive vehicles and better snow-clearing equipment, we get cut off less and less.
"But every now and then we do get a couple of days when nothing is coming through – but that's got a beauty of its own as well. The silence. No vehicles. Unbroken snow. That's gorgeous as well."
Patrick found this interesting: "The brewery drays take it as a challenge to get out in the snow – we have about ten of them," he said. "There are scraps among the drivers to get the best runs and this one is deemed to be one of the best – you can imagine driving across the moor. It's beautiful."
Talk of winter caused me to gaze across at the log fire that was burning away in the grate, despite the fact it was a warm summer day. Like many people in the Westcountry, I knew all about the legend of this particular conflagration, which is supposed never to have been extinguished... "The fire has never been out," nodded Peter when I asked. "It's been alight for 168 years.
"The pub was originally built to service the tin mines and miners would come here in the week – it was somewhere warm for them to meet and congregate in the evenings and drink and gamble," he explained. "The fire was always kept going with peat, which smoulders away.
"Then the mines closed, but we were on the packhorse route between Princetown and Moreton(hampstead) – welcome for any traveller – and the fire was kept alight out of pure tradition, although I can't account for every year, only the last 25.
"Before that the pub was on the other side of the road – but that was prior to it [the fire] in 1845. That pub was burned down and the fire was meant to have been brought over on a shovel – it was the last embers of the old pub."
Watching the constant train of walkers and tourists coming and going from the bar, the thought struck me that the added responsibility of keeping a fire going 365 days a year could be a straw which would break a proverbially overworked camel's back – did Peter ever wake up in the middle of the night worrying he'd let it go out?
"I've never gone to bed that early," he laughed – and with that the jovial landlord went off to serve yet another happy hiker...
If you call at the Warren House Inn and fancy a delightful five-mile moorland walk so that you can return and enjoy a well-deserved lunch, head due east, cross the shallow Runnage Valley and cross the hill to Headland Warren Farm, then stroll south around Challa-combe Down before returning back up to the road past the pine woods of Soussons Down.