On Top of England
With the post to Tan Hill
by F Heathcote Briant
(copyright Post Office Magazine, August 1936)
|Ten lonely miles along
the crest of the Pennine Chain - ten miles during which we met
a shepherd and his dog, a few black-faced sheep and a dozen
bullocks: nothing more.
The rural postman's delivery from West Stonehouse to Tan
Hill in the North Riding of Yorkshire is said to be the loneliest
round in England. Starting from Keld, a tiny hamlet of grey
stone cottages encircled by bleak fells, the last houses in
a dwindling Swaledale, it traverses wild sedge-covered wind-swept
moors, dips into boulder-strewn ravines, passes derelict coal
mines, climbs along a mountain ridge, and ends at the inn
at Tan Hill, 1,732 feet above the sea, the highest and the
most isolated of all the hostelries of England.
The Yorkshire Dales are unique: the race of men who rear
the sheep in the hill farms is unique too. But the route over
which Mr. Jack Rukin, the Keld postman, has tramped for more
than thirty years deserves an adjective even more emphatic.
This morning I went with him across the moors and the fells
to Tan Hill, and if there is a more extraordinary postal walk
in this country I know not where it is to be found.
I am writing this article by the fireside in the Cat Hole
Inn at Keld. I have chosen an easy chair, for those unaccustomed
moorland miles were wearying: I am glad I have not to go with
Mr. Rukin every day.
It was early morning when we left the Post Office at Keld
and walked down the hill towards the Swale River. We turned
off the road at once and took to the fields, for during the
first half mile there was correspondence to be delivered at
a few scattered farms up on the fells.
We climbed quickly: Keld was just a huddle of cottages below
- a toy school and a doll's house with a splash of red that
was the Post Office and its letter box. The murmur of the
Swale came faintly to us, but soon we went higher and the
noise of the river was hushed.
Fording a stream by leaping from boulder to boulder we scrambled
up a steep field, came out on a track, passed the five cottages
that are West Stonehouse and turned northwards towards Tan
Hill. A gale was blowing and it was very cold.
On the track to West Stonehouse
"The route dips into boulder-strewn ravines"
|There were now no houses,
no farms, no trees, no smiling meadows. Nothing but the high
undulating impressive moor and a distant wilderness of ridges
and shadowy hills. Here and there were shaggy sheep each with
its attendant lamb. Some of them took fright at our approach
and as they ran across the road Mr. Rukin counted them. It was
interesting to hear him use the old Swaledale numbering instead
of the usual one to ten - "Yan, teen, tether, mether, pip,
sezah, azah, catrah, horna, dick."
The road climbed yet higher and a mist came down and the
countryside disappeared. Still miles to go along a path that
could not be seen: miles on top of the Pennines to deliver
a newspaper and a postcard.
All this land was once a forest, the home of wolves, wild
boar and red deer. There is an old record that states that
the Earl of Richmond once charged a William de Keld with chasing
deer in the forest without permission.
We skirted peat crevasses and passed a long-disused lead
mine. The mist lifted and we glimpsed Great Shunnor Fell,
Whernside, and far to the south the outline of Ingleborough.
The bleating of sheep, the cry of a peewit and the crunch
of our shoes on the stones were the only sounds to break the
As we walked along Mr. Rukin told us something about sheep
rearing in the dales. Each farm has what are called so many
gaites, that is, it can pasture a given number of sheep on
the commons. To save bother among the farmers regarding the
areas over which their sheep should feed, the local landowners
elect shepherds who look after all the sheep in a district
and see that each flock has its turn on the better meadows.
Life is quiet in Upper Swaledale, but last year Keld was
in the news - or rather, Keld was on the air, for Mr. Rukin
and his father and other folk from the village took part in
a broadcast feature programme about the Yorkshire Dales.
Post Office people played an important part in this programme,
which was so popular that enquiries have been received from
Yorkshiremen all over the world asking whether a record was
made of that lively forty-five minutes.
Among the singers and speakers who came to the microphone
that night was Miss Blythe, the postmistress of Hawes over
in Wensleydale, who told tales of her work in the post office
and recited some old Yorkshire ballads; Mr. Tom Parker, the
postmaster of Muker, the Swaldale village at the foot of Buttertubs
Pass, surrounded by the babble of many rushing brooks, and
Mr. Jack Rukin, who described his route to Tan Hill. Mr. Rukin's
father spoke too. For sixty years old Mr. Rukin, who is a
great "Swardill" character, worked in the Tan Hill
Colliery - which used to supply coal to the whole district
but has now been closed. There were several of these mountain
collieries in the old days - the Kettle Pot, William Gill,
and the King's Pit. None is worked today.
"We reached the Inn; we were on top of England"
|The coal was carried
down to Lancashire and into Westmorland by pack-horse and donkeys.
The old collier is still alive and our postman colleague told
us, "Dad is eighty-eight but he don' feel it and he don'
Mr. Tom Parker, by the way, is one of the Swaledale Veterans'
Choir which has broadcast in the "Owt abaht Owt"
programmes. He is also the postman on the Muker-Keld route.
The last half-mile to Tan Hill was the bleakest stretch of
the whole journey. It is here that the snow packs in the winter.
"Sometimes," says Mr. Rukin, "the drifts are
higher'n my head and I have to go on a pony when it is too
bad for walking." Only on one occasion has he failed
to get through. One occasion in thirty years on a walk like
We reached Tan Hill Inn: we were on the top of England. The
correspondence that had been carried so far was handed over,
and outgoing letters were stowed away in Mr. Rukin's pouch.
The inn is a lonely, unpretentious hostelry, but its owner,
Mrs. Peacock, gave us a real Yorkshire welcome.
For thirty-five years she has kept the inn. Her children
have had to walk daily to school at Keld.
"We were snowed up for days on end"
|It has not always been
so deserted as at present. The inn was used at one time by farmers
fetching coal from the mines, by lead miners and by pedlars
on their way to Westmorland. In the mining days hound trials
were held at Tan Hill and attracted crowds. Bare fist fights
too were popular once. Even the war made its influence felt
at Tan Hill, for people came to gather sphagnum moss for shell-wound
"It is a bit quiet," said Mrs. Peacock in answer
to my questions about life at Tan Hill, "and we always
look forward to Mr. Rukin's visit. I have not got a wireless
set and the post is my only connection with the outside world.
I have had visitors from many countries here, and they write
to me sometimes. Winter is our worst time as we get snowed
up for days on end. Still, we manage somehow. We keep hens
and goats, and dig out our own coal and peat from the moor.
The postman brings up food parcels from Keld. Since hiking
became popular trade has increased."
We sat down on a long settle in front of a blazing fire and
drank tea. It was very cosy and the flickering flames were
reflected in well-polished brasses hanging from the walls.
We put away the thought that we had still to face those long
miles back to Keld.
I came across a reference to Tan Hill Inn in a book on the
old inns of England. The writer was hardly complimentary.
"It is in the midst of a ghastly hill-top solitude in
the North Riding," he wrote. "You get to it - I
will not say most easily and conveniently, for convenience
and ease in this connection are things unknown, but with less
discomfort and fatigue - by way of Richmond, and, when you
have got there, you will curse the curiosity that brought
you to so literally a howling wilderness. For there the winds
do generally blow, and when they do, heaven send you have
not to face them, for it is a shelterless common where the
inn stands in loneliness, and not a tree or a hedge is there
to break the stinging blast."
Down on the road to Westmorland stand the ruins of a toll-house,
a silent witness that at one time it paid someone to live
here and collect tolls from the traffic that used this mountain
The inn was first established for the sake of likely custom
from the mines, and before the Bowes to Barras railway was
built the innkeeper was kept busy.
A track leads from the inn to Bowes - a desolate ten miles
away on the other side of the great Stainmore Forest. Bowes
is the nearest town and is on a Roman highway that runs eastwards
to Greta Bridge with its memories of Nicholas Nickleby and
Mr. Wackford Squeers. The one time Bowes Academy is pointed
out as the supposed original of Dotheboys Hall.
It was time to leave. We said good-bye to Mrs. Peacock and
started on those bleak miles to Keld.
To-morrow Mr. Rukin will go out to Tan Hill again: it takes
a hardy dalesman to make that journey daily in all conditions
Perhaps I could conclude no more appropriately than by giving
a verse from a genuine Swardill song broadcast by Mr. Tom
Parker, postmaster, postman and singer, and the other veterans
of the Muker Choir.
A song I sing o' t' Yorkshire Dales,
That winnd frae t' moors to t' sea;
Frae t' breast o' t' fells, where t' cloud-rack sails
Their becks flow merrily.
Their banks are breet wi' moss an' broom,
An' sweet is t' scent i' t' thyme;
You can hark to t' bees safe, dreamy soom,
I' t' foxglove bells an' t' lime.