Saturday, 11 October 2008 As I force breakfast down this morning, I watch the lads in the Battlefield Band load
up their vehicles across the green, and drive away. Alan, Mike, and Alasdair head north to Edinburgh; Rob is southbound, to his
home in England; Sean's destination, I don't know.
I take an easy driving tour today. Start up Arkengarthdale, then turn off toward Barnard Castle. Another Premonstratensian abbey, Egglestone, seems about as interesting as Easby.
Drive back to Arkengarthdale and up the moors of Tan Hill, where I ask the barmaid at the Tan Hill Inn, the highest premises in the UK, to pour me a noontime half. She apparently misunderstands me, and I'm forced to drink a full pint. Oh crumbs. The Tan dates from the 17th century, and there is record of an inn on the spot for at least a century before that, serving the needs of local coal mines. Today, the remoteness of the Tan is a great part of its allure. The Pennine Way passes through here, and the Tan is an important link. It was important, too, for drovers herding livestock over the moors from the Dales to market in Kirkby Stephen. The weather here can turn in a hurry, and it's said that the fire in the inn burns 365 days a year. The story goes that a long-ago landlord traveled to Richmond to renew his license. On realizing that his new license had no specified hours of operation, he questioned the magistrate. "You have permission to open at any hour," he was told. "Refuse no one at Tan Hill." To be turned away could mean death.
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The Tan, Arkengarthdale, Reeth, and Swaledale will always remind me of Fremont Hutchinson...Fremmie. I wandered into Reeth on my first visit to the Dales in 2000, and found a room at the Kings Arms. The landlord at the time was Mark Thompson, a talented artist as well as a publican, now at the Green Dragon in Wensleydale. Mark introduced me to Fremmie, a grand old gent of 90 who lived on his own just up the street, and popped into the Kings Arms of an evening for a brandy and ginger or three. I learned that Fremmie was the last person to mine lead in the Dales (see The Last Lead Miner, posted two years earlier), and that he'd made his living in the Dales in many different ways. Among other things, he was the landlord at Tan Hill in the late '50s and early '60s. There was an infamous incident one Sunday evening in 1959, when a constable found the Tan packed far beyond legal capacity, two hours after nominal closing. In court, Fremmie's solicitor invoked the magistrate's charge of years agone--"Refuse no one at Tan Hill"--to no avail. Fremmie's summons and a news clipping describing the event are posted on the wall of the Tan to this day.
Fremmie's hearing was pretty well shot when I met him, and his accent was a bit of a mystery to me, but somehow we hit it off. I invited him to lunch at the Tan, where the landlord gave him grief for being away too long. We spent the rest of the afternoon touring Arkengarthdale. He showed me the house he was born in, the school he went to, the minehead where he worked, the pub he drank in (the school and pub now being private homes). It was a great day. The following year, I returned to Reeth, and Fremmie beamed to meet again his "friend from Americay" (I'm not sure he ever quite caught my name!). We spent three days driving all over the Dales, visiting friends and seeing the sights. At the Red Lion in Langthwaite, Fremmie chatted with the bartender while I looked at photos on the wall showing the filming of the television series All Creatures Great And Small. There was an exhibit on Dales families, including his, at the museum in Hawes; when we arrived, he was treated as a celebrity. In Richmond, running errands, I lost track of him, and for a few anxious minutes considered what kind of greeting I'd get back in Reeth if I returned without him. The man who lost Fremmie! I found him waiting patiently at the bank where I'd changed money twenty minutes earlier. At the hostel in Grinton, I photographed him chatting quietly with Val on a bench in the back garden, in the golden light of an autumn afternoon. There were other old friends, villages, moors, drystone walls he'd built during the Depression. It was an unforgettable time.
Shortly after Christmas that year, I got a phone call from a Dales acquaintance, informing me that Fremmie had taken ill one day and died quite suddenly. Of course I felt terrible--I'd never see him again, drive him 'round the Dales, buy him a brandy and ginger, watch him play air-fiddle with his cane. But I couldn't find it in my heart to feel sad for a man who had survived hard times, mining and the Depression and the war, had found a wife in Wales and buried her in his beloved Dales, had lived to the age of 91 and enjoyed life to his last day. We should all be that lucky.
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I leave the Tan Hill Inn and drive into the upper reaches of Swaledale, then up over Buttertubs Pass and down into Wensleydale, where I stop at the Green Dragon to look up Mark Thompson. As usual, he's not there. I console myself with another half of Landlord.
On the way to Leyburn, further down Wensleydale, I come up on a roadblock. Someone says that a motorcyclist has hit a car head-on. The bikers love the winding roads through the Dales, and go very fast. Fortunately, there is a detour available, sparing me the sight of the inevitable consequence. I poke around the market town a while before returning to Reeth. Quiet night in the Black Bull.