Drive between Princetown and Moretonhampstead and you will pass what is possibly the most famous inn on Dartmoor. It is reputed to be the second highest inn to be found in England and is literally festooned with legend and traditions. So before things go any further there is something that needs to be cleared up, thanks to Andrew Hackney (see visitor’s book, 31/10/09) it can be confirmed that the Warren House Inn is in fact the 10th highest inn to be found in England. The name of this establishment is the Warren House Inn and it takes its name from the nearby, one-time Headland Rabbit Warren.
This however was not the original inn as a look at Donn’s map of 1765 will prove:
Donn’s map of 1765
The first inn on the site was actually built on the other side of the road to the present structure and was known as the ‘New House’. It is thought that the first inn was built around 1760 which coincided with regrowth in tin mining in the area. The inn would have also serviced workmen and later travellers of the newly built Moretonhampstead turnpike road of 1772. Due south of the New House was a large rabbit warren which has also been called ‘New House Warren’. During this period the combination of mining activities, rabbit warrening, and passing travellers must have made for a bustling place.
In 1831 the indomitable Mr and Mrs Bray passed by the New House and from all accounts was none too impressed. When going to tend to his horses he found the stable full of turf and remarked that the building had seen, “better days”. Sometime around this period the legend of the ‘Salted Down Feyther‘ became attached to the inn although some people will question whether its association is correct.
By 1834 the self styled ‘Dartmoor Poet’, Jonas Coaker had become landlord of the New House inn and by some reports it was not the most salubrious of places. On one occasion some miners became so unruly that Coaker had to flee the inn for sanctuary upon the moor, leaving the pub to run itself. On another occasion there was a fight which resulted in the death of a miner.
In 1845 the inn moved location for during this year John Wills built a new building on the other side of the road. The inn was still called the ‘New House’ and tradition has it that from this date a peat fire was built in the hearth and has burned continuously to this day.
An old postcard celebrating the ‘eternal flame’
It was reported in the Exeter Flying Post that the February of 1853 saw a particularly severe spell of winter weather. At this time a couple had been married at Christow and following the ceremony had left with a waggon load of their possessions in order to move into a new house near Tavistock. The snow became that bad that having reached the Newhouse Inn they became stranded and ended up spending their honeymoon there.
The only thing that has changed today is that instead of burning peat or vags the fire is now made of wood. Sadly, several years ago I witnessed an occasion when late one winter’s night the fire was extinguished by a very unconventional method that would have been more suited to the toilet, so the tradition is not true. And as the picture of the ashtray below shows that obviously was not the first occasion the fire has been doused:
There is a slate plaque on the eastern gable wall outside the Warren House Inn which reads, “L Wills – Sept 18th 1845” which clearly marks the completion of the new building and the opening of the inn.
During the 1850’s several reports were made regarding the behaviour of the miners with several fights occurring. It is also supposed that at this time the inn was also serving as a butchers shop, supplying both locals and miners alike.
On the death of John Wills in 1850 the inn, now called the Warreners Inn passed to his son John and it appears that the inn had become a collection point for deliveries of all kinds. It is thought that sometime during this period that the legend of the ‘Grey Wethers‘ had become attached to the inn. In the early 1850’s the actual landlord of the inn was Joseph Warne who after the death of his sun relinquished the place to William Jinnings, sometime around 1857. Jinnings remained in-situ until 1861 when William Maddock succeeded him as landlord. In 1866 the Warne’s returned with Joseph at the helm. Still the in was much frequented by the miners and at this time there are a few reports of locals complaining they could not get a drink as the inn was packed full of tinners. In about 1874 a well noted occurrence happened when James Hannaford of Headland Warren was returning home from the inn. For some unknown reason he wandered to close to an air shaft near Hamlyn’s Gully and the ground opened up and swallow the unfortunate man. Luckily his fall was broken by some cross timbers about 14ft below the surface and it was on these that he spent the night. His faithful dog remained by the edge of the hole and it was by his barking that the rescue party were able to locate and extract poor Hannaford.
In 1882 Joseph Warne died and Thomas Hext took over as innkeeper and he continued to welcome the miners to the inn. Things did not change and the inn was witness to many fights and quarrels amongst the tinners. By the very nature of the tin mines, men from all over the country came in search of work and this mixture of nationalities and counties meant there was always a ready spark for trouble.
By this time the name – Warren House Inn was in wide usage as the Ordnance Survey map of 1888 clearly shows:
In 1898 John Wills II died and passed the lease over to his son John III who made a few minor repairs and allowed the Hexts to remain as landlords. In 1905 one visitor described the inn as being run by “two primitives,” and the room as being a flag floor upon which stood some settles and was warmed by a pear fire. An Inland Revenue survey of 1910 described the inn as being in a bad state of repair and noted that the ground floor consisted of a sitting room, taproom, kitchen and cellar whilst upstairs were 4 bedrooms and a toilet was outside in the yard. Plans for renovation were submitted to and were finally completed in 1914. During this period a clause had been written into the lease that if the Golden Dagger mine captain ever complained that his miners were incapacitated due to drink sold by the Warren House inn the tenancy would be terminated with three months notice. Record show that the miners were still causing trouble and one story relates how one miner called ‘Bill Mac’ was that drunk that he picked a fight with the large granite cross which stands near the inn – needless to say he lost.
In 1915 John Wills the third died and left the tenancy to his daughters who consequently sold it to the Duchy in 1918. In 1921 William Toop Stephens acquired the tenancy of the inn where over the next eight years he managed to build a thriving trade from both the miners and the increasing numbers of tourists who were now driving out to the moor. Sometime in the 1920’s it became the norm to hold dances in the shed on the opposite side of the road, by all accounts these were popular events both among the Postbridge locals and the miners. Sadly in 1929 William Stephens shot himself in the bar and died immediately from his injuries. After this tragedy Stephens’ wife Mary carried on running the inn until 1930 when she left due to bad health. The next incoming landlord was Arthur Hurn who remained at the inn until 1951. The postcard below dates from around 1935 and is said to depict Harry, alias ‘Silvertop’, Warne who was a regular at the inn, sitting infront of the ‘eternal flame’ in the bar. Tradition has it that he used to wear a bunch of ‘lucky’ white heather in his jacket pocket which at that time was something the tourists always wanted. It is said that if a visitor asked him to sell it he would at first refuse as it was a ‘rare’ thing. Eventually he would succumb and exchange the bunch for a drink and as soon as his customers had left the inn he would produce another bunch for the next gullible idiots. There was also a rumour that the reason he had a plentiful supply of white heather was because he would blanch the ordinary purple heather by putting boxes over it thus depriving it of daylight and turning it white.
There then came a succession of landlords:
1963 -1968 William Ash
1968 -1971 Dennis Seaman
1971 -1984 Basil Goad
1984 -1988 Tony Berry
1988 – Present Peter Parsons
Opposite are a few old postcards depicting the Warren House Inn throughout the years. It is obvious from the middle right-hand postcard that winters were always something to contend with on this part of the war. One of the worst examples was the winter of 1947 when the inn was cut off for six weeks.
As previously mentioned the inn was always popular with miners from the nearby mines which included the Vitifer Mine, Golden Dagger and Birch tor.
Another legend that is linked with the story of Jan Reynolds are the Aces Fields which lie opposite the Warren House Inn. Another version of how these enclosures came into being is that two miners were playing cards at the Warren House Inn. After a while one of them bet the last of his money on a ‘dead certain’ hand and lost the lot. This annoyed him so much that he built the four ‘card enclosures’ as a reminder of the money he lost and the foolishness of gambling.
In letterboxing circles you may occasionally hear mention of the ‘Eight Lions’ which refers to the eight concrete lions that support four benches in the beer garden of the Warren House. It is amazing from how far away they can be seen, hence they have been used in letterbox clues.
So if ever you are passing the Warren House inn why not drop in, you won’t be disappointed especially if it is a cold, quiet winter’s day. I would suggest during the holiday season and Sundays to think twice – it tends to get busy and smells of suntan lotion!
Greeves, T. A. & Stanbrook, E. 2001 The Warren House Inn, Quay Publications, Brixham.