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Widecombe History Group Talks
The History of The Warren House Inn and the surrounding area.
by Dr Tom Greeves.
Elisabeth Stanbrooke and Dr Tom Greeves have spent a considerable amount of time and energy researching the history of The Warren House Inn and the surrounding area and we were given a most interesting and informative illustrated talk at our June meeting about their findings and the book that resulted from it.
This is a very special and unusual place, claiming to being the second highest pub in Britain situated some 1425 feet above sea level, in a most isolated spot in the middle of Dartmoor on the Postbridge to Moretonhampstead Road. This road across Dartmoor used for generations of travellers, needed a stopping place for horse and man and it is believed that French Monks travelling between Exeter and Bodmin in AD1113 passed this way. Long before that, prehistoric man lived here and evidence of this lies in the many sites that can still be seen in the area bears this out. A most significant site a little to the rear of the Inn is a cairn now known as "Kings Oven". Early records show it as being named "King Arthur’s Oven", can Dartmoor claim some ‘Arthurian’ connections? Incidentally the words ‘Oven’ and ‘Smithy’ were sometimes used in years gone by to name old structures when they in fact have nothing to do with what we today would associate with those words. This structure was shown to Mr & Mrs Bray c1830 built into the side of the cairn.
At that time they recorded the following words over the doorway of the pub, -"If you want cider or beer, your hearts full of cheer, if you want meat for a treat there be rabbits to eat".
The presence of the nearby tin mining works of Vitifer and Golden Dagger, where many men worked particularly in the 18th century, would also have been a good reason for a ‘hostelry’ to satisfy their needs. There is plenty of evidence of surface tin extraction from 12th century and Medieval works of 1500 onwards in this area as well.
The proximity of Headland, New House, Sousson and Challacombe Warrens, all commercial rabbit farms in the past would also have provided trade for the landlord of the Inn, and the fields with rabbit proof walls.
The present building was constructed in 1845, a beautiful little slate plaque records this engraved thus:- "J. Wills September 18th 1845" - but previous to that there was The New House Inn on the opposite side of the road. A map of 1765 clearly shows this and it was possibly a busy place long before that. The earliest landlord recorded is William Tapper 1786.
Dartmoor Legends and Folklore are numerous and must not be permitted to be lost. One such story is of a packhorse driver and a vicar’s daughter from Exeter, eloping and taking over this Inn. There is another of when a traveller stayed overnight there and found a body in a chest in the room in which he was sleeping, in the morning he mentioned this to man of the house only to be told that it was quite all right, "Tis Father, he died ‘tother day and us couldn’ take to be buried so mother salted ‘n in so he’ll keep till us can get him buried proper", there is an associated tale that when they did decide to get him buried the daughter was sent to Widecombe to ask the vicar to bury him and when the vicar asked when father had died to his amazement he was told "Oh about six weeks ago!"
Another tale associated with the pub was of a man who wished to buy some sheep and was offered a group of wethers (male lambs) which he bought unseen, only to find next day that the sheep were in fact stone circles known as "Grey Wethers" about three miles due north of Postbridge!
Nearby is Bennett’s Cross and a story has it that a Scottish miner left the pub in a drunken state and stumbled across the cross, thinking it was someone he disliked set about punching him with his bare fists with the obvious result of a very damaged hand!
One of the most welknown landlords to live there was Jonas Coaker 1801-1890 (the self styled Dartmoor Poet), he lived there during the mid 19th century and Tom showed a wonderful photograph of him - quite a character! It is reputed that on occasions the miners would have too much to drink and would get into violent fights at the inn, and legend has it that the landlord would leave them too it often resulting in them drinking the bar dry and great financial loss to him!
Another family named Browning once lived there and reference to them can be found in Widecombe Church records, as indeed other families connected to New House as well..
Several early photographs of the exterior and a few of the interior of Warren House were shown, some 100 years old with horse drawn carriages and the like outside, one showing Tommy Hext six feet tall a mug of cider in his hand and above him a board stating - ‘wine, beer, spirits, cider and tobacco’ - he ran the place for about 40 years until 1920.
Headland Warren c1890 was featured in one photograph showing Jim Hannaford, the warrener, he died in 1899, his son John with his wife Hetty and a little girl. Jim had a lucky escape once when walking home from Warren House Inn to Head Land he fell down a mine shaft and his faithful dog stayed all night sat above the shaft until a search party found him the following morning.
Harry Warne, known affectionately as ‘Silvertop’ a real character, featured in some of the pictures, he was a miner at Vitifer a regular supporter of The Warren Inn, he died in 1941. He was reputed to be an avid story teller and he also had an inexhaustible supply of lucky white heather, tales say that he would blanch some to assure a supply and no doubt the heather and the stories provided several free drinks ! There were a couple of outstanding photographs of Vitifer showing the houses and sheds as they were in the early 1900’s and another of the interior of the working sheds. Jan Leaman and others made a diverse group of miners that came from all over Devon to work at these mines. There were other buildings around the inn, one referred to as Moses Bawden’s bungalow built in about 1875 and demolished in 1974, much to many peoples distress. On the Postbridge side there was West Bungalow, known locally as ‘Cape Horn’ due no doubt to the fact that it was such a stormy site, with no shelter, a Mr & Mrs Richard & Anna Jury once lived there. Due to its isolation and the height above sea level it is prone to the severity of any winter and some especially were very severe. Some photographs showed this clearly with high drifts, the effect of snow clearing operations that eventually opened up the road often after long periods of being completely cut off from the outside world.
Other names associated with The Warren House Inn, Bill Stevens in the mid 1920’s and the fact that Golden Dagger was still being worked then, helped his trade. Bill’s son Alfred was pictured outside the inn in his "A.A." uniform complete with motorcycle, a social history item with various connotations!
The Stevens family had a great deal of ill luck when they lived there, Bill committed suicide, they lost their two sons in motorcycle accidents and Mrs Stevens continued for a while with her daughter Lena. The rabbit on the iron bracket holding the Inn’s sign was placed there in 1920, so any picture without the rabbit is pre 1920, a point worth remembering when looking at old photographs of the pub.
The Hern family took over after the Stevens, and were there during the World War II period. It was said that during that time pieces of shrapnel often fell on and around the pub. In c1955 Brian Sillem took on the Inn and were there at the time of the severe winter of 1962/63.
In 1963 the landlord was Bill Ash, he had a great deal of modernisation done resulting in it being as it is today. Prior to that there was only the one bar, a tight fit for a lot of miners or in latter years tourists. After Bill came Dennis Seaman, and then Basil Gould, next Tony Berry and now Peter Parsons.
The fire in the hearth, reputed as never have been permitted to go out, is very much part of the folklore of The Warren House Inn, and long may it continue as such.
Tom’s talk gave us all a ‘Flavour of the place’, but the best thing to do is visit it for yourself, taste the ale, get a copy of Tom & Elisabeth’s book on The Warren House Inn, sample the fare and of course enjoy yourselves!
During Question Time:-
Mention was made of the Lysander Aircraft that used the road nearby to land and take off there, they were renown for the short length of runway needed.
The fact that petrol pumps were there at one time.
The old tea-rooms of the 1950’s.
When researching New House care needs to be taken as to which one you are reading about or studying, as for example there was a Newhouse on the Widecombe/Ashburton boundary. This emphasises the need for care and patience when researching history.
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