The Warren House Inn is one of Dartmoor’s best-known and loved pubs, and at 434m altitude is the highest pub in southern England. It sits alongside the B3212 road a full 3km from the nearest hamlet at Postbridge, in a very isolated and exposed part of the moor. Grim in the winter and stunning in the summer, it seems like an odd place for a pub to be when pubs with much larger catchments are going bust at an alarming rate.
Take in the view to the west and you’ll find echoes of its founding days. Earthworks, leats and walls of long-abandoned buildings litter the landscape. The Ordnance Survey map remembers their names: Golden Dagger, Vitifer, Bushdown, Birch Tor. In the 19th century these places were thriving tin mines employing hundreds of men, and this old staging post on the turnpike was perfectly positioned to quench their thirst. It was busy enough for the pub to have its own warren to keep the punters in rabbit. The miners would occasionally get out of hand. On one occasion, the landlord and poet Jonas Coaker of nearby Hartland had to take flight and hide on the moor when they rushed the pub and stole his booze. There were regular brawls and occasional murders. There are legends galore about guests sharing their room with the landlord’s recently deceased father because there was nowhere else to put him overnight, and the time nobody could in our out for weeks because of snow and supplies had to be helicoptered in, and probably a dozen others. It all seems a far cry from the quaint pub with the roaring fire you find today.
And that fire has its own place in folklore, too. Cross the road with your pint to sit on a picnic table and you’ll be sitting on the original site of the pub, founded as the New House in around 1750. Once I heard that the pub was moved brick by brick from one side of the road to the other for tax purposes, but sadly this isn’t true. The pub did burn down in 1845 and it was then rebuilt on the north side of the road, and according to legend the ashes were carried reverentially across the road to start the fire in the new pub. I have often wondered about this; it seems they would have had to rebuild the place very quickly if they completed the work before the fire had even gone out. Or perhaps they kept the fire going until the new inn was finished, then carried it over. Either way, the fire has been kept going since 1845, and it’s a very welcome sight after a long walk in the drizzle.
It’s the passing trade that keeps the Warren House going, as it did before the miners arrived. With few people living nearby since the mines closed, the Inn is now a favourite hangout of people passing by on the road, much as it was in 1750. Passing cyclists and motorists drop in for a drink or a spot of lunch, walkers park up at one of the many nearby car parks and refresh themselves after their walk. There are loads of great walks around here, and on a warm summers weekend it can be difficult to even park, let alone find a table.
For me though the Warren House is best enjoyed on a winter’s day when the mist is down and you’ve just enjoyed/endured a wet boggy slog up to Grey Wethers or back from Grimspound. Your waterproofs gave up long ago and you stepped on a quaking mire that gave way. You probably went the long way by mistake: it was that sort of day. You walk in to the pub with its long wooden bar, and order a pint of Otter in a dimpled glass and take a pew – because there really are pews – in front of that awesome fire. While you dry off and cheer up, your pie arrives. What more could a middle-aged chap want from life?