The highest inn in England at 1732ft, Tan Hill Inn sits in the middle of the featureless wastes of Stainmore which is broken only by the constant ant like traffic on the A 66 some 5 miles to the north. Tan Hill was not always so isolated for from the late middle ages to the 20th century it was busy with colliers working the shallow coal seams scattered across the moorland. Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby in their 'Yorkshire Dales' of 1956 reported that "at the end of the 19th century as many as 50 or 60 carts might be assembled on autumn days at Tan Hill Pit to fetch coal for the winter".
Distance: 9.5 miles
Time: 5 hours
Conditions: paths and tracks in good condition and well signed. Walk should not be tackled in adverse weather.
Refreshments: Tan Hill, Ravenseat
OS Explorer Map 19 or OL30
Originally published: 19 August 2016
The road past the inn from the 17th to the 19th centuries was also busy annually with thousands of cattle being herded from the Scottish borders and Brough down into Arkengarthdale on their way to southern markets.
Our 9 and a half mile walk follows one of the old coal roads south west to Ravenseat and Whitsundale before returning via upper Swaledale and Stonesdale along the Pennine Way. Most of the route is on moorland tracks. Try to choose a bright day with good visibility when the grey-green Pennine landscape is at its best.
With your back to the inn go right towards Brough and in a few yards turn left down the road to Keld. In about 150 yards bear right on a path signed to Ravenseat. This was once the coal road across to Birkdale and on to Kirkby Stephen. It is still easy to follow and well signed. It descends into Stonesdale and continues downstream past a couple of sheepfolds to a footbridge.
On the far side the path climbs the southern flanks of Thomas Gill before bearing left over the moors of Robert's Seat. Visible at the highest point a mile ahead, a wire fence is a good target to aim for. Just after crossing it by a stile look out for the ruin of Robert's Seat House, once the home of the local gamekeeper. From this point wide views open up over Whitsundale and its scattered farms, some of the most isolated in the Pennines. The path now descends across grazing land, high above the rugged Pryclose Gutter to reach Ravenseat. To avoid crossing a deep ford over Lock Gill take a permissive path to the left and cross the beck close to where it joins Whitsundale Beck.
Ravenseat is an 18th century farmhouse with two packhorse bridges of the same date indicating the farm's importance at a crossing of ancient ways. It is also the home of the writer Amanda Owen, the Yorkshire Shepherdess, who welcomes the many walkers on the Coast to Coast trail which passes her door.
We join the trail and follow it down Whitsundale. From the farm's front door return to the the bridge over Lock Gill and then go right, through a gate in front of a cottage. The path soon climbs above the beck which plunges down a number of pretty waterfalls before entering a mini gorge. From our elevated path we can hear the stream roaring below past the rocky face of How Edge before its emergence at Oven Mouth.
The path continues past a large ruined sheepfold on the left before reaching Smithy Holme Farm. Some 50 yards beyond a second farm look out for a path on the left which runs along Cotterby Scar high above the over Swale for nearly half a mile. There are glimpses through the trees of the river and especially of Wain Wath Force, one of Keld's many famous waterfalls.
The path then joins the lane from Keld to Tan Hill at the top of the steep bank from Park Bridge. Turn left along the lane into the tiny hamlet of West Stonesdale. Away to the right and high above the valley you will probably make out walkers on the Pennine Way. We aim to join them but the path signed from West Stonesdale's houses is very steep.
A more level alternative is to continue along the road for another 400 yards to a bridleway, signed right, along the access track to Frith Lodge, visible high up on the moorside. It's easy going almost as far as the private bridge over Stonesdale Beck. The bridleway bears left upstream just before the bridge and continues to the ruins of Stonesdale lead mine, one of the most remote of Swaledale's mines. Despite the obvious investment in the now ruinous but well built engine house, the mine was not very successful, producing only 716 tons of ore between 1855 and 1860 when it closed for good.
Here you have to ford the beck and climb on a short, steep tractor track to join the Pennine Way by some barns in about 250 yards. Then turn left.
If Stonesdale Beck is in spate and unfordable then climb over access land up the bank to the left of the ruins to reach the road. Turn right for some 300 yards to Stonesdale Bridge and, on the other side, bear right on a rough track to join the Pennine Way.
From here it is almost 2 miles across Lad Gill and then up over Stonesdale Moor back to Tan Hill, following another coal road which linked the mines to Keld and upper Swaledale. The views are outstanding especially northwards towards Teesdale. Away on the skyline to the left you should be able to make out the pillars on Nine Standards Rigg. Only the calls of curlew and lapwing break the silence. In the last half mile the path winds around the shallow coal pits which once brought industry to this isolated place.