The cautionary tale of the Saltersgate Inn

[Update September 2016. It’s two years since this blog was published, and recently there have been developments at the Saltersgate. The inn buildings were auctioned earlier this year, and a commenter below kindly reports that they’re now in ‘capable hands’. I don’t know what the new owners plan to do with it, but I for one am delighted that someone’s taken a chance on the old place. Best of luck to them.]

A few days ago, in a snooping sort of a mood, I went to have a look at the sad remains of what was once the Saltersgate Inn. I parked up at the Hole of Horcum, descending through the triangle of woods penned in by the busy road switchback at Saltergate Bank, and came out opposite the fenced-off shell of one of Yorkshire’s most famous smuggling inns.

I’ve heard a few versions of the story, but this one is my favourite. Back in the latter half of the 1700s, the north east corner of Yorkshire was a hotbed of smuggling, what with its winding, cave-pocked coastline, hidden moorland valleys and close-knit communities. The fishermen apparently used to take their cobles (small, open boats still used today) out into the North Sea and hook up with big cutters lurking off the coast, heavily laden with tea, salt, booze and baccy. Once ashore, places like Whitby, Staithes, Robin Hood’s Bay and Saltburn were warrens of hiding places and fencing networks.

Of course you still had to get it inland, and one of the first decent roads to connect Whitby with the rest of the country was what is now the A169. It was started in 1759, and it climbed up through Sleights and Blue Bank, crossing sparsely-populated moorland before dropping into the market town of Pickering, from whence it wasn’t so very far to York. The Saltersgate Inn (or the Waggon and Horses as it used to be) was situated mid-way along this route, at the bottom of the steep zig-zag still sometimes known as Devil’s Elbow. It was a perfect staging point for contraband, and the landlord (a retired sea captain in some versions of the story) was up to his neck in it. I’ve even heard that the bank itself is named after the smugglers, salt being one of the main commodities they used to shift, and ‘gate’ (or sometimes ‘yate’ or ‘yat’) being Yorkshire dialect for a road or way (a relic of old Norse, like the suffix ‘gata’ in Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyway, one dark night, a lone exciseman entered the inn to catch a band of smugglers red-handed with their goods spread all over the tables. He drew his pistol and backed away towards the door in a bid to get back to his horse and ride for reinforcements, when the landlord entered silently and cracked his skull from behind. They hid his body under the fireplace, then lit the fire and never let it go out, lest the exciseman’s ghost should rise to wreak his revenge on the inn and those within. And so the fire burned for more than two hundred years.

In some stories it’s a larger detachment of excisemen who raid the pub, fail to find any contraband and leave, except then one rider gets suspicious and rides back for another look just as the smugglers are celebrating their deception. In other tales it’s the devil who seeks shelter from a storm, is driven into the kitchen by a priest who’s staying at the inn, and is finally imprisoned in the smoke from the fire by the quick-thinking publican. Whatever version you choose to tell, I daresay if you carried out archaeological excavations you probably wouldn’t find anybody down there, and there will still be some former landlords knocking around who could tell you the truth about whether they really did keep that fire going at all hours. Folklore is folklore, and there’s no need to spoil a good story by trying to tie it to facts.

And yet.

The Saltersgate used to be a great hikers’ pub, with decent food and a good pint of Theakston’s. Trouble was, their passing trade diminished with the centuries. Back when my grandad used to motor out to Whitby, they used to stop at Saltergate Bank to let the car engines cool (by the way, I’m not freestyling with my spelling – the inn has an ‘s’ in it while the bank doesn’t), but in the modern era, it’s no great hardship to drive the extra twenty minutes to Whitby. The community around it, which at one time included a school and a church, disappeared or fell into ruin save a couple of farms, and I guess their business as a pub just ran out.

Finally, six or seven years ago, the pub closed, and it has been dogged by ill fate ever since. Various developers have bought it, but each time their plans have been foiled by a lack of funds, local opposition (a scheme to turn it into holiday cottages foundered after a possibly rather counter-productive campaign to save the inn) or sheer bad luck. Despite having planning permission to be turned into a hotel and restaurant, funding disappeared at crucial moments. At some point, one developer ran out of cash half way through gutting it, and simply left it to the elements, a rack of rusting scaffolding still standing against its walls and its roof wide open to the sky.

The heavy weather of the North York Moors can do a lot of damage in a few years, and by the time another owner got hold of it, the place was a wreck. This new fellow once again found his dreams for the building dashed by financial misfortune, but to his credit he did find a fair bit of money to shore up the roof and board up the doors and windows.

It’s on the market again now, and has been for two years, but I feel like you’d have to be rich or insane to buy it. The buildings are looking very rickety (would they need to be knocked down, I wonder?) and I suspect its value may be as a plot rather than a building. Perhaps someone with vision and a bit of luck will get their hands on it eventually (Midge Hall by Falling Foss is a cheering illustration of what can happen in this area when the right people get hold of a charismatic derelict), or maybe the exciseman has had his revenge after all this time and the inn will crumble to ruins.

The fire is well and truly out, after all.

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22 Responses to The cautionary tale of the Saltersgate Inn

  1. Jenny says:

    Can’t help hoping that some crazy visionary will buy it and turn it into a good pub again. Fingers crossed we will spot it on Grand Designs in a few years time.

    • indyjols says:

      I’ve been hoping exactly the same thing. It’s crying out for Kevin McCloud to stand in its gutted interior in a hardhat, doing a piece to camera with his trademark respectful scepticism.

  2. Susan Wild says:

    Hi…Recalling the 1940’s to late 60s my Aunt and Uncle Nan and Charles Thistle were Landlords at Saltersgate Inn.At the time we lived in Newtown,Derbyshire.Every summer we holidayed to Whitby with large family including my elderly Grandfather all piled into the car with small trailer carrying our suitcases.Such happy days always calling in at Saltersgate on the way.Nan served the most wonderful warm scones with jam and cream,her specially I recall.The pub then was always busy with coach parties and passing trade they were constantly on the go.
    Thank you so much for your wonderful articles.Sandsend was a great favorite with its shallow paddling pool and also for sailing yachts.Loved the sea frets something magical and dangerous about them making your face seem fresh and dewy!!
    I live in Devon now,will definitely be following your articles.My Brothers and Sister live in Australia,the article has gone to them Iam sure they will be fascinated.
    Thank you so much again……Susan Wuld

    • indyjols says:

      So glad you enjoyed it, Susan, and lovely to hear about your own connection to the Saltersgate and your reminiscences of the Yorkshire coast. Sandsend is as lovely as ever, and over the Easter holidays that paddling pool on the beach has been seeing some good use from little people!

  3. Simon Birch says:

    Thanks for the bit of back story to this place. I’ve walked the Hole of Horcum several times and was always hoping someone had revived the inn, for purely selfish reasons so I could take some refreshments mid way along my hike. If would be great to see it given a new lease of life – perhaps it needs a literary connection to boost its appeal; it could be North Yorkshire’s very own Jamaica Inn, although I’d hope for a more sensitive redevelopment than the Bodmin Moor version. I’ll have to make do with liquid refreshment in Lockton or Levisham instead for the time being – it’s a hard life!

    • indyjols says:

      Evening Simon. I feel the same way – and for the same selfish reasons! The area is one of my favourites, and I’d love to be able to stop in for a pint and a pie. It seems to be off the market again at the moment, but I still hold out hope that some visionary will get hold of it one of these days. Maybe I will just make up a literary connection and add it to this blog. I bet no-one would call me out on it. Dickens stayed in Whitby, didn’t he? Sure he must have stopped for a pint at the Saltersgate on his way out.

    • KatieB says:

      Simon, it looks like your wish may be coming true!! The Saltersgate Inn is under new ownership after they paid 107K at auction. The new owner(s) are a little shy at the moment but I can assure you that it is definitely in very capable hands if previous ventures are anything to go by.

  4. Jay H says:

    I’ve have lived around there all my life & for starters, Saltersgate cannot be knocked down as it is a grade ll listed building, i have tried to buy it for the past 8 years, if i could buy it today, i would, it holds a great deal of love in my heart. I stayed at the Saltersgate every weekend from around 1978 to 1994, i have tried every which way to purchase the property, with unlimited funds available to restore it. (to how it was origioannly as i could get)
    It was a company in Leeds that originally put in for planning permission to turn it into flats, it now has outline planning for a restaurant & hotel with an extension.
    When the Leeds company stripped it all out, the contents including the bricks for the fire place (which was origionally in the kitchen) stored all the furniture including a lot of my late fathers & grandfathers brasses. The only thing i have are the hand nmade glass blocks from the side door, which i’ve had since 1981.
    Where there are now, i dont know, my search & fight for this place continues.

  5. I passed this old building today on a coach trip and decided to look up it’s history. What a shame it hasn’t been restored, such a wonderful history cannot be left to die. Best of luck with your efforts Jay.

  6. brian halliwell says:

    When on holiday in Scarborough heard ghostly stories of this building. Any truth in them?

  7. Alec says:

    I remember being locked in at the Inn for some after hours drinking, when staying with my cousins at Warren farm – probably around 1980-86 IIRC

  8. Tony Ives says:

    I was told a different version of the devil’s elbow.
    When God created the earth he finally made England but the Devil saw that Yorkshire would be a good place to dwell. When he came down to earth in North Yorkshire he was tired and fell to sleep resting his weary head on on his hand. God saw where he was and frightened him of to Lancashire saying be away, this is God’s own county. This is why the devil now lives in Lancashire and the proof is the indentation the Devil left with his elbow which we know call the “Hole of Horcum”.

  9. Paul Theaker says:

    Hi everyone . We’re trying to trace previous owners of the Saltersgate Inn but we only have the first names which are Roger and Marie !! Roger has a son named Jason !!
    Sorry that’s all the information we have at the moment . We had some great times there and stayed over when the rooms had been re-furbed !! At that time the Pub was “Biker” friendly and Roger would let us park the motorbikes in the garage/ shed on the other side of the road !!!
    Any info would be greatly appreciated
    Paul & Michelle

  10. Alfred W Thorne says:

    When in 1956, The Guards Regiments move their training base from Pickering to Scarborough, it was bad news for the Saltersgate Inn. I well remember the warm welcome of the Peat Fire, after a days training on Dales at ‘Blakey’ topping up the hill. us NCOs. and officers would be enjoying a pint of the best, while the squadies were digging in for the night. And there were a few sons of well known people of the day, among the drinkers. OH! to be young and fit again.

  11. Janet Coulson says:

    Mr Great grandfather Matthew Graham was born in Lockton in 1838. On his birth certificate his father’s (also called Matthew) occupation is listed as the tollgate keeper at Saltersgate. Does anyone have any further information about the toll gate keeper. He died in 1868 aged 87 in Lockton and his wife was called Hannah Foxton.

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