[Update April 2018. A planning decision last week marked the end of the road for the remains of the former Saltersgate Inn. Looks like there was no way to save the old building, but it’s grand that the site is finally going to get a new lease of life as a restaurant, brewery and taproom. I’ll certainly be stopping in for a pint. And I wonder if the construction work will finally solve the mystery of the excise man?]
[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.
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.