At the end of a day exploring the crinkled Yorkshire coast, we end up almost by accident at the Mill Inn, Harwood Dale. At the far end of a minor road, this pub defies the passing of time. The words ‘Mill Inn’ are painted faded white on the roof slates, but otherwise there’s nothing much to give this away as a licensed house, scattered as it is on the outside of a bend in the grass centred back-road, behind piled up hedge and silent agricultural artefact. Up the shaggy garden path, there’s an uncanny sense of trespassing as you walk nervously through the open front door. A dim tiled corridor broods at me. There’s a closed door to the left, and further down to the right another basic door is ajar, with a transistor radio spilling noise clumsily through the gap like the wagging rear end of a massive watchdog who’s not aware of you yet. After a few seconds of convincing myself I haven’t just walked into someone’s house, I try a speculative; ‘Owdoo, is there anyone serving?’ There’s a clatter of cutlery. A long pause. The radio turns off. ‘There may as well be. I’m nearly done.’
Hamish McGregor is the unlikely name of the landlord here. He emerges tall from the open door and strides past me to open what turns out to be the bar. Bar is a generous word. A shelf, cut from pine logs, is host to 3 retro keg fonts. Carling wasn’t even black label when this bar was laid out. 3 pints of Theakston’s later, we’re chatting, and the story of the dale is told again.
Surrounded by a flock of unmatched chairs, faded pink flowered wallpaper, and decades of baffling trinkets, Hamish is voice for much more than his own life story. Tales told to these walls have sunk in and settled down to make the décor their new home. Lives distilled, he is outlet for more than he realises. He knows where the Cruck houses once stood. Their lost and robbed stone footprints apparent only to those who can pick out the forgotten vegetable plots and orchards set in ancient loving order in otherwise random and ragged moorland. Gooseberry bush and feral apple tree are blue plaques for tenants gone. And gone far, for the population of this valley pooled their meagre resources and sailed together to America, to forge new ranches and take their chance together in the Appalachians. Depopulated and in need of farmers, the dale drew Scots down to tend sheep and form new communities in the abandoned hermit shells.
And the Church here is the glue that held generations together through those great changes. One of the first built after the reformation, it could claim to be one of the first Church of England dedicated buildings of all. Now the roof is gone, and although he remembers vividly his mother as warden, and recalls holding the church-records unbroken to the 1500s, the space is reclaimed by nature, and has dissipated back into the collapsing estate. Hamish is what's left now. His father came to plant a few trees and met his mother who was second generation at the pub. ‘She’s a nice lass, with a pub. What more do you want?’ He has the rare ability to speak the words of others without edit or agenda. Those who are long gone can talk directly through him without fear of misrepresentation or mockery. The stories of the dale have lost their other outlets. Families moved on, youngsters priced out of the dale, or just left in search of work or fun. This man carries a personal responsibility on his shoulders. He’s the last outlet for a great pressing torrent of story. We are his only customers today. I have another pint on principle.
Outside the back door, you cross a small yard to the gents. Other openings are full of wood piles, rusting trailers, derelict hosepipes. Outbuildings cascade off one another, trailing loosely into the woods, falling, finishing as forgotten piles of mossy stone. It’s a building that doesn’t end, but decays slowly into nature. There are stories printed in the rubble, unreadable, but perhaps still alive inside the pub. There's still time for another round.