Long-gone landlady still supportingthe George andDragon in spirit

Date: Tuesday 8th July 2008
Landlord... .... with an early 1900's photograph of the George and Dragon.
Landlord... .... with an early 1900's photograph of the George and Dragon.

IT might be some 100 years since Mrs. S. E. Varty was landlady of Garrigill’s George and Dragon pub, but the present owners are convinced that she’s still keeping an eye on the premises.

A coloured engraving done by a local farmers son(name unknown)
A coloured engraving done by a local farmers son(name unknown)

Not only does she stare sternly down at customers from her photograph which hangs on one of the pub’s internal walls, but unexplained happenings in other parts of the building, especially in the main serving area, suggest she’s yet another spirit to be found behind the bar.

Since October, 2005, when John and Lilian Devitt and their son Alex, now 14, moved into the village pub, they have uncovered lots of fascinating information in their quest to put together a complete record of the George and Dragon’s previous landlords and landladies.

“We know the pub dates back to at least 1621, because we’ve found a date stamp upstairs, but it could be even older than that,” said 43-year-old John, who is originally from London.

“We’ve had a lot of help from Alston Moor Historical Society in pulling together the record and it’s fairly complete from about 1829, but we still have a few patches where we don’t have names.

“I believe a record of the pub’s landlords has previously been documented in a book, but this suddenly disappeared in the 1970s and nobody knows who took it or where it went.”

The George and Dragon’s historical past was one of the reasons why the Devitts decided the pub was the one for them after searching for the right premises for 18 months.

Although John originally worked in the catering business and had run a bar when a student, he went on to work on development projects for Africa for the British Council and, before taking over the pub, lived in the North East, where he worked for Shell Livewire for about seven years.

“In my job for Shell Livewire I used to encourage people to set up their own businesses,” he explained. “Lilian and I had always wanted to have our own business, and had talked about having a country pub, so we decided to do it. We searched for 18 months throughout the North East, Yorkshire and in Cumbria before we found this place.”

As well as fancying a pub with history, the Devitts also wanted it to be situated within a proper living community.

John said: “There are less holiday cottages in Garrigill than there were seven years ago. It’s a proper community there are about 150 to 200 people living in the area, although the village used to be much bigger when there was lead mining in the vicinity.

“There are a lot of families and the number of children in the village has risen to more than 30. We also have numerous well-supported events, such as a firework display and ‘Guy gala’.”

The George and Dragon was built on the old coach road to Tynehead and, even today, much of its trade comes from people passing through Garrigill, as this is where the coast to coast cycle route converges with the Pennine Way.

Originally, there was no bar in the pub. Customers ordered their drinks at a hatch and these were served to them on trays. In 1963, the four small public rooms were converted into one large space.

Although no longer a coaching inn or offering accommodation, the George and Dragon still exudes an “olde worlde” atmosphere. On the walls are pictures of the past, along with lists of tariffs from years gone by and old bills

one made out to a Mr. Gregory and friends in 1908 for teas, lunches, bed and breakfast and several drinks amounts to 19 shillings and 111/2 old pennies (equivalent to about £1 today)!

The pub also has open fires, and its low ceilings and stone-flagged floors have been retained along, it seems, with the ghost of Mrs. Varty and that of a servant girl, who the Devitts have been told is called Mya.

Lilian said: “We’d only been in the pub about two weeks when one day I found I couldn’t get through the door from the pub to the dining room. It was as if the door was locked, yet it wasn’t, and suddenly it just opened.” But there have been numerous other unexplained occurrences a voice was heard to call the dog when nobody was nearby; Lilian felt something touch the top of her head while working, yet there was nothing there; and John found he had been shut out of the building when the back door was mysteriously locked from the inside.

“Although we thought the ghost in the bar area was Mrs. Varty, as she has been seen and looked like the woman in the photograph on the wall, we were told by a psychic that there’s a ghost of a servant girl hovering around the door between the bar and dining room,” said John.

“We’d been here about two years when a woman, who said she was psychic, came into the pub and told us she had no idea why she’d been drawn to the village. She said the second ghost was that of a young servant girl called Mya, who worked in the pub in the mid-1800s. She explained that the girl used to hide in the dining room and hold the door to stop the landlord from getting to her however, the woman reckoned both were happy ghosts.”

But John was less than happy one Friday night on discovering another strange activity which, he believes, one of the ghosts was responsible for. “I was really busy and went to change the beer barrels in the cellar, only to find two barrels of real ale had been disturbed, which meant their contents couldn’t be sold, which would have been costly if the brewery hadn’t replaced them for me,” said John.

“And one New Year’s Eve customers watched as a goblet flew off a shelf behind the bar on to the floor, for no apparent reason, and then a corkscrew, which was also hanging behind the bar, suddenly started spinning.”

John has been helped with his compilation of landlords by both locals and visitors to the village. One of these is Friday “regular” Tommy Elliott, a village resident who is now in his 80s and is the pub’s “oldest drinker”. He has been supping at the George and Dragon since 1942 and admits to having been barred by the landlord in 1963 for swearing. Barmaid Shona Elliott, who has worked on and off in the pub over the past 22 years, has also been a fount of information.

But John has also had surprise donations. An old black and white photograph which hangs on the wall near the bar was a gift from the great-grandson of a former landlord.

John said: “The man hadn’t been to Garrigill for years and decided to call in for a meal and break his journey. It was the very day that I’d put up a poster asking for information or old photographs of the pub.

“He returned the following week with a picture which was taken outside the pub in the early 1920s. His great-grandfather is standing in the doorway and his brother and second wife are sitting on a bench.”

The visitor was also able to give John details about how his great-grandfather served in the trenches during World War I and how he had the dreadful job of killing the horses in his charge when the enemy advanced.

That landlord’s name was Clark, but surnames such as Gardner, Varty, Davison, and Leyburn have also been associated with the pub over the years and it is thought one family, the Viponds, had connections with both the George and Dragon and another village pub called The Fox, which was nearby, but which closed about 100 years ago.

John’s passion for local history has resulted in some of his customers literally getting a taste of his enthusiasm and sampling food from past centuries.

“Once a year, just before Christmas, we have a theme night,” he explained. “In 2005, we set a table up the middle of the room and served a six-course meal of food from the 1600s.

“We’d researched recipes from 1660, which was the first Christmas celebration after Cromwell’s ban on the festival was lifted. One of the dishes, which we served by candlelight, was a haunch of venison with spices of the day.”

Last year, 1745 was chosen in recognition of the Duke of Cumberland and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s associations with the area at that time, so the menu was Scottish with a French influence. A decision on this year’s theme has yet to be made.

John urges anyone with information or old photographs of the George and Dragon to contact him. He said: “We’d love to hear from anybody who has anything which relates to the pub or who worked here, even up to more recent times. We can take copies of any memorabilia and photographs could be e-mailed.

“In trying to put together the list of former landlords we’ve heard lots of amusing things about them and the pub, but I think the funniest tale is the one about a landlord in the 1970s who had a horse but had nowhere to keep it so he stabled it in the dining room!”

l To contact the Devitts call 01434 381293.