Obituary: Poss Grey

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"POSS". WHY was she called "Poss" Grey? Maybe she gave herself the nickname? She always said a cosmetic nose-job went wonky and made her look like a possum. She was one of the great English characters.

I first met Nevart Smith (as she was then) when she was running the Britannia Inn in Elterwater in the Lake District. It was the weekend of the Cuban missile crisis, October 1962. I had spent a long day distracting myself from dangerous politics by trying to locate the graves of Kurt Schwitters and Beatrix Potter. My information about Schwitters was correct (Ambleside churchyard) but I could not find it. My information about Potter (Troutbeck churchyard) was wrong. I later found out that her ashes were scattered on the fellside overlooking Hill Top Farm at Near Sawrey.

I was in the midst of five weeks of walking, staying in youth hostels, and seeking out conversation in friendly pubs. My luck was such that I kept encountering dour and taciturn Westmorland hill farmers whose only reading seemed to have been Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.

So it was a pleasure to walk into the Britannia one evening and be served a pint with a smile by a lady whose size and demeanour put me in mind of Mrs Tiggywinkle. Then, only a minute or two after I took a seat with my drink, the door opened and in came a beaming gentleman who said loudly, "I say, Poss, I don't believe you know my friend, Michael, here. He has the smallest bottom in the whole Lake District."

One heard all sorts of funny things in Poss's many pubs. She had a genius for revivifying moribund country inns and filling them with bon vivants and jolly locals. You could join in the craic between Dr Robert Holmes, the Professor of Anatomy at Leeds University and Allen Beresford of Oughtershaw, as canny a Yorkshire shepherd as there ever was. Poss knew exactly how to put very different people together and make them comfortable - not an easy thing to do in Britain.

When not behind the bar or in the kitchen, Poss was in the garden. I don't think she ever bought a plant in her life. Friends surrendered bits of their gardens with pleasure. On car journeys she always carried a spade, a bucket and a bag. Liberations were certain to happen, and who could yell at Mrs Tiggywinkle?

After her long stint at the Brit, some readers may have encountered her at the George (Hubberholme, Upper Wharfedale); the King George IV, also known as the Tattygarth (Eskdale Green in the Lakes); or the Gate Inn (Yanwath, near Penrith). Or in pubs she often patronised: the Blue Lion (East Witton, Wensleydale), the White Swan (Middleham), the Buck (Buckden, Upper Wharfedale), the Swan (Middleton, Lonsdale), the Mortal Man (Troutbeck, Lakes).

Having known Poss Grey for 35 years I now realise I know almost nothing about her life before she pulled me a pint in Elterwater. But luck is at hand. An ongoing project of mine is a book called The Corn Close Book. Corn Close is our stone cottage in Dentdale, Cumbria. The book is about places we visit on foot and by car from there. And about the visitors. The interesting ones I have photographed by our neighbour, the notable boggart and polymath Mike Harding. Poss is one of the subjects and I asked each one to write out a little piece of autobiography. I have found her notes and here they are.

"I was born long ago (1913) in Cheshire. An odd background. One Armenian grandfather a Professor at Heidelberg; another stoned to death in Turkey. Various Gulbenkian cousins - no oil, they were poets! For his second child my father longed for a handsome, brown-eyed son, but there I lay in my pram, blonde, blue eyes fixed on buds and flowers. He said, `Lili, I think this one's going to be an idiot.'

"I hated every moment at an excellent school in Wales. He said, `After nine years and endless expense, you have learnt how to balance jelly on a fork. No Swiss finishing school for you!' So, three years at a co-ed agricultural school in the SW - hard work, exams and daily riding. I loved it.

"Off to prison went my first admirer, court-martialled for buzzing my house, followed by a second ditto five years later. But, a sudden meeting with an Australian Medical Officer with the RAF (to me a cross between Laurence Olivier and a god), and we were married in four weeks, thus starting my 37 removals and rehousing - a way of life. The [Second World] War, excitement and sadness; I didn't see him for four years. My small bit for the war effort was to establish Dove Cottage in Elterwater, in Lower Langdale in the Lake District. There we gave convalescent care to air crews injured in the Battle of Britain. These men came from all over the Commonwealth.

"Alone again, during the Suez crisis, I thought, `Why don't I take a pub?' Of course, my father said, `What do you know about any business, especially a pub? You don't even drink. You know what the locals will say.' The locals said: `She's either a witch or a bitch. And she uses garlic in her cooking!'

"But, the Britannia (halfway up Langdale where my people lived) took off. It became a Mecca for climbers, flyers, writers, racers (car and horse). One evening, there was a highlight. Into what the locals call `t' posh end' came a very big American, seeking food and drink. That was Jonathan Williams, who became an immediate and lifetime friend.

"Eventually, I bought the George Inn, at Hubberholme in Upper Wharfedale, with its fair share of funny (ha ha) and funny (peculiar) hill farmers, plus plenty of ramblers. After two years, in walked Chris Grey - ex-RAF and GM of BP Oil - and that was that. He whisked me off to Arabia. We lived in Bahrain and I went with him on his continual visits to the Emirates - fascinating countries. I loved the people, who were so handsome and courteous. I bought a pretty Tudor house in Devon for C's early retirement, but he died, very suddenly, in the desert. He was 48.

"Back in the Lakes they said, `Buy a pub. You need work.' So to Eskdale and another lovely old building to restore, but alone. Then, moving again, to Middleham amidst the race horses and the castles. And now, finally, again the Lakes. My three first loves have always been horses, men and gardening. As the saying is: Life Goes On. But, in second gear."

Nevart Smith, publican: born 1913; married secondly Chris Grey (deceased); died Troutbeck Bridge, Cumbria 3 September 1998.