EXPLORING THE YORKSHIRE DALES – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Yorkshire, England: August 23, 2022: Our search for renown veterinary surgeon James Herriot and the town of Darrowby proved futile. But if you locate the actual town of Thirsk in Yorkshire you will strike gold! The man you seek is not James Herriot, but James Alfred Wight – known locally as Alf. And he resided in Thirsk.
Alf, a highly regarded veterinary surgeon – turned author – gave birth to James Herriot. He also created Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, Mrs. Hall, Helen Alderson, Mrs. Pumphrey and Tricky Woo, and all the other creatures, two and four-legged, who live in fictional Darrowby. In doing so, Alf captured the hearts and minds of young and old – readers and television devotees – in the British Isles as well as across the many ponds and oceans that occupy planet Earth. His books about a young vet living and working in England’s Yorkshire Dales, mid-20th century, continue to capture hearts and minds today.
JAMES HERRIOT OR JAMES ALFRED WIGHT?
Alf Wight IS James Herriot. Better said, James Herriot is Alf Wight’s creation. Back in the late 1960s, Alf’s wife Joan gently suggested that all the wonderful tales of animals and their owners he had collected throughout his veterinarian life just might make good reading. She offered this sage suggestion on the occasion of his 50th birthday.
Her comments struck a chord. Not long after, Alf, budding author, wrote his first story. That story soon was joined by many more and ultimately became – through his American publisher, St. Martin’s Press – his first full volume of stories about the animals and people he encountered, All Creatures Great and Small.
In America, the TV series by that name quickly became a hit. PBS broadcast it on Sunday nights in the ’80s and ’90s. Author Johnny Byrne wrote the television series. Now, once again we can join the Herriot/Farnon fun and fray, complete with a new cast, Sunday nights on PBS. This means several new generations are being introduced to All Creatures Great and Small.
THE RICKMANS PAY DARROWBY/THIRSK A VISIT
Last week, August 23, my family and I visited Darrowby – uh, make that Thirsk! We five “did” the Yorkshire Dales. My son, also James, Jim for short, drove us in a British Ford Kuga. It was a far cry from the battered Austin Seven that James Herriot bounced over the rough terrain of the Yorkshire Dales, summer and winter, in daylight, and the deep, dark, dead of night.
Upon arrival in Thirsk, our first visit was to The Bake-Well, a delightful pastry shop where we five sat out front under an umbrella and enjoyed treats (mostly chocolate) dispensed by the delightful woman inside. We drank in the local atmosphere. We got to admire many a neighborhood dog who accompanied his or her master/mistress to the sweet shop. It made us miss our dogs back in Colorado Springs.
Then on to the crown jewel! Skeldale House right across the street in Thirsk.
There, the World of James Herriot Museum invites you to come, partake, relish and enjoy – close up and real – the setting we’ve seen on our TV sets back home. In the hallway, three vets’ coats hang on wall hooks – overseen by the ticking grandfather clock and the 1930s-style telephone that jangles James and the others awake in the middle of the night.
HERRIOT CENTRE OPENED IN 2019
The sitting room is where the three men and their five dogs relax by the warmth of the fireplace. Across the hall is the small dining room. The kitchen extends through the middle of the house. The surgery, the consulting room and waiting room are toward the back. But it was the upstairs – today the home of the “Veterinary Science Rooms” – that captivated my grandson and granddaughter. The Yorkshire Vet memorabilia room opened in June 2019 in appreciation of the benefits to the Herriot Centre, in Thirsk – Yorkshire’s Herriot Country,”
For those who truly follow and “live” the show, the “The Yorkshire Vet Room and the adjacent Interactive Gallery” offer what is as close to reality as possible of a vet’s life out on the Dales in the late 1930s. A life-size plaster horse head – its mouth open to reveal its huge teeth – invites the curious to tap each tooth to discover which one needs extraction. And then there is the plaster hindquarters of a cow, also life-size. According to the pamphlet I bought, “this provides ‘the not to be missed opportunity’ to put your hand up a cow’s bottom – an essential skill that every vet has to learn.”
DANIEL OBLIGED. I DID NOT!
Actor Christopher Timothy who played James, says that he was asked repeatedly if he “actually did do it” for real in the series. In answer to the question, he took to wearing a T-shirt that said: “Yes I did.”
Life size replicas of a horse and a sow, also a sheep and a goat occupy the Yorkshire Vet Room. On display are veterinary tools and instruments, animal bones and skulls, and more. The objective is to teach children about farm animals and how they interact with our lives.
Back downstairs, we discovered the completely enclosed garden – hidden from the street by the front of the house. The setting is stunning – intensely English green with a combination of the subtler hue of the lush grass and the darker richness of the leaves on the trees. All of this is punctuated by lavender and white blossoms. A statue of Alf Wight holding a small dog in his arms is the focal point.
What better? The town of Darrowby and the delightful characters we met there some 40 years ago are back!
About Alf Wight:
Choosing a subject where he was more experienced, in 1969 Alf wrote If Only They Could Talk, a collection of stories centered around his experiences as a young veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales. The book was published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by Michael Joseph Ltd. Wight followed it up with It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1972. Sales were slow until Thomas McCormack of St. Martin’s Press in New York City received a copy and arranged to have both books published as a single volume in the United States that same year. Wight named this volume All Creatures Great and Small from the second line of the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful“.: 271 The resulting book was a huge success.
The author required a pseudonym because the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons‘ regulations prevented vets from any type of advertising. A reliable source states that he “chose the name after attending a football match in which the Scotland internationalist Jim Herriot played in goal for Birmingham City”.
Thanks for reading my blog and newsletter. I hope you will sample my books about the U.S. women pilots of World War II, the WASP, as well.