This Tuesday marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of the world’s most famous vet, Alf Wight. better known by his pen-name, James Herriot. Paul Kirkwood took to his bicycle in Wensleydale to visit some of the places associated with Herriot and the TV series inspired by his books.
It’s as difficult to whistle as it is easy to remember. The theme tune of All Creatures Great and Small was the sound of Sunday evening in my house when I was growing up in the eighties. My Dad, then a cattle auctioneer, told us to “pipe down” as we gathered round the TV so he could hear the tune more clearly and later delighted in predicting the diagnoses as James Herriot assessed the symptoms usually, and famously, stripped to the waist in a gloomy barn with his arm up a cow’s bottom.
Perhaps the appeal of the programme to my brothers, sister and I lay in the traits of the main characters – a sort of veterinary Three Musketeers – which must have rung a chord with kids. There was intrepid but vulnerable James, Siegfried, the clumsy uncle, and mischievous Tristram who Siegfried described as a “debaunched choirboy”. Then there was Mrs Pumphrey, owner of – or should that be grannie to – Tricky Woo, the pampered Pekingese, and Mrs Hall, the headmistress of a housekeeper not to mention a host of craggy old farmers. Elderly actors with a strong Yorkshire accent had never had it so good nor had it as good until Heartbeat came along the following decade.
Watching the programmes now they have a stagey feel to them, the majority of scenes acted out inside belying the stories’ rural setting. In the second series this was borne partly out of necessity since Christopher Timothy, who played James, had broken his leg. Siegfried, played by Robert Hardy, delivers almost every line with a stream-of-consciousness flourish and a toss of his head as he bowls in or out of the room.
Having moved north and become familiar with the Dales I can now see some of the joins in continuity. In the opening scenes of the first episode James alights from a bus in Richmond and turns to face Siegfried’s practice – in Askrigg. I was bound for the same destination and would get there by pedal power.
I began in Middleham, described by Alf as “the jewel of Coverdale”. (I’ll call Herriot Alf when referring to places associated with the real-life vet and James when describing locations from the TV series). Crows called and the church clock struck nine. The only people up and about were either clutching newspapers, leaving hotels with coat-hangers full of clothes or jockeys clip-clopping to the gallops through the early morning mist. The sun in September has a lie-in. I too saddled up and followed in their trail on the road that was the final stretch of Alf’s journey from his home and surgery in Thirsk to his holiday cottage in West Scrafton, my first port of call. Alf bought the cottage, tucked away behind the corner of the village green, in 1978 which was the same year that the TV series started.
The shop in the next village, Carlton, where Alf used to buy digestives to sustain him on his rounds is no more but there are still lots of signs that rural life remains alive and well. The harvest festival was about to start and a poster advertised the start of the indoor carpet bowls season in the village hall. Carlton once lay on the coaching route between London and Richmond when the Dales were a deer park but today the village could not be calmer.
I left the seclusion and headed up and over a sea of now brown heather that separates Coverdale from Wensleydale and rises on the left to the hulk of Great Whernside. A sign reads ‘Road unsuitable for coaches and HGVs’. It was unsuitable for vet’s cars without brakes too as Alf found out while travelling to a farm at the bottom of the 1:4 bank. Reluctant to make a huge detour, he decided to attempt the double hairpin bends using first gear. Like my virtual guide, I didn’t come a cropper but was reminded that my brake blocks needed changing.
The Wensleydale Heifer in West Witton was one of Alf’s favourite pubs but I didn’t halt here knowing that there were two more notable Herriot hostelries further along my round.
A pristine old AA telephone box at the roadside after Aysgarth is a real throw-back to Herriot’s heyday. Decommissioned and now a listed building, the box owes its smart appearance and flower beds to a couple from Darlington who come over month to tend to it.
The TV series’ version of Skeldale House in Askrigg also looks just like it did 25 years ago. I had lunch over the road in The Kings Arms which, for the purposes of the drama, became The Drover’s Arms. Prints of the actors hang on the walls while the main bar with its huge hearth is just as gloomy as I recalled it. All that was missing were pewter tankards and noisy farmers.
I found the conviviality I was seeking four miles back along the north side of Wensleydale at The Wheatsheaf Inn in Carperby where I had my dessert. Alf and Greta Garbo spent the night here – a year apart, I hasten to add. She stayed during a break from performances at Catterick Garrison and he honeymooned with wife Joan (known as Helen in the books and TV series), as plaques both inside and outside the pub testify. They spent the week tuberculin testing and when they set off for home all the pub’s staff had to push their car to get it going.
Minor roads, ideal for cycling, run parallel to the main road in Wensleydale and the Wensleydale Railway also threads its way along the valley. It would’ve been familiar to Alf before it closed in 1954 only to be reopened by enthusiasts three years ago. I watched as, unhindered by demarcation, the guard shut the level crossing gates at Wensley Station … then jumped back on the rear coach before continuing his journey.
In my quest to visit as many Herriot landmarks as possible I dipped down to check out Redmire’s bus stop which was in fictional Darrowby for the purposes of the TV series. The fabulous freewheel made up for the unremarkable – if, indeed, picturesque – site.
Of greater interest is the village’s ancient oak. A couple of years ago, a lady tending her borders told me, the tree was on the point of collapse but it was not felled it largely because of its historical significance. John Wesley used to preach under the branches on his visits to the village’s Methodist chapel opposite, now the village hall. The tree had long been propped up by four posts and, thanks to a donation from Yorkshire Water, further remedial work was carried out to sustain its life. At least, that was the plan. Sadly, this spring the tree failed to bud and is now considered beyond help.
I returned to Alf’s romantic rendezvous by visiting Bolton Castle, where he proposed and, finally, Wensley Church where James and Helen were married in the TV series. The gravestones are at all angles like toppling dominos.
Middleham has a fine selection of traditional pubs, posh restaurants and tea shops. For my evening meal, however, I had only one place in mind. I drove home via Bedale and the takeaway that’s name makes me smile every time I pass: All Pizzas Great and Small.
These are some other TV locations from All Creatures Great and Small:
Langthwaite Bridge, Swaledale: bridge from opening credits of first two series.
Fore Hill Gate (between Langthwaite and Feetham): watersplash from same credits.
Ellerton Abbey, Grinton: Mrs Pumphrey’s house, now a B&B.
Finghall Station on Wensleydale Railway: Darrowby Station.
Ivelet Bridge: where James and Helen have one of their first encounters.
Thornborough House, Leyburn: the Ministry of Agriculture.
Hardraw Church: Darrowby Church.
Hawes Cattle Mart: Darrowby Cattle market.
Distance: 37 miles – or 26 miles without the Askrigg loop (see below).
Parking: In the square in Middleham. No charge.
Leave Middleham on the road signed to the castle. Take first L, pass over Coverham Bridge then immediately turn R signed ‘West Scrafton 3’. Pass through West Scrafton then R at t-junction to and through Carlton to Melmerby. In village turn L signed ‘West Witton’. After long descent turn L onto A684 at West Witton.
For shorter route missing out Askrigg: Take first R (after 2½ miles) signed to ‘Aysgarth Falls’, pass over bridge and at t-junction turn R to and through Carperby. Take first L to and through Castle Bolton then R at crossroads to Redmire. Follow road as it bears L in village then turn L signed ‘Leyburn 5’. Continue ahead at next junction (signed to Wensley). Take first L to divert through Preston under Scar forking R at end of village to rejoin B road. In Wensley at t-junction with A684 turn R then, in front of church L signed to ‘Middleham 3’. Turn R at t-junction with A6108 to return to Middleham.
Extra Askrigg loop: Continue past turn for Aysgarth Falls then, at end of Aysgarth village, fork L to and through Thornton Rust. At bottom of hill in Worton turn L to rejoin A684 then immediately R (unsigned). At t-junction turn L into Askrigg and bear L in village to reach Skeldale House opposite cross. Leave Askrigg as you entered it but keeping ahead signed to ‘Carperby 4’ rather than returning to Worton. From Carperby follow directions for shorter route, above.