HAPPY AT HIS WORK: Alf Wight, better known as James Herriot
THIRSK was once most famous for its race course, a medieval church and the 18th-century cricketer Thomas Lord. Then in 1970 a Local vet wrote the first of eight books about the animals and the people who he met in the course of his work and Herriot Country was born. And to this day the legacy of James Herriot – whose real name was James “Alf” Wight – lives on in the BBC TV series All Creatures Great and Small and the Local attractions which are destined to be for ever associated with his name.
Now a Channel 5 documentary, Yorkshire Vet Country: The Herriot Story, lifts the lid on a modest family man – who in life jealously guarded his privacy – through interviews with his children, former colleagues and farmers he served.
“He would always say that his happiest times were when we were young and he was at his most impoverished and hard working,” said his daughter, Rosie.
“He said: ‘I would be driving round the farms and I would feel happiness touch me on the shoulder’.”
The programme takes the viewer on a journey through Herriot’s extraordinary life: from his days as a novice vet in the practice in Thirsk that he later made so famous, to his favourite beauty spots where he took his children Rosie and Jim and their mother, Joan, on family picnics.
The Herriot Story highlights the life of a modest family man
The practice at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk is now a museum but, sitting in the kitchen of the building they once called home, sister and brother reminisce about their happy childhood.
“It was so cold,” recalls Jim, laughing. “They had stone flag floors and my mother scrubbed them every day. Farmers coming in all the time, great muddy boots. They never took their boots off, ever. So my mother had even more floors to scrub.”
Both children remember a hard-working father who was absolutely devoted to the North Yorkshire farming community.
“Incredibly, my father did the first 11 years of his professional life, every single night on call,” says Jim, 74.
“I said to him, ‘Why did you do that, Dad?’ And his answer was – his exact words were – ‘I was glad to be alive’.”
Alf Wight with Rosie at her wedding
Pointing to the old Bakelite telephone, Jim explained: “There’s the telephone, the only telephone in the whole place when my father came here in 1940.
“My father slept upstairs. he’d hear it ringing in this big house. He would run downstairs and answer the phone, rush back upstairs, get dressed, rush back downstairs, open the garage door, get the [car] starting handles out and get going.”
Jim, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a vet, was 10 when the family left Thirsk in 1953, but to this day has vivid memories of accompanying his father on his rounds.
“In those days he was doing between 10 and 20 farm calls a day,” said Jim.
“I’d say, Where are we going, dad? ‘We’ve got a cow knocked its horn off – it’ll need a stitch.’ Oh great. What’s next? ‘A calfing.’ Oh great. What’s next? ‘Two pigs been fighting. Got to stitch one of them up.’ Oh fantastic. I reckon by five o’clock I was fully qualified – I’d seen it all.”
His son Jim
Rosie, a retired GP, recalled her father working on his first book: “He didn’t start writing until he 50,” she said.
“And we would see him tapping away with my mother sitting next to him. It was said it was the only book he was going to write.”
Jim added: “He had no idea how it would balloon from there.”
Indeed. The great man could never have imagined how his name would spawn an entire tourist industry in North Yorkshire.
“People come from far and wide now,” said Rosie, 70.
“From Europe, China, Japan. He put Thirsk on the map which is good for the area. It’s part of the legacy dad left.”
Millions of fans grew to love Alf through the character in All Creatures Great And Small, played by the actor Christopher Timothy, who is also the narrator of the documentary.
Chrisover Taking to the wheel of a red Austin 7 similar to the one Jim’s father drove is the vet Peter Wright, who trained under Alf Wight.
They visit the Bell family who have been farming on the Yorkshire moors for generations.
He took the family on picnics
Terry Bell, Jim and Peter pore over an old photo that depicts Herriot signing one of his books for Terry’s mother. “She had all his books,” said Terry.
“He actually hated any publicity,” said Jim. “The Locals guarded his privacy,” added Peter.
“When they were asked where he lived, a blank expression would appear on their faces.”
Terry said: “He wasn’t James Herriot to us – he was just Alf Wight.”
MODEST FAMILY MAN: Alf with daughter Rosie
Then Jim piped up: “A farmer said one day to my dad: ‘I read one of them books of yours’.
“Dad asked him if he liked it.
‘Aye, it’s all about nowt,’ came the reply,” said Jim and the three men howl with laughter.
Surrounded by the wild and untouched Yorkshire Dales that were the inspiration for many of her father’s stories, Rosie meets up with mother-of-nine shepherdess Amanda Owen, who read his books as a teenager.
Jim followed in his father’s footsteps to become a vet
“James Herriot brought me right here and it’s amazing to think of the path he set me out on,” said Amanda.
“The Herriot books were an inspiration to me,” added Peter.
“Like me, hundreds of others went on to become veterinary surgeons. We wanted to be James Herriot.”
His children remember him as devoted to the North Yorkshire farming community
Herriot died almost a quarter of a century ago at the age of 78 but his legacy is alive and strong in North Yorkshire.
Peter speaks for many when he said: “Herriot country is a magical country.
“Herriot country I am proud to say is my home.”
Yorkshire Vet Country: The Herriot Story is on Channel 5 on Tuesday at 8pm
Source : EXPRESS