See also The World of James Herriot Museum
“My Yorkshire, a land of pure air, rocky streams and hidden waterfalls."
Alf Wight—the real James Herriot
The Yorkshire Dales, still largely rural in character after twelve centuries of settlement, is an area of variety and contrast: stone-fenced farms, green-laced fells, deep valleys, peat-stained rivers and exposed windswept moors. The beauty is, at times, austere, almost alien, in a lowering fog or a freezing rain.
It was here that James Herriot—Alf Wight in real life—spent his time as a country vet. He had a love affair with the Yorkshire Dales and brought them to the world’s attention in his books, two films and the TV series, “All Creatures Great And Small”.
There are four dales—Arkengarthdale, Swaledale, Wensleydale, and Coverdale—that lay closest claim to Herriot connections.
A good start for a tour of the Dales’ sites associated with Herriot is in dramatic Arkengarthdale, the most northerly Pennine dale, whose watersplash is shown in the opening credits of the TV show.
The narrow bridge in the same scene frames Langthwaite—a name evocative of its Norse past—a tiny village of gray stone, weathered with the years. The village’s claim to fame in earlier days was the provision of lead from its nearby mines, used to roof Windsor Castle.
Reeth, on the slopes of Calver Hill, sits at the head of Arkengarthdale and Swaledale. Reeth became a farming centre and the lead mining capital of Swaledale. It hosted many markets and fairs. Reeth’s shops, pubs, and houses portrayed various locations in filming. A house overlooking the village green became Skeldale House in the first movie.
The Swaledale road, captured by the moors on either side, is deep and winding—one of the most beautiful of all the Dales’ drives. Spread out in the distance, layered one upon the other, lie green-grassed hills playing host to black-faced Swaledale sheep. Waterfalls tumble down hillsides to feed the Swale River, one of the fastest flowing in England. The view from Gunnerside looking down into Swaledale was a favourite of Herriot’s. Here is where the real glory of the dale is seen. Stone walls, farms and hay barns dot the landscape.
Richmond, high on a hilltop above the Swale River, was Herriot’s best-loved town in the Dales. He said, “Richmond appeals to me as just about the most romantic and charming town in the country”. It is here, in the small Richmondshire Museum that the original TV set for the veterinary office resides.
This historic town’s nine centuries of history are reflected in its Norman castle. Climb the 100-foot high massive keep for stunning views over the town, the cobbled market place and distant Swaledale scenery.
Muker, further along Swaledale, lies at the base of a 1600-ft. high hill. Houses date back to the 1600’s. The church was built in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Sheep once provided wool for a cottage weaving industry. The area is particularly noted for its summertime flower-filled hay meadows. The “Farmer’s Arms” pub from the show is Muker’s claim to fame.
The drive from Muker over Askrigg Common to Wensleydale highlights the moor with deep ravines on one side, limestone cliffs on the other and a view that extends in all directions. The road descending into Askrigg traverses a widespread, gently sloping green valley with swelling hills dotted with farms and woods, typical of Wensleydale—tamer than the dales on either side. This pastoral area has, since the 16th century, been an area of dairy farms.
Although the fictional town of Darrowby was, in Herriot’s imagination a combination of Thirsk, Richmond, Leyburn, and Middleham—parts of which were used in various episodes—Askrigg was the “set” for Darrowby. The road running through the village is lined with 18th and 19th century stone houses.
One of the Skeldale Houses of the TV series is just across the road from Askrigg’s church. The village also claims the “Drover’s Arms”, a favourite haunt of Tristan Farnon.
Caperby’s Wheatsheaf Inn was the scene of the real life Herriot’s honeymoon in 1941. Perhaps the site was chosen because of nearby Castle Bolton where he proposed to his future wife. This cold and forbidding castle seems an unlikely place. A sign on one wall reads:
“. . . . in the depth of winter men of the garrison lean over the dying embers of the fire, the wooden shutters rattling in the wind, and, in the distance, the howl of a wild and hungry wolf.”
The massive ruin—the castle suffered under the Parliamentary forces after the Civil War—built in 1379 by the first Lord Scrope, is one of the places Mary Queen of Scots, was kept prisoner for several months in 1568-1569.
A former hunting lodge near Hawes—take time to visit the excellent Museum of the Dales—was the setting for the Country Club where the Herriots dined. Further along the dale, in the village of Wensley, stands the church used as the scene of James and Helen’s wedding. St Mary’s Church in Thirsk was where the real life Alf and Joan were married.
Although Herriot’s veterinary practice was centered in Thirsk, he spent many of his early days with a partner, Frank Bingham, in the market town of Leyburn, situated on a high scar.
Leyburn becomes Scarsburn in Herriot’s books. The character Ewan Ross is based on Bingham. Herriot said, “The Binghams made Leyburn something special for me . . .”
Leyburn is the site of many historic buildings used in the books and shows. It was the view from Grinton over the moor to Leyburn that first crystallized Herriot’s love for the Dales. He said, “I was captivated, completely spellbound . . . .”
Dark stone houses cluster in a hollow around a miniscule green in the tiny village of West Scrafton in Coverdale—a favourite dale of Herriot’s, where he spent his walking holidays. The bleak 1500-foot high Roova Crag hangs over the village and affords quiet views over the stark beauty of remote moorland. Coverdale’s roads starred in many a TV show.
Where better to end a Herriot journey than at Thirsk, the scene of Herriot’s real life veterinary practice, now the World of James Herriot. On view are old veterinary rooms, a dispensary, consulting rooms, the family kitchen and parlour, an exhibition of veterinary science and memorabilia and an authentic 1930’s farmyard.
As you travel the Dales, fictional Herriot places and characters intermingle with real ones. Interesting sidetracks and scenic spots compete for attention along the way. Walking trails beckon. Tiny villages sing to the heart. Herriot said, “These indeed, as I look down on my Yorkshire, are the sweet places of memory.” Whichever road you take, whichever place you visit, you, too, will experience the enchantment of the Dales.
Bolton near Leyburn, N. Yorkshire
Tel. 01969 623 981
Open: April-Sep, 10am-5pm, March-Nov, 10am-4pm or dusk;
Website: Bolton Castle
Dales Countryside Museum
Station Yard, Hawes
Tel. 01969 667450
Under the care of English Heritage
Website: English Heritage
Swaledale Folk Museum
Open Good Friday to end Oct, 10.30am-5pm
Tel. 01748 884373
The World of James Herriot
23 Kirkgate, Thirsk
Tel. 01845 524234
Open: April-Oct, 10am-6pm; Nov-March 11am-4pm; last admission one hour before closing.
Website: World of James Herriot
Allow 1.5 hours for visiting the centre.
Tourist Information Centres
Tel. 01969 667450
Tel. 01969 623069
National Park Centre and Tourist Information
The Green, Reeth
April to Oct. daily, March to Nov, weekends only
Tel. 01748 884059
Friary Gardens, Victoria Road
Tel. 01748 850252
Tel. 01845 522755
Photo of Malham Cove courtesy Lakeland Cam
Photos of upper Swaledale barns and Muker courtesy Cornwall Cam
This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.
Additional Information that did not appear in the article: Hardraw church was also used as the Darrowby church. Hawes market stood in for Darrowby’s market. Both the Red Lion in Langthwaite and the Bolton Arms in Redmire featured in the TV series. Actor Robert Hardy stayed at the Punch Bowl Inn at Low Row during the TV filming.
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