“All Creatures Great and Small is based on a book?!”
I had just asked a friend if she was watching the latest popular tv show that everyone else stuck inside due to the pandemic seemed to be watching and she’d said no, but she’s read the book. Somehow I’d managed to watch at least a season of the 2020 TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small without discovering it wasn’t just a remake of an older TV show, but it’s actually the second adaptation of the book, or I should say books!
After some furious Googling when I got home, for those of you that might also have missed this little piece of information, I learned that All Creatures Great and Small is actually a set of eight books, if you’re British… and five if you’re American. Apparently the American versions combined books one and two into one, books three and four into the second, books five and six into the third, but left books seven and eight as books four and five. And there was also something about some chapters being added in American editions to add in a love story that didn’t exist in the original manuscripts!
See the two different sets on Amazon*:
*Disclosure: These are affiliate links. If you purchase books through these links, I’ll make a few cents at no extra cost to you!
And I was surprised to discover that the author of the books was James Herriot, considering that is the name of the main character in the tv show. A little more Googling, and I found that James Herriot is actually a pen name for James Alfred (“Alf”) Wight. So naturally I now had more questions:
Is All Creatures Great and Small autobiographical or fiction?
Was Mr. Wight even a vet?
And did he even live in the Yorkshire Dales??
To my surprise, Mr. Wight was in fact a vet who practiced in the Yorkshire Dales AND, the house where he lived and practiced is now a museum: The World of James Herriot. Not only that, but the museum was only about an hour by train from where I’d be finishing up with the Enchanted Book Club group tour! And Grassington, the village where the 2020 TV adaptation films the scenes that take place in fictional Darrowby, wasn’t that far away either! So of course, I started planning…
Although it looked easy enough to get to Thirsk by train to see the house museum, getting from there to Grassington without a car was another matter. It appeared if I relied on public transport, getting from Thirsk to Grassington and back involved making several bus connections. And without a car, I wouldn’t be able to experience bumping along the Yorkshire Dale roads just like James Herriot, I mean, Alf Wight would have done.
I gave up on trying to DIY this experience and soon discovered that there are a number of companies that provide full day guided All Creatures Great and Small van tours out of York that will take you to Thirsk, Grassington, and into the Dales National Park to see the scenery. Unfortunately for me, my visit would be the first week of October and there were no such tours available on the days I planned to visit York. In a strange twist of luck, however, I had been in touch with the British travel agent who helped organize the Enchanted Book Club tour and I had mentioned that I planned to visit York and would love to find a way to do an All Creatures Great and Small day tour. Soon after, she set me up with a guide, David Holt of Great Yorkshire Tours, who would take me on a half-day walking tour of York one day and then the next day, pick me up in his car and take me on a one-on-one All Creatures Great and Small day-long tour!
Thirsk: The World of James Herriot (The Real Skeldale House)
On my second morning in York I met Mr. Holt for a second time outside my hotel. Today, however, instead of proceeding on foot, he walked me to his car where he opened -what felt like to me– the door on the wrong side of the vehicle! As much as I wanted to experience a drive through the Dales similar to the way James Herriot would have done, I was glad to see this car was in better shape than the old Hillman in the book, and thankfully when I sat down, the seat didn’t fly backwards!
“I shot a startled glance at the treadless tyres, the rusty bodywork, the almost opaque windscreen with its network of fine cracks. What I didn’t notice was that the passenger seat was not fixed to the floor but stood freely on its sledge-like runners. I dropped into it and went over backwards, finishing with my head on the rear seat and my feel against the roof.”
While I pretended it was totally normal to sit in a front passenger seat on the driver’s side of the car, Mr. Holt navigated out of Old York.
We left York’s old city center by passing through a stone archway in the city walls (York’s ramparts are the most complete of any walled city in England and you can walk around the city on them!), and on our way out of modern York, Mr. Holt pointed out the stacks of the KitKat chocolate factory. Then before long, we had left the city behind and the view changed to flat farmland.
What should have been a half-hour drive turned into an hour when we came upon a car accident and had to backtrack and take an alternate route, but eventually Mr. Holt pulled into a large parking lot that included spaces for tour buses. For some reasons I had not expected the Herriot museum to be popular enough to need a large parking lot, but now I just hoped visiting in the first week of October would mean the museum wasn’t very busy.
As Mr. Holt explained that Thirsk was once a medieval market town, he led the way across a street and down a block of red brick buildings towards a bright red door that shone in the morning sunlight. Next to the door is a plaque that reads “Mr. J. A. Wight M.R.C.V.S. Veterinary Surgeon” and a larger sign that reads “Veterinary Surgeons Premises Please Leave Clear.” And that was it. I noticed no big sign reading “World of James Herriot.” The house was unassuming and looked as though the Vet could still be in business!
We popped into the museum gift shop next door to purchase our entrance tickets then returned to the Vet’s front door. There’s a second, older plaque next to the door that reads “Mr. D.V. Sinclair M.R.C.V.S.” because this was the real house Mr. Wight moved into with his partner Mr. Sinclair. Or to us readers/viewers, this was Skeldale house where Mr. Herriot arrived and moved in with Mr. Farnon. In real life, eventually Mr. Sinclair moved out and Mr. Wight and his growing family took over the home and practice. Interestingly, the name changes were less due to protecting privacy than the fact that Mr. Wight could not use his own name as author of the books because that would be seen by the College of Veterinary Service as trying to make money off of his profession. So Mr. Wight chose to use the last name of his favorite soccer player for his pen name.
As Mr. Holt opened the door and gestured me forward, I nearly walked into a row of coats hanging on hooks just inside the front door! Instinctively I paused for a moment thinking I should remove my shoes and coat as I’d just entered someone’s house, then remembered this was a museum! The entire first floor has been refurbished to look as though the house is still lived in, except, based on the old appliances in the various rooms, it seemed to be frozen in time near the beginning of Wight’s tenure in the house.
The first room we came to was the dining room/patient waiting room, and sitting inside it was a funny surprise! If not for the barrier that prevents you from walking very far into the room, I would have believed that the house occupants were simply out on a Vet call and would be back any moment. This was also partially because there is a certain patient waiting in the room! Mrs. Pumphrey and Tricki Woo (her dog, if you’re not familiar with the story) were sitting on the couch on the other side of the room! And when you step into the room you hear the bark of a dog, presumably Tricki Woo.
None of the other rooms in the house had wax figures in them, but were still fascinating. The examination room was much, much smaller than I imagined it would be! And I half expected the dispensary (which was really more of a closet) to be messy considering when it’s mentioned in the book, it’s usually in a state of disorder. It was strangely sorted and clean!
Having listened to the audible editions of All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful (both narrated by Nicholas Ralph who plays James Herriot in the newer TV adaptation!), the first floor of the house felt almost familiar. It was almost like I could remember events that had taken place in these exact rooms. I was so happy to be walking through the real Skeldale house! And I was delighted to see the old telephone had been left or reinstalled in the hallway! It was all I could do to not pick up the receiver and say, “Darrowby 2297!” (Or “Darrowby 85” if you’ve watched the original TV adaptation!)
Mr. Holt and I had so far had the house to ourselves for all of 10 minutes before the front door opened behind us and a bus load of tourists began streaming into the house. We moved into the kitchen, but we were now shoulder to shoulder with strangers. I’m always happy when small house museums are getting enough traffic to keep the doors open, but I was quite pleased when my guide suggested we go wait in the garden for this group to pass then backtrack to finish looking at the last displays on the ground floor. So we skirted our way around the table, by an old clothes washing station with a washboard, and out the back door of the house into the garden.
In the walled garden was a statue of the author holding a little dog on his arm and in the corner of the garden, enclosed in a little glass room, sat one of the cars from one of the TV adaptations.
The upstairs rooms of the house had exhibits about the Royal Veterinary College and its history, which included old tools no longer used in practicing today and the author’s vet bag.
Another wing of the house was dedicated to exhibits for children to teach them some lessons about keeping pets and farm animals, and there was even a playroom for the youngest visitors.
Another wing of the house was dedicated to the film adaptations of the books. There were sets from the first adaptation and original scripts. As the latest adaptation is still in production, there was one small room with a desk and some photos, but it was clear this exhibit would be fleshed out someday when the current show is done with its sets and props.
Before we left the museum, I stopped in the giftshop hoping to pick up a British version of the book with an original cover. The only copy of All Creatures Great and Small available though, was a newer one which contained the first two books and three chapters of the third, with an image of Nicholas Ralph on the front. While normally I hate book covers with movie images on them, I reckoned in this instance picking up this copy made sense, considering where we were heading next!
The Yorkshire Dales
As sad as I was to leave the real Skeldale House, I was equally excited about the drive and the destination we had ahead of us. While Thirsk had been warm and sunny, it was good I’d brought my raincoat, because the weather grew rainer and cloudier as the car climbed into the hilly Yorkshire Dales National Park. Yet, despite the weather, it was just as beautiful as ever. I never tire of seeing the rolling green fields with their stone half-walls running all over the landscape and sheep dotting the green fields! I could have just watched this scenery go by all day.
Although our destination was Grassington, at Coldstone Cut my guide pulled into a small lot suggesting we stop for a photo op. This being one of the highest points in the Dales, the view was truly spectacular. My guide said the car scenes in All Creatures Great and Small were filmed here. I could see why with these views! Unfortunately with the wind whipping our coats and rain threatening to get worse every second, we hopped back in the car rather quickly, but according to my guide if it had been better weather he would have suggested a short walk. Because just around the corner from the parking lot, he said, is the highest and biggest piece of public art which you can walk in, but when seen from above it looks like a… well I’ll let you Google “Coldstone Cut Yorkshire Art” for yourself…
As we rolled along, up and down the hilly Dales, Mr. Holt noted points of interest, such as the location of one of the worst Tour de France bicycle crashes. (If you Google this one, it seems there’s a Tour de France crash in the Yorkshire Dales almost every year! And it’s no wonder, considering how windy the roads are and there’s no bike lanes anywhere!) And we passed through Pateley Bridge, home to the oldest candy shop in the world! Unfortunately, we had no time to stop.
Eventually Mr. Holt pulled the car into yet another large parking lot. Looking around all I could see was a large restroom building and small visitor center. I realized I’d assumed we would pull into a little village and it would look just like Darrowby, but now it dawned on me that the number of tourists expecting to do just that would overwhelm a small town, so it made perfect sense to provide a parking lot. It just meant we had to walk from here to the center of Grassington, which I supposed would look familiar.
As it was raining now in Grassington, I had my raincoat hood up and was looking down to watch for puddles, so when Mr. Holt stopped and announced we were standing in the center of town, I looked up… and nothing looked familiar! My guide then pulled out his phone to show me stills from the TV show and explained that during filming, fake fronts are added to the buildings! The building used as the front of Skeldale House lacked its usual front stoop.
The Drovers Arms is still a pub, though called The Devonshire, and it does have a frosted glass window with the name Drovers Arms etched in it. Unfortunately, due to our setback in timing from the morning, we didn’t have much time to spend in Grassington/Darrowby so there was no time for lunch or even a pint at The Devonshire/Drovers Arms.
We did, however, have five minutes to spare, so we ducked into the bookstore with the cute name of The Stripey Badger Bookshop to get out of the rain that was really coming down now. On a table in the center of the shop was a collection of books set in the Dales area, but All Creatures Great and Small books had its own nook!
Too soon it was time to start our drive back through the beautiful Dales to York because I had a train to catch. Mr. Holt was full of fascinating information and kept up a conversation all day. I thoroughly enjoyed my tour with him and only wish we hadn’t been constricted by my having to catch a train before the end of the day! The British train lines would be on strike the next day so I’d had to change my travel plans to high tail it to Scotland before I got stuck in England! I’d brought my luggage with me, so Mr. Holt took me to the train station and even walked me to the correct train platform to ensure I would make it on the right train! I certainly want to return to the Dales, and next time I hope Mr. Holt will be available to take me on his Dracula/Whitby Abbey tour!
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