In 2011 my boyfriend Dwight and I decided to take a trip to England to visit some of the sites mentioned (and filmed) in the wonderful books by James Herriot about his time as a country vet in the rural Yorkshire Dales. We were avid fans of Herriot’s books as well as the TV series from the 80s, All Creatures Great and Small. The Yorkshire Dales are a wild and rugged place, full of rolling green hills dotted with drystone fencing, crumbling churches and woolly sheep. Here is our story:
Saturday May 21, 2011 — Arrival in England. We’d had a string of bad luck getting on our way which included a canceled flight, failure to procure a reserved GPS unit at the rental car office, and about an hour of being lost in Manchester until we finally bought ourselves a GPS and got on our way.
Finally we set off for Carperby and the Wheatsheaf Inn — a small village high in the dales and the place where the real James Herriot (Alf Wight) and his wife stayed on their honeymoon. Almost immediately after leaving Manchester we started seeing hillsides dotted with sheep and cows and occasionally horses out grazing in their pasture. The farther into the Dales we got, the more scenic and pastoral the landscape became. And as we drove through Yorkshire the sights around us became magnificent: large stretches of emerald green pasture with long lines of dry-stone fence dividing the hillsides into uneven grids. Thousands of sheep and hundreds of cows grazing in the midday sun, with occasional stone farmhouses or outbuildings adding a feeling of history to the whole bucolic scene. Some fields were empty of farm animals but full of wildflowers. Others had crumbling ruins or massive old trees in their midst. I can’t imagine how it could’ve possibly looked any different in James Herriot’s day.
The road through this amazing landscape was narrow and winding and somewhat treacherous in spots. We couldn’t stop everywhere we wanted to but I was still able to spot some birds along the way, including tons of crows, seagulls, three pheasants, a heron that looked just like a Great Blue but with more white on its head, and several Oystercatchers.
When we got to Carperby we checked in at the Wheatsheaf – a slightly larger stone building with a pub set among a cluster of nearly identical stone houses – and unpacked our bags. The room is cozy – most of the space is taken up by the four-poster bed – with humble but clean ensuite facilities. It is cute and comfy with a little teakettle and a big window overlooking the farms, and it is supposedly the same room where James Herriot and his wife slept while they were here.
We took a nap in our room for a couple hours and then went out for a walk around the town and some of the farms. By this time it had gotten overcast and the occasional raindrop fell on us, but it did nothing to dim the scenery around us. If anything, it may have made it more dramatic. We walked around photographing and talking to the sheep, who, when they weren’t completely ignoring us, promptly turned tail and fled. We saw more old stone buildings and scars of rock on the hillside above us. We saw Bolton Castle far in the distance and some finches and swallows that I tried to take pictures of. We walked down a narrow lane which led to another farm. After Dwight decided to trespass to steal some tufts of wool lying on the pasture ground, we turned back and followed the footpaths through the fields which brought us back directly in front of the Wheatsheaf. We ate dinner at the pub – delicious blue Wensleydale cheese and caramelized onion tarts with piles of vegetables and potatoes and chips alongside.
Sunday May 22, 2011 — We left around 7am and it was already windy and starting to rain. I don’t think the wind has stopped since then.
We drove to Askrigg where many scenes from the All Creatures Great & Small television series were filmed. We saw the building that stood in for Skeldale House and the King’s Arms, which was the setting for the Drover’s Arms. We got out and took some pictures but it was raining and cold so we didn’t linger long. Next we drove to Hawes and waited for the Wensleydale Creamery to open at 9am. (We had discovered Wensleydale cheese at our local co-op and both loved it.) We had a simple but tasty breakfast at the Calvert Restaurant inside the Creamery – eggs on toast with tea. Then we went in the cheese room and tasted a variety of cheeses made there. The Wensleydale Reserve was particularly delicious! We bought a cheese knife and some wedges of W. Reserve, Jerveaulx Blue, and Red Leicester — I highly recommend all three. Then we walked around the shop until the museum and tour building opened. The museum had exhibits of old cheese and butter-making tools and equipment and on the tour you could look through the window and see the vats of milk being stirred as the cheese was made.
After that we went back into Hawes and walked around some of the shops. We went into an antique shop that was full of furniture and clocks and barometers, and in a sports clothing shop Dwight got a fleece and I got another jacket to layer with my Quechua. I am chronically cold and most of the time in England I had four layers on. We also went in another tiny cheese shop and bought a white cheddar as well as a cutting board.
We left Hawes and drove the long, narrow, winding roads to Bolton Abbey. We missed the entrance to the parking lot (“car park”) and then Dwight hit a rock that was actually part of the sidewalk pushed out by tree roots. The tire went immediately flat, the hubcap fell off, and the rim was decidedly warped. We pulled into the parking lot of a pub next to the road and I went to collect the hubcap while Dwight changed the tire. In the rain, of course. Poor Dwight. Fortunately our car came with a full-size spare.
After we got that situation under control we pulled into the parking lot we had originally missed and washed our hands at the visitor’s center. Then we had a little picnic in our car of cheese and biscuits (crackers). When we were satiated we walked over to Bolton Abbey. Of course, I made Dwight stop for like ten minutes just inside the gate because I found a Great Tit nesting in a hollow space between the rocks of the wall. The two adults kept flying in and out and didn’t seem bothered by us at all. I also saw a Robin in a nearby tree (much different from American Robins).
Bolton Abbey was spectacular. Just inside the gate, a set of steps and a long path led the way through a meadow filled with sheep and a tiny stream that trickled down into the Wharfe River. The river curved around the Abbey, a towering mass of crumbling columns and archways. It must have been impressive when it stood complete and whole, but I think it was even more impressive in its ruined state. Huge columns rose up to only fractions of the height they once were, and the amazingly ornate archways allowed their own artwork to show without any stained glass to compete with them. It was majestic and beautiful and incredible what people could do six hundred years ago.
We walked around and went in the church that was attached to the Abbey and had been left intact. A plaque on the wall stated that prayers had been held there every day for something like eight hundred years. We walked through the graveyard on the other side where I saw some kind of spotted Thrush-type bird with two fledglings following her around, poking for worms between the ancient headstones.
We’d had a lucky stretch at Bolton Abbey where the sun had shone almost the whole time. After leaving we made our way to Aysgarth Falls and it started drizzling on and off again. We went first to the Upper Falls – not a tall drop but dramatic in the size and force of the river. Dwight got some sand there to add to his collection and then we walked down to the Middle and Lower Falls. (The Lower Falls is supposed to be the spot James & Helen walk across in one episode of ACG&S.) It had mostly stopped raining but I was starting to feel like I was getting a cold.
On the way back to the car we saw a pheasant with an injured foot. He was limping badly and looked thin. He hobbled through the parking lot and stopped next to our car. We threw some crackers out for him and he started eating them. Then another, healthier pheasant came over and ate some cracker too. We abandoned them to their fates and drove back to the Wheatsheaf where we had dinner in the pub again. Dwight had a Yorkshire pudding which was a bowl made out of pancake batter and filled with vegetables and gravy. I had a mushroom soup and some chips. Both were filling and delicious. We went back to the room and laid down together and next thing I knew it was 11pm. I got up to brush my teeth and then promptly fell back asleep.
Monday May 23, 2011 — This morning we slept in until after 7am, then took baths and went down to breakfast. Our breakfast was mushrooms and tomatoes and beans and eggs. Not all together like in an omelet, but each one individually on the plate. English breakfasts are weird.
We drove to Leyburn to try to exchange some money but ended up having to drive to Darlington instead. Then we drove over to Whitby on the east coast. We stopped at a jewelry store in town to buy some Whitby jet, a type of mineral found in this town that is made into jewelry and was popularized by the brooches Queen Victoria wore.
After getting some jet we climbed 199 steps to Whitby Abbey. The ruins were every bit as impressive as Bolton, but it seemed to have an even more magnificent sense of grandeur given its location on a cliff overlooking the sea and the city. Again we marveled at the ruined columns and walls and archways as we wandered around. We had the place almost all to ourselves and the wind blew incessantly over and around and right through us. The Abbey and the nearby church were supposedly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it’s easy to see how those places could spark the imagination.
After leaving Whitby we made our way to Scarborough. We walked down to the Scarborough beach and got some sand. Then we headed to Bridlington. We had booked one night in Bridlington so that we could go birdwatching early the next morning at Bempton Cliffs. We stopped at Bempton Cliffs on the way to get an idea of what we’d be seeing the next morning. There were hundreds of birds on the cliff face: seagulls and gannets and razorbills and I think guillemots too. And one lonely, adorable, precious puffin.
The wind was blowing maniacally as usual and I was freezing cold, so we didn’t stay long before heading on to Bridlington. We checked into our B&B room then walked down to have dinner at a restaurant called Rags which was right on the pier. The food was good – we both had the spinach and ricotta ravioli. After that we walked down to the pier and then along the beach where I saw some Ruddy Turnstones and a couple other as-yet unidentified shorebirds. Tomorrow we are going again to Bempton Cliffs in the morning before making our way leisurely back to Carperby.
Tuesday May 24, 2011 — We awoke in Blantyre Guest House this morning when the sun coming through our window lit up our room like it was midday. It was actually 5am. We laid in bed and tossed and turned until 7am, then got up to take showers, then we went downstairs for our “full English breakfast.” Apparently, the tomatoes, baked beans, and mushrooms we experienced yesterday is a typical English breakfast (and lots of meat, of course). We opted instead for scrambled eggs with toast on the side.
After breakfast we went back to Bempton Cliffs to see more gannets, razorbills, kittiwakes, guillemots, and yet another adorable, solitary puffin. The morning sun was shining on the cliffs and we got some great pictures. And the wind roared incessantly the whole time. I don’t understand how it can blow so constantly and with such force. Did the Earth start rotating faster? Is there some diabolical butterfly garden in China whose keeper is teaching all the insects to flap their wings at the same instant? I don’t get it.
We left Bempton Cliffs and drove to York. We parked outside the city and took a bus into town. We walked along the Shambles, a narrow cobblestone lane full of shops and pubs. We ate lunch at the Cornish Pasty Bakery. A pasty is basically a large Hot Pocket. Then we walked over to York Minster, but just before we got to it I spied an antiquarian book shop around the corner. Of course this was an essential detour, so we went in to explore the Minster Gate Bookshop. They had lots of used books – most were not that old, in fact – but the front room had one wall filled with lovely old leatherbound tomes. There were a number of them that caught my eye and ignited my lust but I had to be reasonable and narrow it down. I selected a translation of the Domesday Book, from 1809. It was just the section of the book that relates to Yorkshire, which is really cool since that’s where we were, and it has a lot of historical footnotes by the author. The second book I found was bound in the same grey vellum as the one I got in Budapest that I love so much. The leather is ornately stamped on the front and back covers and has gorgeous leaf-shaped clasps binding the front edge. It is a bit difficult to decipher the Latin but apparently it is a collection of sermons by the Jesuit preacher Philip Hartung. It is a first edition (supposedly) published in 1690. That book was listed at £250, and the Domesday at £175, but I talked the shopkeeper down to £375 for the pair. That’s still probably too much money to spend halfway through the first week of vacation, but I’ll worry about that later. Dwight also got two books: a travel guide to the Isle of Wight from 1906 with pull-out maps, and Theakston’s Scarborough Guide from 1856.
I left my purchases at the book shop while we walked around the corner to York Minster. This church is a grand, soaring example of what the other Abbeys must have looked like before they were destroyed. It is huge and ornate, inside and out, with countless statues, plaques, monuments, and memorial inscriptions. There are different layers of architecture dating from different medieval eras, but I couldn’t tell them apart. Arches and spires and stained glass windows all competed to be the most impressive and awe-inspiring. One wall had all the English kings and queens carved out of marble. Another area had marble sarcophagi of various Archbishops throughout the ages. As we walked around the huge area (nave?) with all the pews, a priest came out and said a prayer for all people everywhere, for everyone with friends and family, for anyone who had a problem (that’s everyone!); and although I’m an atheist it gave me a sense of peace and goodwill.
After we walked around the main level of the Minster we went down some stairs into the catacombs where they showed the different levels and remnants of buildings that had been there before in the same place. First the Roman fort, then the Norman church, and finally the medieval cathedral. They also had displays of various Roman artifacts that had been found there as well as a room devoted almost entirely to a large collection of grails and chalices.
We left the Minster and walked around town some more, stopping in a couple antique shops that turned out to be primarily jewelry stores. Eventually we made our way back to the bus stop and then the car and headed for home. As we were passing through Bedale we spotted a sign for Panetti’s Café and Bistro and stopped for dinner. It was an Italian-style restaurant – although still with primarily English dishes – and the food was really good. Quite possibly the best we’ve had so far in Britain. Dwight got a Mediterranean vegetable bake and I had tagliatelle alfredo with mushrooms and asparagus. It was superb.
After that we continued on to the Wheatsheaf. We have two days left in Yorkshire and still have lots of things we want to do.
Wednesday May 25, 2011 — We were planning on going to Castle Bolton today but it doesn’t open until 11am and there were too many other things we wanted to do so we put it off till tomorrow. We took the day to drive down to Harrogate and made some stops along the way. We drove through Wensley to see the church where James and Helen get married in the TV series. Just before we got to the church and town we saw a gypsy wagon and horse parked in some grass by the River Ure. It was the same wagon we saw yesterday but today we saw two horses, and the man had built a campfire. Later in the day we saw a caravan of about half a dozen gypsy wagons in a field along some road. I wonder what their story is, and why that one gypsy wasn’t with the rest of the group.
We took pictures of the gypsy and the Ure and the Wensley Church and then continued on to Jervaulx Abbey. This is another, somewhat humbler, monastic ruin on private land. The owners let visitors come through for a fee paid to an “honesty box.” Jervaulx lacked the majestic grandeur of the other ruins we saw but I liked it a lot because it was wild and unkempt and nature was in the process of reclaiming it. Wildflowers and tall grasses grew on medieval windowsills and out cracks in the wall and atop crumbling arches. Birds nested in crags where the stone walls had shifted and left perfectly finch-sized holes.
After Jervaulx we continued on to Harrogate (the fictional Brawton from the Herriot books) and got there just in time for lunch. We ate at Betty’s Tea House, a famous institution where they serve tea and cakes and also meals. Dwight and I both got the “Betty’s Traditional Tea” special and it turned out to be a perfect example of an old-fashioned British tea ritual. Or at least how I imagine such a ritual would be. Pitchers of hot tea were accompanied by a three-tiered tray of finger sandwiches and sweets. We started at the bottom and worked our way up, through: cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, tomato, avocado & basil sandwiches, scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream (like butter only a little different and better on a scone), chocolate macaroons, raspberry tarts, and a “financier” – like a lemon spongecake. It was all very elegant and refined and utterly delicious. We chatted with our waitress who, despite her perfect English accent, was actually born in Zimbabwe and had lived in Arizona for 9 months at one point.
After lunch we wandered around the shops of downtown Harrogate a bit and went into a couple more antique stores, which again turned out to be mostly jewelry and silver. Dwight did buy a piece of carved Whitby jet which used to be a pin. (We think; there was some question as to how to tell the difference between Whitby jet and Bakelite.) After that we left to head back north.
We stopped at Fountains Abbey on the way back from Harrogate. Another grand medieval ruin set in a field – maybe I had seen too many abbeys, but this one didn’t impress me as much as the others. It did have some lovely arches and a few well-preserved carvings and statues. But some areas had obviously been rebuilt with different stone and thick mortar long after the abbey was destroyed in the 16th century. I’m not sure what that was about.
When Dwight and I had finished at the abbey we walked down a wooded path to a deer park not far away. Along the way we saw some beautiful birds, including a Bullfinch, a Greenfinch, and a pair of Goldfinches. Also a couple Robins, Chaffinches, and Tits. We walked for a long time down a long lane through the deer park without seeing anything and were about to give up when we finally spied some deer on a hill far off in the distance. We kept walking until we came upon them: maybe a hundred or so (Red?) deer split into three groups that were all pretty near each other. They weren’t tame, but they let us get close enough for some good pictures before ambling away. When it was clear they’d had enough we turned and headed back. On our way back through the wooded path we saw a wren.
We stopped at the Wensleydale Heifer for dinner on our way back home. The name doesn’t sound too fancy, and the inside décor was all fishing-related, but it turned out to be a really nice restaurant with great food. We both started with a pear, goat cheese, and walnut salad, then Dwight had a roasted vegetable and pasta dish while I had a risotto with peas and asparagus. We split a tasty dessert called Something Alaska Bake which had a brownie topped by chocolate ice cream topped by sorbet and meringue.
On the way home we saw Castle Bolton in the distance dramatically lit up with ground lights in the dark, so we drove up the lane leading to the castle and took some pictures. Tomorrow we’ll see it in the daylight.
Thursday May 26, 2011 — Our last night in Yorkshire, after another rainy English day. We never did make it to Castle Bolton. We got a late start because we slept in until about 8:30am. After breakfast in the Wheatsheaf we drove up to Reeth, a small town that seemed high and remote. On the winding road up we saw lots of birds in the fields and stopped to photograph them. They turned out to be red grouse, and the black and white birds I’ve been seeing far off in the fields as we drive by turned out not to be plovers, like I originally thought, but Lapwings. They are a pretty bird with a crest like a plume on the tops of their heads, and they circled around the fields above us with a distinctive sharp call.
Reeth was a cute little town on a hillside with a large village green and a little arts and crafts shop that sold only things made in the Dales. Dwight and I each bought some pottery: he got a mug with a sheep’s head that says “Reeth”, and I got a tiny little teapot and creamer jug. We took some pictures and then headed up to Langthwaite, an even tinier and remoter town where some of the scenes in the opening credits of All Creatures Great & Small were filmed. We found the bridge they drive over in the car and I told Dwight that I would reenact it for him by driving over it while he filmed it – he brought his video camera specifically for this purpose. So he got in position and I drove over the bridge into a small square where I turned around to come back across and mimic the angle of the TV scene. Then Dwight motioned that I had to go back farther. So against my better judgment I started up the narrow lane on the opposite side of the square that appeared to be the only other road in town. I looked for a place to turn around but the lane got narrower and narrower and the incline got steeper and steeper. Finally I stopped when I was confronted head-on by two men in a utility truck on their way down. I got out and asked them if there was any place to turn around up ahead and they said not only was there no place to turn around, but I couldn’t go any further unless I had 4-wheel drive. Also they couldn’t advance until I got out of their way. So one of them got behind my car and directed me as I backed painstakingly down the narrow, twisting alley millimeter by nerve-wracking millimeter. It must have taken ten minutes or more to go back down the way I came in reverse and I wonder what Dwight thought was going on as he sat on the other side of the bridge waiting for me to come across. By the time I finally made it down – miraculously without banging or scratching the rental car! – I was soaked in sweat and I’d decided I had just about had enough chasing around every 5-second shot from a thirty-year-old TV series.
So I feel bad for Dwight because he still wanted to film the “watersplash” scene and I had lost my taste for it. But I stood at the top of the hill with the video camera while he splashed through the water with his car. It only just now occurred to me that I didn’t actually get to go through the watersplash myself. But, with all the rain, I got to go through some other water splashes, so I guess it’s not a big deal.
After that we didn’t have time to go to the castle but headed straight down to Thirsk. We ate lunch in a little café on the square and then went to The World of James Herriot, which is a museum in the building that used to be the veterinary surgery where he practiced. Dwight had gotten us tickets to have tea and a personal tour with James Herriot’s real-life daughter, Rosie. We bought some DVDs in the gift shop and then went with 6 other people to meet Rosie. She was kind and friendly and looked much younger than her 64 years. She took us through the rooms which were set up much as they had been when James had lived and worked there and told us stories about her childhood and her family.
Rosie described the way the house had looked as she remembered it – they moved when she was 6 years old. She said that many of the items in the house today actually were her father’s and talked about him and Donald Sinclair (Siegfried) and about his books and the movies and television series. She was gracious and kind and talked openly with us as if we were all old friends. After the tour we sat down and had tea and cake and she told us the intimate details of her father’s medical conditions and of her parents’ and brother’s struggles with cancer. (Her mother died of lung cancer and her father died of prostate cancer. Her brother was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a prostatectomy.) I was surprised at how candid she was with us. After the talk and tour were through she signed our souvenir books and we had our picture taken with her.
After that it was about 6:30pm and we drove back to the Wheatsheaf. We had an evening meal of the leftover cheeses from several days ago and crackers and tea. Despite having been in the car for three days most of the cheese was still good. Tomorrow we leave the lovely Dales and the open fields full of sheep and head to the Cotswolds and then to our stay at a farm in Exmoor. Hopefully we will still see some sheep down south.
Want to do this trip yourself?
These are some of the primary points you don’t want to miss to get the full James Herriot experience in Yorkshire:
Wheatsheaf Inn: The place where the real-life James & Helen spent their honeymoon. Carperby, Leyburn, North Yorkshire DL8 4DF, United Kingdom
+44 1969 663216 http://www.wheatsheafinwensleydale.co.uk
Wensleydale Creamery: Don’t miss the Wensleydale cheese which is mentioned several times in the books and TV show. Gayle Lane, Hawes, North Yorkshire DL8 3RN, United Kingdom
+44 1969 667664 http://www.wensleydale.co.uk
Betty’s Tea House: This venerable institution is located in Harrogate, which was the actual site of the fictional Brawton in the books and TV show. Plumpton Park, Harrogate, HG2 7LD, UK +44 1423 814 008 http://www.bettys.co.uk
The Wensleydale Heifer: Though we only stopped there for the superb food, they also function as a boutique hotel with one room dedicated to James Herriot, decorated in a country style with signed memorabilia from the books and show. West Witton, North Yorkshire DL8 4LS +44 1969 622322 http://www.wensleydaleheifer.co.uk
The World of James Herriot: This is a great stop on any itinerary and critical for Herriot fans. In addition to touring the old surgery and seeing items from the TV show set, they also run programs where Rosie or Jim Wight (Herriot’s daughter and son) come to talk about his life and times. 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk, North Yorkshire YO7 1PL +44 1845 524234 http://www.worldofjamesherriot.com