A visit to the English village where Alf Wight (a.k.a James Herriot) wrote his famous "All Creatures Great and Small" books.
I was the sole person to get off the train at Thirsk. A sign pointed me to the heart of town, down Station Road toward The World of James Herriot museum. On one side of the road was a pasture with sheep and goats; on the other side of the road were industrial buildings, a few well-kept houses scattered about, a livestock auction yard and a Ford car sales lot.
The mile-long walk led me around curves and past a small cinema. I entered city centre, sat on a bench near to Thirsk’s clock tower, and noticed the small shops, with varying façades, nesting up against one another along a cobbled pavement; the outdoor market was doing brisk business and the populace looked to be enjoying their Monday morning routines. I walked around the corner to 23 Kirkgate — Skeldale House, and The World of James Herriot.
The building is cheerful, constructed of red bricks, with white painted trim framing the windows and a green sign out front advertising the nature of the enterprise. Healthy green vines crawl up and decorate the walls, while potted flowers in a wooden tub outside the front door encourage one to pause for a moment to take a picture of the setting.
After purchasing my ticket at the tourist information building next door, I approached the vets’ former residence with camera still in hand. The door was open, I took a picture, and the resonance surrounding me was a deep, hearty Yorkshire accent.
“Do you want me to close the door so you can get a better picture?”
“No, thanks. That was just what I wanted,” I offered.
This helpful gent escorted me into Skeldale House and provided a brief run though of what to expect at the museum. He also verified my ticket, then sent me off on my way to the surroundings with a resounding, “Take as many pictures as you want!” I half expected him to give me a good-natured clap on the shoulder as I left his company.
I took in the All Creatures Great and Small setting, the one-time home of James, Siegfried, and Tristan. The front door led me directly into a hallway, with the living room, which doubled as a bill-paying room for the Yorkshire farmers once a month, to the right. The telephone that James Herriot would rush down the stairs to answer in the middle of the night was only a few feet from the living room. The small dispensary was to the left, and the kitchen, with its scullery, was steps ahead, down the narrow hall.
The furnishings were restorations of 1940’s–50’s style rooms, with radios tuned to Bing Crosby and to war news. Walking out through the back door, I delighted in the wisteria that climbs up the building, but focused on the 1937 Austin Seven parked by the garden — the same vehicle used in the early episodes of the All Creatures Great and Small television series. A sign and an open driver’s side door invited visitors to sit in the old car, and I wasn’t about to let an opportunity like this slip by me. I took my place in the driver’s seat, regretted that the keys had been removed, but imagined myself backing the Austin Seven out of the driveway, being careful not to hit anything that I’d have to pay for. It was great fun. I got out, tossed a few loose coins in the fountain near the car, and headed into the tack house to look at some old horse equipment then to the foldyard.
Inside the darkened foldyard there was an enjoyable fifteen-minute movie about the life of James Herriot, including a talk show snippet featuring the vet as a guest.
The BBC television series is recreated at the museum with actual sets of the sitting room and dispensary. A phone rang incessantly while I was in this exhibit, and I was about to pick up its receiver to make the room a little quieter, but I decided to move on instead. I found out later that if I had picked up the phone there was a good chance that the voice of a distressed Yorkshire farmer would have been on the other end of the line, asking to have a vet come look at some unwell livestock.
Upstairs is a visible animal exhibit where a person can have a look inside various model animals; there is also a display of old veterinary instruments, and a loo. On the way out, I picked up a couple of souvenirs downstairs at the gift shop. The cashier at the shop asked what I thought of the museum. “It was wonderful, I could have stayed here twice as long,” I replied. And I meant it.
(For the traveler, Thirsk is located in the North Ridings of Yorkshire, about 20 miles north of the city of York and roughly 230 miles north of London.)
© 2003 Todd Wisti
(Excerpted from the travelogue Full English Breakfast published by iUniverse.com.)