Alf Wight - the "real James Herriot"
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
A modest, self-described ‘run-of-the-mill’ country vet, James Herriot (pseudonym for Alf Wight), became internationally famous as the author of around eight books (plus omnibuses and children’s books and the very popular James Herriot’s Yorkshire), mainly autobiographical about the life and work of a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales.
Their appeal was due to the humour arising from numerous Yorkshire characters – farmers and pet owners and the unpredictability of their animals. They also included moving stories of the cycle of life and death inevitably associated with owning animals as well as highlighting the eccentricities of other characters working in the practice, notably his partner Donald Sinclair (Siegfried Farnon in the books and Donald’s brother Brian – Tristan Farnon in the books).
Alf Wight was born in 1917 in Sunderland. His parents were from Sunderland but had recently moved to Glasgow where his father, James had moved for work as a plater in the shipyards. Hannah came back to Sunderland to give birth.
Alf grew up in Glasgow. It was at a time of depression – his father was frequently in and out of work and his mother developed a dress-making business. They were respectable working class. Alf was an only child and wanted for nothing. They managed to send him to the fee-paying Hillhead School in Glasgow as well as paying for his veterinary education.
At Hillhead, Alf read about a career as a vet in Meccano magazine. He loved dogs, in particular, and a veterinary career seemed to fit the bill. Although always good at English he was notoriously bad at maths, but this was deemed less important then than nowadays for this career.
Alf began at Glasgow Veterinary School in 1933, qualifying in 1939. After a short spell as a vet in Sunderland, he applied for a position in a country practice in Thirsk (Darrowby in the books), meeting the inimitable Donald Sinclair (Siegfried). In 1940 he was offered a job in the practice where he was to stay for the rest of his career except for a short spell in the RAF during World War II.
Alf soon found love and married Joan Danbury, a secretary at a local corn mill in Thirsk (Helen in the books) in 1941.
On his wedding day they went to the cinema in Richmond and then stayed in Carperby at the Wheatsheaf Pub (there is a plaque outside to celebrate this!). He famously took his new wife out TB testing of cattle during his honeymoon.
He had a son and a daughter who later went on to become a vet in the same practice and GP, respectively. Alf loved the Yorkshire countryside, particularly the Yorkshire Dales, which he immortalised in his books.
In his ate 40’s he read a book “ Teach yourself to write” – this gave him the inspiration to have a go at writing the novel he had always said to his wife he would. She had ridiculed him about being all talk and no action, which obviously had hit a nerve!
He began to write in earnest in his 40s and 50s with his first book, ‘If Only They Could Talk published by Michael Joseph in 1970. This was followed by other books including ‘Let Sleeping Vets Lie’, ‘Vet in Harness’, ‘Vets Might Fly’.
Due to professional ethics and not wanting the books to be seen as advertising – he chose a pen name. As an avid Sunderland fan – he loved football. He watched Manchester Utd play Birmingham City whose goalie had a blinder – his name was Jim Herriot and the rest is history!
His first book sold poorly and his second not much better (It shouldn’t happen to a vet) , (2,000 and 4,000 copies only). By chance the wife of a major US publisher found and read one of the books on a plane and loved it – recommended it to her husband Thomas McCormack a New York based publisher – who combined the first 2 books as one book entitled All creatures great and small – it was a huge success - selling over 4.1m paperback and 1.6m hardback copies in the US.
The writing was done in front of the TV each evening whilst Alf was still working 6 and a half days a week and long hours as a vet.
The strong worldwide following is still the case today – my James Herriot private driver guided tour being one of my most popular tours, particularly with American and Australian guests. I have a also had a number of vets from all around the world who were inspired to become vets by the Herriot books and now want to see the locations which inspired the books.
In 1975 the film ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ starring Anthony Hopkins as Siegfried was released although to Alf’s disappointment this was filmed in the North York Moors rather than the Yorkshire Dales. In 1976 the film ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ was released, this time filmed in the Yorkshire Dales – largely Wensleydale and Swaledale.
In 1977 the TV series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ began – starring Christopher Timothy (James), Robert Hardy (Siegfried) and Peter Davison (Tristan). It went on for many episodes, through the 1970s and 1980s with villages such as Askrigg in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, becoming famous as Darrowby.
Alf Wight always said he was “Spellbound” as he descended into the Swaledale from Buttertubs. By co-incidence the village of Reeth in Swaledale was where Alf Wight first met Christopher Timothy – who was sitting in a deckchair with a womans rain hat on learning his lines!
Other locations included: Skeldale House – Cringeley House, Main St, Askrigg (now a B&B); James’s and Helen’s wedding - Holy Trinity Church, Wensley; Drover’s Arms - King’s Arms Hotel, Askrigg; Darrowby Station – Finghall Railway Station; Darrowby Cattle Market – Hawes; Darrowby Church – Church of St Mary and St John, Hardraw; Darrowby Bus Stop – Redmire Village Green; (all Wensleydale). Title Sequence with Car – Feetham (Swaledale) – Langthwaite Bridge (Arkengarthdale).
‘James Herriot’s Yorkshire’, published in 1979 was a roaring success, selling more than half a million copies in the USA. Again visitors flocked to Thirsk (often turning up at the practice) and the Yorkshire Dales to see the landscapes and places mentioned in the book. As well as those already mentioned, Harrogate was popular as a place where Alf would go with his wife Joan to Betty’s once a week.
A short drive from Thirsk is the huge limestone cliff of Sutton Bank on the Hambleton Hills., home to one of the North York Moors National Park visitor centre. This is where Alf Wight would go for walks with his dogs to relax. The stunning views over the Vale of York over to the Yorkshire Dales were described by Alf Wight as “the finest view in England”. The National parks are now using this description on their signposts! Maybe you should come and see whether you agree?
Sadly, Alf Wight died in 1995. The funeral was a family affair in Felixkirk and Alf was cremated. A memorial service for him was held in York Minster later that year.
23, Kirkgate, Thirsk, (Skeldale House where the veterinary practice was based in the books) was bought by the local authority and converted it into a visitor centre ‘The World of James Herriot.’ This includes rooms furnished according to the period, a 4,000 piece archive of veterinary instruments, information about the films and TV series, a statue of James Herriot and a vintage car used in the filming of All Creatures Great and Small.