An Evening In: James Herriot

My grandparents lived in North Yorkshire when I was young, in a village by the moors. There was a wishing well and a church, and a post office that sold Yorkshire mix at the end of the road, and it was often summer and always lovely up there. It always smelt the same too, vaguely charcoal-y, and that smell makes me eight years old again whenever I catch it. I first read James Herriot up there, because I think there was a time when it was practically a by-law that if you lived anywhere around the moors or dales you better own the full set of James Herriot’s veterinary tales. My grandparents did. I essentially grew up in an Enid Blyton book in Kent as well, and we had sheep and pigs and chickens and plenty of space for small children to run around/fall out of trees/lock themselves in sheds/eat random plants in. I took a mildly professional interest in the various maladies James Herriot confronts in his rounds, before and after the second world war, and the rough-and-ready techniques he had for dealing with them.

I’m aware that not everyone has this very specific background that makes James Herriot an inevitable part of life’s wallpaper, so let me introduce him properly. James Herriot, real name Alf Wight, was a Glaswegian vet who started his working life in Thirsk, known in the books as Darrowby, in 1940 and never really left. Thirsk today still doesn’t feel many miles removed from the peaceful market town it was in Herriot’s day; there are many little shops, including some good bookstores, a nice florist near the church and a couple of excellent pubs. The James Herriot museum, the house where the veterinary practice was, is a lovely old building and if you feel any sort of enthusiasm for old bottles, antiquated surgical instruments or a pleasant rambling garden, I recommend a visit.

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Myself in my happy place

The stories he tells of life as a vet in that time and place are warm, funny, sweet, sometimes sad and nostalgic but bursting with affection for the people, the animals and the life. The descriptions of the moors in all seasons are sweeping and grand, and the writing has the same solid worth as the farmers and Dalesmen he meets. James Herriot is one of the authors I read when I am away from the UK and missing it.

I am recommending the whole oeuvre, but the first two – If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vetare the obvious starting point. As for the drink, there is only one option and that is good hoppy beer. For example, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, which has the added bonus of being brewed in Yorkshire. There is no experience more warmly comforting than reading James Herriot on an idle afternoon with a cup of tea, or sitting by an open fire with a pint and Jim, Siegfried and Tristan in Darrowby.

Book: James Herriot, Any.

Pair with: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord

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