By James Mack Adams
One of my favorite programs on public television is “All Creatures Great and Small.” It is the story of James Herriot, a veterinarian practicing in the fictional town of Darrowby in the Yorkshire dales of northern England. James Herriot is a pen name used by the real Yorkshire veterinarian, James Alfred Wight. He was known as Alf to his friends. It is said he chose the last name of his favorite soccer player for his pen name.
I have watched every episode of the PBS series, some more than once. While doing so, I never envisioned that I would one day have the opportunity to meet and chat with the gentleman. The encounter was a coincidence.
It was sometime in the 1980s that my former, now deceased, wife and I decided to embark on a driving tour of the Yorkshire dales. We planned to use a map of the dales that was printed in one of Herriot’s books we owned.
It is my opinion that the best way to travel other countries and enjoy the experience more is to obtain lodgings at bed and breakfast establishments whenever possible. This gives the traveler a chance to stay in private homes, meet and chat with the locals, and soak up more of the local flavor. If we had not decided to use bed and breakfast lodgings, we would not have had the experience I will describe.
One day in our travels, we drove our rented British-version Ford Escort into the town of Thirsk. After some searching, we booked lodgings in the home of a very nice lady. I am convinced some unknown force guided us to that particular house.
We moved our baggage into our room and then sat down in the parlor for tea and scones and a nice chat with the lady of the house. Our conversation soon turned to the fact we were huge fans of James Herriot and were using his book as a guide in our travels.
“Oh yes, Dr. Wight,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “He takes care of my little dog.”
I was awash in a wave of excitement. I know this was blatantly obvious to our hostess. She continued. “If you are on the street in front of his surgery tomorrow afternoon about 4:30 p.m., he will invite you in for a chat.”
At the suggested time the following afternoon, we were standing in front of the surgery at number 23 Kirkgate. The metal plaque beside the front door read, “Mr J A Wight Veterinary Surgeon.”
We were surprised that we were the only people waiting. It did occur to us that our hostess might have been mistaken and that we might be on a goose chase.
As if on cue, on or about the appointed time, a tall, slim white-haired gentleman opened the bright-red front door and walked out onto the small stoop.
His tie was loosened, and the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled to the elbows. He greeted us warmly and invited us to come in. We sat in his office and talked for some time. He autographed our book before we left.
There is one particular thing that still fascinates me about the meeting with Dr. Wight. He was well known nationally and internationally as a best-selling author. He was the principal character in a popular and long-running TV series. Yet, to the residents of the town of Thirsk, he was just the local vet.
23 Kirkgate, Thirsk, the former home and surgery of James Alfred Wight (aka James Herriot), is now a museum and tourist attraction dedicated to his memory. On the outside wall is a blue plaque. The plaque, similar in purpose to our historical markers, is used by British Heritage to mark a building or site linked to an important person or event.
Dr. Wight died in 1995, but his professional and literary legacies live on. He dedicated his life to the tender loving care of “All Creatures Great and Small,” and to writing about his experiences.
He deserves to be remembered. It was an honor to meet him.