A martyr’s memorial... the writer who moved from Heartbeat to holy history

Peter Walker in the village of Oswaldkirk the inspiration for Heartbeat novels
Peter Walker in the village of Oswaldkirk the inspiration for Heartbeat novels
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His books about a country bobby inspired Heartbeat, but Nicholas Rhea’s new work investigates the life of a martyr. Sheena Hastings reports.

PETER Walker left the police service 30 years ago to concentrate on his burgeoning career as a writer of crime fiction. He’d had his first book published in 1967 while still a bobby in North Yorkshire, after having 13 previous efforts turned down by publishers.

The indefatigable writer has many pen names, but is best know as Nicholas Rhea, author of the 36 books whose early episodes inspired Yorkshire Television’s long-running and much-loved Sunday night nostaligiafest series Heartbeat. Set in “Aidensfield” in the 1960s, but actually filmed in the village of Goathland and at other locations around the North York Moors, Heartbeat boosted the economy of the real life village and spawned a tourism trail that has continued to attract crowds since filming stopped two years ago.

The three dozen books of anecdotes about Constable Nick’s life as the “comer-in” from London and his encounters with local characters like the eccentric Claude Greengrass, comprise less than a quarter of the writer’s output. He has just published his 130th book, roaming across thrillers, crime (he has created many popular detectives) and collections of short stories and local folklore.

Born in Glaisdale near Whitby, Walker is steeped in the life of the moorland and market towns where he grew up and spent much of his working life – first as a bobby and then teaching criminal law and police procedure before progressing to eight years in the Northallerton press office of North Yorkshire force.

Walker has been for decades the author of columns about country matters for local newspapers, and thought he knew most of what there was to know about his home patch – until he began to research the life of a venerable local character five years ago.

“My family lived at Thorneywaite and I was sent to Egton Roman Catholic Primary School in what was a strong Catholic area,” says Peter. “Before the Reformation it was known as the most historic Catholic parish in England. In school we were given an account of ‘the Good Samaritan of the moors’ Father Nicholas Postgate, a priest who sounded a bit like Robin Hood.

“He escaped, secretly came back in to the country and operated undercover, and became renowned for his kindness and courage. but he was eventually tried by a judge and jury at the Guildhall, then hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor in 1679.”

Walker had read a couple of other books about the heroic priest’s life, but felt there was more of a story to tell. Caught up in his prolific output of other work (part of the impetus for which came from he and his wife Rhoda wanting to give their four children a top-notch private education at Ampleforth College and The Bar Convent in York), the idea of researching and writing a new book on Postgate was put on the back burner. Then, seven years ago, Walker was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“It’s a story I feel very strongly about and thought I should get on with the book before I died, to put it bluntly,” he says. He’s still with us thankfully, and enjoyed many months work spread over several years, tracing the life of the man whose huge “parish” was then called Blackamoor.

Nicholas Postgate trod the byways indefatigably, offering spiritual and practical help to people of all faiths. Research included work in libraries, local houses, churches and ancient records, as well as online sources.

“The results were at times amazing. For instance, I discovered that I was born within 400 yards of what was surely Fr Postgate’s family home. I also found that the ‘posts’ or horizontal lines carved into the upright surround of inglenook fireplace in certain houses were not to ward off witches, as many believed, but used as a way of identifiying a Catholic household and giving them a number.

“Signals like hanging out a certain number of items of washing were used to telegraph to local people in which house mass would be said, in the long years when Catholics could not openly practice their faith.”

Postgate was born to a poor family, but went on to study theology at Douai in the Netherlands and became a doctor of divinity. After the Reformation, when all Catholic priests were banned from this country, Fr Postgate slipped quietly back into England, arriving by boat at Sandsend.

He joined a covert network of priests who continued to serve the Catholics community. By and large the priests came under the wing of families in large houses, ostensibly joinining the gardening staff or household servants.

“He posed as a gardener at a house in Saxton near Tadcaster and was there for 10 years,” says Walker. “He lived in primitive accommodation and was regarded as more of a servant than a priest. He later went to Halsham in East Yorkshire to be chaplin to ‘old’ Lady Dunbar and after that was at Kilvington Hall near Thirsk.

“He said mass in a secret chapel and visited local Catholic families before eventually returning to the North York Moors, and travelled around the North York Moors on foot saying mass, organising christenings and weddings helping the poor. He lived to the age of 82 – a very grand old age in those days – and in the last 17 or 18 years of his life the rules governing Catholicism relaxed a bit.”

However, Postgate’s work in Yorkshire came to the notice of Parliament just when the fabricated “Papish Plot” of Titus Oates brought a return of the persecution of Catholics. A government agent whose employer was alleged to have been murdered by Catholics, was ordered to hunt down, capture and prosecute Father Postgate, who’d been caught baptising a baby. He was executed along with two other Catholics, making them an example to the nation and standing as a deterrent to others – who might be plotting to overthrow King and country.

In the 1970s, the martyr Fr Nicholas Postgate was given the status of “Venerable” and his title now is “Blessed” – incrementally moving closer to being canonised a saint. Peter Walker thinks it’s only a matter of time before the Catholic Church has a new Saint in the humble man from Egton Bridge. “I think it’s about time and he’s really earned it.”

In between working on the long-drawn-out Postgate project, the writer continues to turn out novels and articles at a cracking rate. While Heartbeat (whose filming ended in 2009) continues to be screened around the world, and ITV3 shows episodes three times a day, the man who created the original stories enjoys the regular royalty cheques, and plans to bring “Constable Nick” back into his new series of novels – but this time as a retired bobby who helps with security, in stories around a bunch of nuns who turn to detecting the perpetrator of a murder at the abbey.

Peter can see no reason to give up writing and puts in a full day at it five days a week. “I keep practising and keep learning. That’s what it’s all about.”

Blessed Nicholas Postgate Martyr of the Moors by Nicholas Rhea is published by Gracewing, £12.99. To order call 01748 821122. Postage costs £2.85.