Peter Wright worked alongside Alf Wight and thanks to the hit TV series The Yorkshire Vet has become a household name himself. Chris Bond met him. Pictures by James Hardisty.
From the foot of his garden, Peter Wright points towards some farmhouses about a mile away at the bottom of the hill near Thirkleby. “I was born just the other side of those farm buildings…. I’ve not come very far have I?” he says with a chuckle.
On the face of it perhaps not, but during his career as a highly respected veterinary surgeon he has worked with Alf Wight, aka James Herriot, and Donald Sinclair, the inspiration for Siegfried Farnon in Herriot’s brilliant best-selling books, and latterly has become a household name himself alongside Julian Norton in Channel 5’s hugely popular TV series The Yorkshire Vet. So on reflection he’s actually come rather a long way.
He’s also a successful author and has followed up his literary debut, The Yorkshire Vet: In the Footsteps of Herriot, with a new book, My Yorkshire Great and Small. While his first book was a memoir that tapped into his memories of his mentor, his latest one is a love-letter to his home county.
“I’m always beating the drum for Yorkshire wherever I go,” he says. “When vets used to come for interviews I would say to them ‘you’re coming to the centre of the world, you’re coming to Thirsk.’ Donald Sinclair always said, ‘I don’t need to go away on holiday I’ve got everything I want here’ and it’s very true. We’ve got the east coast mainline if you want to go to London, God forbid, in two hours, we’ve got motorways, and fantastic cities like York and Leeds not far away, and we’ve got an absolutely wonderful coastline.
“If I step across the road that’s the start of the North York Moors and I’ve got the Vale of York in front of me. I just doesn’t get any better. When I open the curtains on a morning I think how lucky I am. And I wanted to explain why I think Yorkshire is so great.”
He not only talks about its heritage but also the cultural diversity that exists in communities today. “North Yorkshire is predominantly agricultural but we have so many things going on now. I think Yorkshire has really blossomed and is continuing to blossom.”
He also ruminates on how much the world has changed from when he was growing up in the 1960s. “Children’s lives are so different now. I’m not that old but today it’s all about computer games and mobile phones and in my day it wasn’t, and I wanted to capture some of that, but from the perspective of the veterinary world,” he says.
Peter describes his childhood growing up in North Yorkshire as “idyllic.” It was his careers teacher who suggested doing veterinary science and helped arrange for him to spend time at Alf Wight’s Thirsk practice at 23 Kirkgate (now The World of James Herriot). Within an hour of being there he knew where his future vocation lay.
Having had a taste of life as a vet he spent five years studying at Liverpool University, graduating in 1981. He worked briefly in Bedfordshire before an opportunity arose to return home and work for Alf Wight.
“People often say you should never go back and after the initial excitement I thought ‘should I go back?’ It was a very busy practice where I was [in Luton] and I was doing work that I loved and going back and working for people you know puts more pressure on you because the expectations increase. But I’ve always liked a bit of a challenge and the thing that’s always driven me on throughout everything is a fear of failure.”
In the end, the allure of returning home was too hard to resist and he joined the Thirsk practice in 1982 and has been there ever since. He oversaw the move from Kirkgate to the purpose-built Skeldale Veterinary Centre on the outskirts of the town in 1996. “Alf Wight gave it his blessing, he said ‘you lads have to move and I understand why you have to move.’ Sadly he never saw it come to fruition because he died in 95.”
Four years ago, Peter was approached about doing a TV series for Channel 5 that tapped into the James Herriot ethos. Initially, though, he had reservations about getting involved, whereas Julian Norton, then part of the practice, was more enthusiastic. “He was probably keener than me from the start. We talked about it a lot. Tim Yates, the other partner, is a fantastic vet but very quiet so there was no way he was going to get involved, it had to be me and Julian.”
In the end they took the plunge. “We found it novel, but I don’t think we found it easy. We had to learn how to deal with the cameras and some of the farmers were very reticent to start with. But after the success of the pilot series the farming community was talking about it and the veterinary community was talking about it and after that the farmers were happy to jump on board.”
The Yorkshire Vet has proved hugely popular pulling in around 1.8 million viewers. “I said to my wife Lin one day, ‘why do people watch it?’ and she said, ‘they’re not watching you, they’re watching your patients.’ And I think there’s a big element of that. I think people like animal stories and the fact we’ve got a few interesting characters and this superb countryside, when you roll it all together it portrays a way of life for people.”
The programmes don’t shy away from the harsh realities of rural life at times.
“We’re careful not to sanitise it because if we do that it doesn’t portray life as it is, so you’ve got to show it warts and all sometimes.”
There are moments of levity, too.
“I was operating on a cow with Julian one day and he had his top off and I said, ‘I’m not taking mine off, I haven’t got the physique you have,’” he says, laughing.
“Julian and I are very different characters and I think that helps make it work, in the same way that Alf Wight and Donald Sinclair were very different characters. So if someone doesn’t like me then Julian’s there and it’s the combination that works.
“With the Herriot books, Alf Wight brought these fantastic characters to life, and what this TV series has done is bring these characters directly into people’s sitting rooms.”
At the age of 63, Peter has been a veterinary surgeon for fast approaching 40 years during which time he’s seen the veterinary world change dramatically.
“If I was starting out on my career now it would take a very different path to the one I set out on.”
Nevertheless, he has lost none of his passion for the job. “We’ve still got the variety. I had some bulls to castrate first thing this morning, I’m going out to X-ray a horse this afternoon and on Monday I’m doing small animal consultations and a few operations. That’s what keeps you on your toes, not knowing quite what’s coming through the door next….And I still enjoy that challenge.”
My Yorkshire Great and Small, published by Mirror Books, is out now.