He was a modest village bobby but he told stories that burned an indelible picture of policing in rural North Yorkshire and created almost single-handed one of the county’s most valuable tourism franchises.
The death at 80 of Peter Walker, a country copper who rose to the rank of inspector and who, under his nom de plume Nicholas Rhea, invented the Heartbeat TV and publishing phenomenon, evoked memories of an era of community law enforcement long vanished.
Under a strong of pen names, he was the author of 130 books, including three dozen about the North York Moors constable he fashioned after himself.
It had all begun in the village of Oswaldkirk, where the Moors meet the Howardian Hills, and to which the young PC Walker had been posted in 1964. Its Catholic church, St Aidan’s, gave its name to the fictional village of Aidensfield, where he set his stories.
Eventually, life imitated art as Mr Walker and his wife, Rhoda, moved into the neighbouring village of Ampleforth. He lived there almost until the end, when ill-health forced him into St Leonard’s Hospice in York.
Tributes to him were led by Keith Richardson, the long-time head of drama at Yorkshire TV, for whom Heartbeat was an enduring hit, extending to 372 episodes over 18 seasons.
“Heartbeat was a huge success because it reflected all the qualities that made Peter himself special,” Mr Richardson said.
“He had a real passion for people, a real understanding of people and all their frailties, a genuine love of the countryside and a deep desire to keep all these elements together and respected. He will be much missed.”
Holby City actor Joe McFadden, who made his name as Heartbeat’s PC Joe Mason, tweeted: “RIP Nicholas Rhea, Yorkshire author of the Constable books which inspired TV show Heartbeat.”
Crime writer David Stuart Davies added: “So very sad to hear of the passing of crime writer Peter Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea) Mr Heartbeat. A clever writer and great bloke.”
Mr Walker was a man of the moors, born in the village of Glaisdale, to an insurance agent and a teacher. He won a scholarship to Whitby Grammar but left at 16 to become a police cadet in the town. The characters he met on the beat were the ones who would later live in Aidensfield: the grouchy rogue Claude Greengrass and the put-upon desk sergeant, Oscar Blaketon.
On TV, the picturesque Moors village of Goathland, inland from Whitby, substituted for Aidensfield, and by the mid-1990s had become a Mecca for tourists. By a quirk of coincidence, the cyclists on the Tour de Yorkshire will pass through it on the afternoon of Mr Walker’s funeral, this Friday.
Sir Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, acknowledged the impact of his stories on the tourist economy.
“The show’s huge success meant images of our wonderful county were beamed into living rooms across the world and millions of people will be as saddened by his passing as we are.” Sir Gary said.
“Peter was a great ambassador for Yorkshire and we loved his writing and Heartbeat, so much so that Welcome to Yorkshire sponsored the programme..”
Mr Walker had taken to writing during his police career, and had his first piece published in the less than bookish columns of Police Review. By the time he made inspector and transferred to the public relations unit of the North Yorkshire force, his series of Country Constable novels was already in reprints. The first, Carnaby and the Hijackers, concerned a young officer who travelled to Yorkshire from London to solve crimes.
His former editor at publisher Robert Hale said that his “sheer good nature brought out the best in us all”.
Gill Jackson told The Yorkshire Post: “Peter based his stories on his own time as a police officer in his beloved Yorkshire, which defined him.
“Latterly he retired Constable Nick and the others into a monastery to form its own police force - ‘monkstables’ - based, I believe, on Ampleforth.”
Mr Walker also published several works of non-fiction, including one on the 17th century Catholic priest Nicholas Postgate, the so-called Martyr of the Moors. Ms Jackson said: “His knowledge of Yorkshire and its folklore was second to none.”
Mr Walker was still writing a few weeks ago when the cancer with which he had been diagnosed ten years ago returned. He is survived by his wife and four grown-up children.