When Channel Five launched its Yorkshire Vet TV series three years ago, its producers could scarcely have dreamt it would be so successful. Or perhaps they did, and I’m doing them a disservice.
You only have to look at the popularity of TV dramas like All Creatures Great and Small and shows like Countryfile, not to mention David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries, to realise how popular programmes about animals and rural life are in this country.
The Yorkshire Vet, which follows life in Alf Wight’s (aka James Herriot) former practice in the Dales, regularly pulls in around 1.8 million viewers and has made stars of vets Peter Wright and Julian Norton.
The documentary series has helped to recast Wight’s original practice – Skeldale Veterinary Centre in Thirsk – in the public spotlight.
On the back of this success Peter Wright has written a memoir. In it he talks about his “idyllic” life growing up in rural North Yorkshire and later joining the Skeldale practice and working alongside Alf Wight, a man whom he holds in the highest regard.
This is a well paced and entertaining book that has no shortage of laugh-out loud moments, as well as some moving and, at times, heartbreaking stories.
What shines through is Wright’s love of working with animals and his deep-rooted fondness for the people and countryside of North Yorkshire.
The book charts his bucolic childhood growing up on a farm “just a stone’s throw” from where he and his family live today, right up to the present day and his status as a celebrity vet.
What Wright does very well, and it’s something only someone who has lived and worked there for a long time can really do, is capture the spirit of Herriot Country and the people (and animals) who inhabit it.
Wright grew up immersed in rural life and had a fondness for animals, especially cattle, from an early age. Yet it wasn’t until a school teacher helped arrange for him to do some work experience at Alf Wight’s practice at 23 Kirkgate, in Thirsk, (now home to the World of James Herriot museum), that he thought about becoming a veterinary surgeon.
Having gained a taste of life as a vet he spent five years studying veterinary science at Liverpool University, graduating in 1981. He worked for a brief spell in Bedfordshire before an opportunity arose to return home and work for Wight. He joined his Thirsk practice in 1982 and he’s been there ever since.
Wright offers a fascinating insight into not only into Wight but also the practice’s senior partner Donald Sinclair – the inspiration for the fictional Siegfried Farnon in the Herriot books.
He says he learned a lot from both men even though they were very different personalities. Sinclair, we learn, loved shoes and was a stickler when it came to work attire and Wright says the reason he always wears a tie for work is one of Sinclair’s legacies.
Though Alf Wight was the quieter of the two, he was still the source of just as many stories as Sinclair, which Wright recounts with affection in his book.
In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Wright has seen farming and veterinary practices change beyond all recognition and he doesn’t flinch from discussing darker episodes, like the devastating foot and mouth outbreak in 2001.
Ultimately, though, this is an uplifting read.
The old practice became a hugely popular tourist attraction as a result of the James Herriot books and the much-loved TV series All Creatures Great and Small, so it’s perhaps fitting that the popularity of The Yorkshire Vet has boosted visitor numbers to Thirsk and has helped introduce a new generation of viewers to the name James Herriot.
Peter Wright is himself a hugely experienced vet and this engaging book is a love letter to his beloved North Yorkshire and a reminder of just how precious our countryside is.