It’s been a busy morning for Peter Wright. Before taking time out to talk to me, the star of Channel 5’s popular TV series, The Yorkshire Vet, has been hard at work doing his day job - helping sick animals, of all shapes and sizes.
“I’ve just come back from a job where I’ve been dealing with a constipated Corn snake which you don’t see around these parts too often,” he says, with a chuckle. “These are the kind of things James Herriot didn’t really have on his horizon but they are becoming more commonplace now so you have to learn about them.”
Wallabies are another creature that the much-loved James Herriot (real name Alf Wight) is unlikely to have encountered on his veterinary rounds back in the day. “Alf Wight had a saying, ‘first catch your patient’ and that’s never more true than when you’re trying to catch a wallaby. We’re not used to seeing them in North Yorkshire.”
Like his former mentor, Peter has become something of a celebrity vet himself and on the back of the success of the TV series, which now pulls in around 1.8 million viewers, he’s written a memoir charting the highs and lows of his life as a veterinary surgeon.
The Yorkshire Vet - In the footsteps of Herriot, traces his journey from growing up in rural North Yorkshire, to working alongside Alf Wight and eventually taking over his practice and inadvertently following him into the limelight. “I consider myself to be fairly boring but it’s been quite an experience looking back over the last 50 years or so of your life,” says Peter.
He describes his childhood growing in Thirkleby as “idyllic”. “My whole life revolved around rural North Yorkshire. When we were kids we used to go poaching in the local stream for trout, we would build dens in farmers’ straw bales and make go-karts out of pram wheels - it was all good fun.”
He grew up surrounded by farming life. “My grandad was a farm manager and I used to go to the farm with him and I would befriend some of the animals being reared, particularly the cattle. I always had a big interest in them and enjoyed feeding them. Being around farms and farmers felt very natural to me, I was fascinated by the whole process.”
Even so it wasn’t until a chance conversation with one of his school teachers in Thirsk that he began thinking about becoming a vet. “The teacher in charge of careers, who became a good friend, said to me one day, ‘what are you going to do when you leave?’ And I said I hadn’t thought about it. He mentioned dentistry and the thought filled me with horror and then he said ‘what about veterinary science?’ I didn’t know much about it but he knew Alf and Jim Wight and he fixed it for me to go and spend a day there.
“So I went down to 23 Kirkgate, which is now the World of James Herriot, and the minute I walked through the door I was just utterly fascinated by the smells and sounds. It was buoyant, the phone was ringing and animals were coming in and out and within an hour of being there I thought ‘this is what I want to do.’”
He met Alf Wight who at this point was just starting to become a household name through his James Herriot books which was soon to spawn the much loved TV series All Creatures Great and Small. “There was a buzz about the place. People were coming in wanting to meet the great man.”
Having had a taste of life as a vet he spent five years studying at Liverpool University, graduating in 1981. He worked for a brief spell in Bedfordshire before an opportunity arose to return home and work for Alf Wight. He joined his Thirsk practice in 1982 and he’s been there ever since.
Peter is full of admiration for his former mentor. “He wasn’t the sort of chap who would lecture you but you watched how he did things. He was a very gentle man and a very kind man. When I went out with him to farms he never flapped or got excited.
“I used to go with him as a student when sheep were giving birth and he would say ‘there’s two things you want to remember, always work very slowly and always use plenty of lubricant on your hands.’ Farmers used to say to him, ‘we don’t really want you Wight, we want those little dolls hands,’ because he had small hands whereas a lot of famers have hands like shovels,” says Peter, laughing.
“He was a tremendous man. He would never push advice at you but if you asked him he would talk about his experiences as a veterinary surgeon and that was invaluable to me - not just the work, but how a practice should be run.”
By the 1980s his alter ego had made Wight a household name, but he wasn’t interested in the trappings of fame. “He saw himself first and foremost as a veterinary surgeon and a little bit of him as the writer James Herriot, and the locals respected him for that. Tourists would come to the village where he lived looking for him and they’d ask a local where James Herriot lived and they would look puzzled and say ‘oh, I don’t know, I can’t really help you,’ because they understood he wanted to protect his privacy.”
He describes in his book what it was like working with figures like Alf Wight and the senior partner Donald Sinclair [the inspiration for the fictional Siegfried Farnon]. “They were both very different characters but I learnt an awful lot from both of them.”
As luck would have it, Peter has since had his own brush with TV fame, which he admits took him by surprise. “I didn’t think it would top the viewing figures on Channel Five. I thought it would last six months and fizzle out but it hasn’t.
“Earlier on this year I went to India and visited the Taj Mahal and I was tapped on the shoulder by this chap and he said, ‘I know you from somewhere,’ and as soon as I opened my mouth and he heard my Yorkshire accent he said, ‘the Yorkshire vet’ and he was from Australia where the programme had been on TV. It was all quite surreal.”
The programme has helped raise Thirsk’s profile. “It’s been good for the town and it’s been good for Yorkshire because it gives us a chance to showcase the wonderful countryside of North Yorkshire.”
It’s 23 years since Alf Wight passed away and even during that time farming has changed dramatically. “Everything has become much more hi-tech now. We have dairy farmers that use robots now to milk the cows.”
Peter, though, has lost none of his enthusiasm for the job. “I’ve been out to farms this morning and I’ve been treating dogs as well as a snake, so you don’t know from one minute to the next until the phone rings what’s coming in.
“I mean how lucky am I to do what I’m doing in a beautiful part of the countryside, which I call home, and to have all this variety to keep me interested...”
The Yorkshire Vet - In the footsteps of Herriot, published by Mirror Books, comes out on October 18.
Profile of ‘The Yorkshire Vet’
Peter Wright was born near Thirsk in October 1956 and grew up in North Yorkshire.
He qualified from the University of Liverpool in 1981 and has worked at Skeldale since 1982.
Here he worked alongside Alf Wight (aka James Herriot) and later took over his practice.
In 1996 the practice moved from Kirkgate to the purpose-built Skeldale Veterinary Centre where it’s still based.
The TV series - The Yorkshire Vet - follows the lives and work of veterinarians Peter Wright and Julian Norton at their two practices in North Yorkshire.
When not working, Peter enjoys playing bridge, gardening, takes part in tractor rallies and spending time with his family.