The BBC program, “All Creatures Great and Small” has been rebooted, introducing a new generation of viewers to the characters and scenery from the books written by the pseudonymous “James Herriot” about his adventures in England’s Yorkshire Dales in the late 1930’s and 40’s.
I have been a fan of the books since they came out in the US in the early 1970’s. Watching the show, as the actors roamed around the remote hills and villages, I was reminded of our motorcycle travels in the Dales.
In 1994 Brenda and I flew to England, rented a Honda ST1100 near London and went for a two-week ride. Our original plan had been to go down to the southwest corner and work our way north, but a record-breaking rainstorm across the island nation, worst in that corner, changed our plans. We headed north (the road signs out of London simply say “To The North”) to where it looked like the least rain was happening and spent our first night at Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. That evening we walked from our lodging for dinner and hand-pulled ale in a thatch-roofed pub that got its license before young Willie had learned to write.
We left the next morning in a rain/sun combination alternating frequently over the space of a few blocks. Though the temperature had dropped into the high 40’s, we had a huge “ Full English” breakfast on board and were fueled with enough fat and carbohydrates to burn off the cold. Our host had convinced me that our best option to get out of the storms would be to take the 4-lane motorway north for a while.
We promptly ran into the real rain. I thought at first it would be just another isolated shower and the ST 1100 fairing does a pretty good job of deflecting most of it at speed, so I pressed on, but it became obvious, a bit late, that this rain was serious. I pulled over, not an easy task on the motorway out of Stratford where the “slow lane” is 70 or 80 mph, under a bridge to put on the dreaded rain suits. The traffic on these roads doesn’t slow, keeping a steady 75 to 80 mph, much faster than I would usually do in the wet, but the combination of traffic and the ST’s steadiness made it seem perfectly acceptable.
After an hour or so, we stopped at a “services” center which was more like those we had seen in Germany than anything available in the states. We sat for a bit, drinking tea and eating scones, then gathered our rain resolve and headed out again, making another 50 miles or so to a gas stop and then sat for more tea. I reminded myself that even if we had been in a car, we couldn’t see anything more than rain through wet glass. By now it was late afternoon, time to start looking for a place to stay, so we headed further into Yorkshire and by happy accident found ourselves in Thirsk.
This village is the actual “home of the Vet”, James Herriot of the “All Creatures Great and Small” books and TV series, though the series was filmed elsewhere. It is a combination of very old buildings, winding streets and cobblestones with modern shops and bank machines. We selected the “Black Lion” pub which offered a few rooms to let. Ours is a room overlooking the main street with a view of the cobblestones in front of the green grocer and a chemist. Inside, the room is reached by a narrow hallway out of the kitchen, up the stairs, with several doors far too low, as I kept forgetting, for me. The floors creak and seem to give way under my tread. The bath is down the hall, overlooking the courtyard and garage where the ST is ensconced (after a Keystone Kops effort in getting through the door of a shed ) with the proprietor’s car—he would not hear of leaving our motorcycle outside in the weather.
It’s a classic British pub downstairs, one that would be familiar to any viewer of British TV mysteries, complete with resident dog and little window seats, but also with Willie Nelson playing softly on their version of a jukebox.
It is still raining so we put our rain jackets back on and go for a walk. The pubs and restaurants, indeed the whole town is closed for the afternoon break of 3 to 7. We found the “Herriot”, (his real name is James Alfred Wight,) veterinary office (here called a “surgery”) just a block or two from our pub. The pub proprietor later tells me that the author had set the broken leg on his dog a few years ago.
Not far from the vet’s place is a huge old church, magnificent in its construction and obviously still in use. There is a graveyard all around it with the headstones weathered into illegibility— where they are still “new” enough to be readable, the dates go back to the early 1700s. We walked back to the room and amused ourselves with British television, looking for weather reports. (Though we had been told by several people to “never believe a British weather forecast”, we found them reliable…”It is raining” or “It is going to rain” is always accurate here. )
As if by magic at 7 PM, the town springs back to life. There are people on the streets and the pubs are full. Our Black Lion doesn’t serve Sunday food, (“no help you see”), so he sends us down to the “3 Tuns” hotel which has a pub in the cellar. It couldn’t be any more perfect. We overeat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and drink William Younger’s Scotch Bitter and Theakston’s Best Bitter. All of it was wonderful. We finish up with “treacle and ginger sponges” which Brenda proclaims to be one of the best desserts she’s ever had.
We wend our chilly way back to our pub to sit on a bench by the wall, drink John Smith”s Magnet Ale, pet the landlord’s pudgy Cairn Terrier and discuss all things British, Canadian and American with a somewhat inebriated regular.
In the morning we are up early again, about 5:30 or so, but well past the 4:30 AM daybreak. It is always odd to awaken around 5 AM to full sun. Of course so far on this trip, sun at any hour seems odd. At least this morning it isn’t raining. We learned that it’s market day at Thirsk, accounting for the streets being full for breakfast. I shower in the standing ring tub with the “instant” hot water device controlled by a pull chain. The floor under the tub seems springy like a trampoline making me wonder if I’m going to crash naked through the ceiling of the pub below. Our breakfast is the usual, sausage, bacon, a couple of eggs with ham, multiple kinds of toast and fried bread, with baked beans added this time. During our time in the British Isles, we came to love the “Full English”. We head off, cold but dry after extracting the big Honda from the garage. The old proprietor tells me that he had run around the countryside on a 350 Norton when he “were but a lad” and looks wistfully at our bike loaded for travel.
Our path is much easier now with little traffic in dry streets. We go first down to Ripon, then on to the true back roads and Into the Dales. Now we are in little villages with stone buildings right up against the street, stone walls and fields filled with sheep. The lambs are out in full company, playing like pups. Many of them have red or blue splotches on them which we later learned are a way of keeping track of who owns them. The stone walls are high enough to block the view from a car, but we are able to see over them perfectly. On through up Greenbow Hill, across Hebden Moore and into Brassington. All of these are classic postcard towns though here just typical. I want to stop at each one but we can’t. Off into the hills, the air gets colder and the vegetation more sparse. Up in the high country walls divide some fields but do not line the roads, so the sheep are free to roam and do so. The roads which meander as if following ancient sheep paths are more their home than mine. I’m riding at 20 to 25 mph or so sometimes slower. It is too pretty, too spectacular to rush through. There are so many narrow blind turns that I would be terrified if I was in or on anything wider than this bike. We go through Kettlewell, Starbolton and on to Aysgarth, heading down and up another incredibly steep set of hills, ( 18 to 20% grades are common), and spot a sign for Bolton castle, one of Brenda’s “must sees”. It is time to stop anyway since we are both getting quite cold and it has been at least a couple of hours since we’ve gorged ourselves. True to form we stop first at the castle’s tea shop for cheese scones fresh from the oven, Cadberry snacks and Wilton Bourbon biscuits. We ponder whether Queen Mary had such things during her imprisonment here. Thus fortified and thawed we tour the castle, or rather what is left of it. Unlike American tourist attractions, this one is left largely as is, though undergoing some renovation now. It’s not sanitized and overprotected. It really helps me to understand a bit about life in the 14th century when “Royalty” lived like this.
We take off around two or so and head through Askrigg, the town where the first TV series of “All Creatures Great and Small” was filmed. From there we start up again. I thought we couldn’t get any higher than we have been but I was wrong. It seems almost Alp- like in appearance and the narrow roads skirting the edge of steep drop offs look awfully familiar in that aspect. It is intensely beautiful and stark. I am impressed by the unspoiled splendor of it all. It probably looked much like this 2000 years ago, except for the asphalt. I am reminded then that these people have lived here, in harmony with the land and their animals in the wild hills and these little villages for about 1000 years without trashing the place. Why is it that we have screwed up so much of our country in just a couple hundred?
Finally we come down, sorry to leave the heights but glad for the warmth, into Kirkby Stephen. We stopped into a cafe for a map check and Brenda orders a “cream tea”, consisting of sandwiches, scones with jam and cream and tea, for our enjoyment and cultural enlightenment. The rain seems to catch us for a bit but doesn’t really stick around. The sun is getting low, so we hurry on to Sedbergh, where we find a upstairs room at the Marshall house B&B, overlooking the cobblestone main street in the old part of this very small town. We will figure out tonight where tomorrow will take us.