Thirsk is a small, traditional market town in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire. It was once an important resting place during the old coaching days on The Great North Road. On the day that I visited, I parked in the cobbled marketplace and headed Northwards into Kirkgate. This short stretch of road with the impressive 15C St Mary's church situated at the far end, boasts no more than six blue plaques. Kirkgate was the birthplace of Thomas Lord, founder of the Lords cricket ground., his former home now occupied by Thirsk museum. However just across the road was the home and workplace of James Alfred Wright (1916-1995), Veterinary surgeon and author of the books and film series “All Creatures Great And Small”, known throughout the world as James Herriot.
Alf was an ordinary man who not only loved his chosen profession as a vet, but also the countryside which surrounded him and the people within it. Yorkshire, and the characters he encountered fuelled his imagination, enabling him to write what would become the world-famous stories of a vet’s life. He captured a time which has now passed by and brought the everyday toils of 1940s country life into the homes of millions of people around the globe.
The property, now known as The World of James Herriot, has been developed by Hambleton District Council under a £1.4 M restoration programme, which recreated the living quarters and sets from the All Creatures Great and Small television series. The Herriot Museum is the only one of its kind when it comes to veterinary science and there is a fascinating display of surgical instruments used in the past on a daily basis within the profession. Many of these instruments can still be recognised and used by today's vets.
I purchased my entrance ticket from the cosy gift shop adjoining the museum. A modest £8.50 for an adult, children (5-15) costing £5 and family tickets (2+2)priced at £24. The second I walked through the bright red front door of number 23 Kirkgate I immediately felt as if I had stepped back in time as I was greeted by a wonderful tiled floor and equally impressive grandfather clock. A guide was on hand to offer advice and answer any questions a visitor may require. All the ground floor was set in a 1940s theme, just as if the Herriot family still lived there. This is very much an interactive museum where you can get amongst the furniture and around objects on display.
The first room I came across was the dining room which also doubled as the surgery office and waiting room. The table set ready for the family to settle down to dinner and of course who should be sat in the waiting room but “Tricky Woo” waiting for Mr Herriot. Further down the hall was the sitting room set as if the Herriots had just popped out. The children's toys on the rug, piano open ready for a jolly tune or two and a glowing fire all set the scene emitting a musty smell of old furniture from a time now lost. A delightful view of the garden can be seen through the patio doors. Next, I passed the dispensary which was packed full of old bottles of potions of all descriptions. It was fascinating to read some of the labels on the jars, such as “Newmarket Embrocation”, “Hoose Mixture” and “Richmond's Conditioning Powder” to name a few. Jars of every size and colour packed the shelves which reminded me of the knowledge a vet must possess in dealing with all those solutions. The basement has been converted into a WW2 air raid shelter which does a great job of reminding us what perils there were in 1940s England. Onward past the consultation room and quaint breakfast room I entered my favourite room, the kitchen. This room was crammed full of all kinds of objects typical of a Yorkshire farmhouse kitchen including an amazing old Aga complete with copper pans and kettle. The huge farmhouse table was set as if ready for breakfast and just beyond, old pine dressers lined with jars of preserves and the old washing tubs in the corner. I wandered around freely which gave me a sense of how life was much simpler without today's modern gadgets, but also much harder in other ways. The kitchen was a real gem.
The garden was my next stop where a life-sized bronze statue of Alf Wright stands; naturally wearing his well-used Wellington boots. This work stands as a touching tribute to the memory of the world’s most famous veterinary surgeon. On through the memorabilia room; which tells the life story of not just Alf Wright, but also his colleagues and family. This was a fascinating room packed with many personal items including the typewriter used to produce those precious manuscripts. Passing through the door signed “Foldyard”, I entered a makeshift workshop/storage barn with many old implements, tools, wheels and chains; everything it seens you could possibly need for the day to day operations of a 1940s farm. Here, I watched a short film about Alf and the many people who influenced his life, his friends, family and farmers who all gave him the story lines he used to fill his books. Returning to the house, I headed through a reproduction studio set just like one used during the 1970/1980s for filming “All Creatures Great And Small”. It was great to see the fully restored Austin seven motor car which was actually used during filming the series.
Upstairs has given way to an interactive gallery; an area where both adults as well as children can get stuck in and have a go. This is a fun and educational space where families can learn about life in the countryside. In the education room, children in groups can come along to learn all about caring for animals and life in 1940s Britain. Maybe the next generation of veterinary surgeons could be inspired in this very room.
I left the museum through the gift shop where I bought my entrance ticket and was asked if I had enjoyed my afternoon. Well, what was not to enjoy? I had just visited the home of James Herriot, the world's most famous veterinary surgeon and I finished off my visit to Thirsk with a cracking pork pie from the old butchers shop up the street.
James Stubbs is a Yorkshire farmer with a particular interest in local history, the works of the 18c Writer and Agriculturalist Arthur Young and Rural Britain in days gone by.The World of James Herriot is open 7 days a week