Hands-on experience

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Douglas Blane investigates the World of James Herriot

Shades of green are slowly turning to gold and russet on the ivy climbing up the rambling old red-brick house in Thirsk. This bustling market town in Yorkshire is the place immortalised by James Herriot in the books that turned a modest country vet into a quite spectacular literary and television phenomenon.

Now a museum which evocatively recreates life and work in the English countryside of the first half of the 20th century, Skeldale House offers little evidence from the outside of the treasure-trove of sights, sounds and smells that lie within.

In the cosy sitting-room, you will find dad on the sofa reading the paper to the mellow tones of Bing Crosby on the wireless. In the stone-floored kitchen, the table groans under the weight of scones, cakes, jam tarts and fruit loaves, while mouth-watering pork pies bake slowly on the stove.

Nearby is the snug breakfast room where the vets once warmed and fed themselves at the start of a long day, and on whose table they sometimes performed minor animal operations.

At the back of this sprawling house, an exhibition sheds light on the real-life James Herriot - a family man called Alf Wight - telling how this quiet Yorkshire vet came to sell 60 million copies of books that have been translated into 18 languages: "I wrote in little, tiny bursts of half an hour in front of the television. Then I'd be up and gone. I don't like sitting."

All around the house, shelves are packed with books, cupboards bulge with pills and potions, and patent remedies release sweet medicinal scents into the air. In the barn, among the hay bales, cartwheels, ropes and chains, a film about the making of All Creatures Great and Small plays continuously.

In an adjoining TV studio, visitors can watch themselves on screen among the sets used in the series.

In an upstairs room, an array of what look like implements of torture turn out to be the everyday tools that vets once used to tackle the ailments of large animals. Around the walls, mock-ups of procedures give visitors a taste of the hard work of a vet. They tap a horse's teeth to find the rotten ones. They reach into a cow to grab an unborn calf by its heels and assist its passage into a strange new world.

"We find that children really enjoy our activities," says education officer Lisa Martin. "We have object-handling sessions, do quizzes with them and are about to provide more activities that are aimed at older children - in particular key stage 3, the science of living things.

"We put on a Washday Workshop in the garden, with galvanised tubs, possers and washing boards - it lets the youngsters see for themselves the work mums used to do. And we've just started Ration Book Recipes, a workshop that lets them prepare all the food and cook a traditional meal in the big old kitchen."

Around the house, various panels tell the story of veterinary surgery through the ages. The James Herriot books, films and television programmes attracted many recruits into the veterinary profession.

But they soon discovered a very different picture from the one described by our best-loved vet, prompting the comment: "The world of James Herriot is history."

It is a history brought vividly to life by this excellent attraction in Thirsk.

The World of James Herriot 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk, North Yorkshire

Tel: 01845 524234

Email: lisa.martin@hambleton.org.gov.uk


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