Thanks to the new PBS show All Creatures Great and Small, there has been a surge of interest in the books on which the series is based: the stories of Alf Wight, better known by his pen name, James Herriot. Herriot’s books about life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s have been republished with new covers, and the TV series has received rave reviews (“pastoral perfection,” “a return to simpler times”). The consensus is that amid the frenetic news cycle and the pandemic, Herriot’s hilarious, warm, and touching tales of the people and creatures of another time and place are precisely what the doctor ordered.
But there is more to it than that. Herriot’s stories encourage not only nostalgia, but also a subconscious desire for home. His stories are rooted in a real place. After he arrived in the Dales in 1940 to begin working as a vet, Herriot fell in love with Yorkshire. “At times,” he wrote, “it seemed unfair that I should be paid for my work; for driving out in the early morning with the fields glittering under the first pale sunshine and the wisps of mist still hanging on the high tops.”
Herriot never left the Dales, even when it was in his financial interest to do so. His son James Wight—also a vet—told me that Herriot was one of the only famous British writers who stayed in the 1970s. “He was paying tax at 83 percent and 98 percent of investment income. His accountant said to him: You’ve written five books for the tax man, and one for yourself.” But he simply didn’t want to leave home. Herriot sold 60 million books—and stayed right where he was until his death in 1995. “He went abroad for awhile to see what it was like, and then came back to Yorkshire. He just liked the life he had. His fame never changed him.”
It is this rootedness, this sense of place, that people find so attractive about Herriot’s work. COVID-19 has, in some places, triggered an exodus from the city for the countryside. Some have discovered, upon being forced to stay home, that they don't really have one. In these turbulent times, people want something solid and meaningful to hang onto.
Herriot’s values, Wight told me, had nothing to do with comfort and everything to do with gratitude. One story he recalled summed it all up.
One day, high up on a hill farm where the soil was thin and rocky and it was nearly impossible to grow anything, Herriot was standing outside the barns, admiring the view. The farmer grumbled to him about how difficult it was to make a living, and Herriot responded: “Well, George, where else in the world do you get a view like that? That must be worth something.” The old fellow replied: “Aye, but the view’s not very sustainin’.” Both men, of course, were right. “Every single penny the farmers made was made with blood,” Wight said.
Modernity has changed much. Herriot’s books were not religious, but his culture was marked by Christianity. “There’s less and less people going to church, it seems,” Wight reflected. “Why don’t people go to church? There’s other things to do on a Sunday. Years ago, that was the thing to do if you went out on a Sunday. The Methodist Church was absolutely full.”
The men and women in Herriot’s stories are all gone now. “Farms are now filled with machinery,” Wight told me. “In his days they were full of men, and every man was a character. I remember when farmers had names for their cows. Now they’re all numbers, of course. A lot of the farms have gone. It’s very nostalgic for me to drive around the local villages and see where all the farms used to be. They’re not there anymore.”
Meanwhile, the countryside Herriot immortalized is under bombardment. “The Green Party are saying that cows are contributing to global warming, that we should stop grazing our fields,” Wight said. “One article asked if we still need farmers. We do need farmers! Who made the countryside look like that?” The country, he told me, needs more champions.
For now at least, there is still a thriving village culture in Yorkshire. The people like to get together and have coffee mornings. A community-oriented way of life is still possible, and people can put down roots in new places—Herriot, after all, came to Yorkshire as a young vet and decided to stay for the rest of his life.
Sir Roger Scruton once noted that the conservative disposition should be, first and foremost, one of gratitude. If that is the case, Herriot was a model conservative. He often reminded his children to count their blessings. Wight once asked his father how he had survived the hard days, the cold nights, the weekends swallowed by work, the penny-pinching. “Because I was glad to be alive,” Herriot responded.
“He appreciated hardship,” Wight said. “He appreciated the simple things in life; the countryside; where he was.” That rootedness and love for home explain why Herriot's stories still appeal to us today.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist.
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