English Excursions: Askrigg and the Yorkshire Dales
Looking for a holiday cottage for a quiet week in the Yorkshire Dales was proving a vexing experience. There were simply too many to choose from, but not many providing all the creature comforts we were looking for: bathroom with a bath, private garden, somewhere to park the car, and guaranteed peace and quiet. Then my eye caught one in the small village of Askrigg in Wensleydale.
What immediately struck me about the “blurb” was that this village had been the location for much of the filming of the television series All Creatures Great and Small in the 1970s and ’80s. That sounded interesting. The pictures of the village were also very surprising, for here was a settlement of modest proportions, yet with imposing dwellings, which suggested importance in times past. This looked like a place with tales to tell.
Arriving in neighbouring Leyburn on a Saturday lunchtime, we bivouacked in a café for eats, partly for sustenance and partly for shelter from the UK weather, which was pouring down. I happened upon a local paper and spotted to my delight that Askrigg’s village football team was playing at home to local rivals Carperby in a Wensleydale League match that afternoon; it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Advocating some “settling in time” at the cottage for my wife when we arrived in the village, I slipped off to the football in the rain, finding the ground and a few fans on the far side of Askrigg, conveniently just before 3pm. Not everything was going according to plan, though. It wasn’t actually a “ground”: it was the school playing field. There was no cover except for my golf umbrella and the rain was cascading down. There were no floodlights, so to my chagrin I discovered that the game had actually commenced an hour earlier and the visitors were already 5-0 up at the break. By the game’s conclusion this had stretched to an improbable 11-0.
Back at the cottage my wife was looking very relaxed and very dry and gave me that knowing look, which says, “You’re stark raving bonkers mate.” It may have been raining and I might have diverted briefly to football, but we had arrived in Wensleydale and were looking ahead to a relaxing, but also instructive week. So, what about Askrigg?
Askrigg is a small village and civil parish in Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It is part of the Richmondshire district of North Yorkshire. The village and parish are positioned in Upper Wensleydale, 12 miles west of the main town, Leyburn, and five miles east of Hawes, the home of Wensleydale cheese and presumably Wallace and Gromit.
The name Askrigg is of Old Norse origin meaning “the ridge where ash trees grow”, denoting the existence of Viking settlers and their farming. The oldest settlement probably dates back to the Iron Age. The village remained of little commercial importance through the 13th and 14th centuries when Wensleydale was extensively used for sheep grazing by Cistercian monks, who became prosperous on the profits of the wool trade. The local church, St. Oswald’s, was built in about 1466.
Askrigg was granted a charter by Elizabeth I in 1587 to hold a weekly market on a Thursday, and fairs in spring, summer and autumn. Askrigg’s prosperity peaked in the 18th century when trade in textiles and handknitting was lucrative, the village supporting craftsmen, and gaining a reputation for clockmaking. The earliest mention of Askrigg’s clockmakers was a Quaker named John Ogden, who
moved there in 1680 and manufactured his clocks until 1720.
The neighbourhood of Askrigg was traditionally the home of the Wensleydale Metcalfe family who lived at nearby Nappa Hall. Mary, Queen of Scots was once imprisoned in the house, possibly before being moved to Castle Bolton further down the dale. Nappa Hall is a fine example of a 15thcentury fortified manor house. The hall remained in the hands of the Metcalfes for centuries.
Askrigg’s two- and three-storey stone houses and cottages line the main street, with 15th-century St. Oswald’s in the centre of the village: in the old cobbled market place, complete with market cross, erected in 1830, stone pump and an iron bull ring set into the cobbles. This square is a feature of the village, with bench seating arranged around the solid bulk of the pump: a nice place to tarry a while and watch the world pass, especially when the sun is shining on the righteous.
The bull ring dates from the 18th century and earlier, when bulls were tied here, then attacked or baited with dogs. A local historian wrote that, “It used to be a custom in Askrigg for a man who wanted to fight to go and turn the bull ring over; if another man felt the same, he came and turned it back and they had a fight.” It occurs to me that the unsuspecting and curious could get themselves lined up for a good pasting by just touching something that perhaps they shouldn’t. I left well alone.
Our cottage for the week was a stone’s throw from the church; in fact the church tower could be seen from the upstairs bedroom window. Turning left out of the cottage brought us to the main square in a few strides, and right opposite, next to the village store and post office, was an imposing three-storey building, which we later discovered was the veterinary surgery in the TV series; more of that later. We never saw any sign of life at the house during our stay and it was apparently up for sale in July 2011.
Taking a walk up and down the main street for the first time, what impressed us was the imposing nature of many of the buildings, several three-storey-high stone houses. It had the appearance of a street in a substantial town rather than the main street through a small village and was indicative of a prosperous past.
One of the local pubs, the Crown Inn, has been known under this name since the 1850s and there has been an inn at the site since the late 18th century. John Pratt, a local, who made a fortune as a jockey, built the other pub, the Kings Arms, in 1767 as a coaching inn. Pratt was a racehorse breeder and master of the Askrigg Harriers during the 18th century.
According to the 2001 Census, Askrigg had a population of 411. The village has a rich history as a former market town, but in more recent years it has been notable as the fictional Darrowby in the BBC TV series already mentioned based on the books of veterinary surgeon Alf Wight who wrote under the pseudonym James Herriot.
Filming commenced in the autumn of 1977. The leading role was played by Christopher Timothy, with the irascible Siegfried Farnon portrayed by Robert Hardy and his younger brother, the work-shy Tristan, by Peter Davison. With plenty of screen-time to fill, the series quickly became more of an ensemble show, developing all the characters considerably. In particular, the role of Tristan grew significantly. This was partly because Christopher Timothy was injured in a car accident part-way through the first series and was, as a result, restricted to studio scenes, which required the location scenes to be rewritten and given to Davison.
The programme initially ran for three seasons until 1980, with the characters drawn into the Second World War, but was revived in 1988 after the BBC persuaded Alf Wight to allow new scripts to be written. The revival ran for four more series, taking the characters into the early 1950s. The final broadcast was a 1990 Christmas Special.
The programme was filmed on location in North Yorkshire, with some scenes shot at Bolton Castle, and in Askrigg. The Kings Arms Hotel, which became the Drover’s Arms on screen, contains photographs of the cast drinking at the establishment during breaks in filming.
We spent a very pleasant Friday evening at The Kings Arms, where we enjoyed a superior supper, took in the memorabilia and half-expected an inebriated Tristan to come staggering through the door on one of his frequent pub crawls.
The building that doubled as Skeldale House, the veterinary surgery in the series, is, as already mentioned, located in the main square. The original set of the interior of the surgery is now at the Richmondshire Museum in Richmond and is open to the public. Other extensive parts, including the living room and dispensary are displayed at The World of James Herriot in Thirsk.
Askrigg was our base for the week, as we set out to explore the Dales, so we saw much more besides Askrigg. In Hawes we saw the extraordinary sight of a river in spate right in the town centre and later the same day the even more spectacular Aysgarth Falls, which featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), as Robin and Little John make hay with staves in the middle of the falls.
We also went to Richmond, with its massive, cobbled market-square, which features in the opening scene of All Creatures. Middleham was also a memorable teatime visit one afternoon, this being a bit of a mecca for any aficionado of Richard III.
Another highlight of the trip was going to see the Settle and Carlisle Railway and the breathtaking feat of construction that is the Ribblehead Viaduct. No visit to this part of the world would be complete without a long stare at this leviathan, which cost the lives of so many navvies. Visiting England’s highest station at Dent was also something to tell the folks back home about; such a pretty, tidy station for such a remote and exposed place. It was amazing what Victorian railway engineers achieved.
Regrettably we didn’t actually travel on the Settle-carlisle, so didn’t traverse the viaduct, but we tried to make up for this a little by experiencing the charm of the little Wensleydale Railway before the week was out, taking a ride to the pretty town of Bedale.
But it was Askrigg where we started and where we should finish. There were few regrets about our stay. Although it had rained torrentially on arrival, that had been it for the week and we had enjoyed fine weather thereafter. That was good going in these parts so locals told us. Askrigg proved to be a perfect location for exploring the Dales and was also a lovely place to return to each evening; the associations with a still-popular TV series made it all the more enjoyable.
On returning home, one of the first things we did was buy a box set of the first three series of All Creatures Great and Small, luxuriating in memories, both real and imagined.
A view of the village.
The World of James Herriot in Thirsk, and Askrigg’s market square, with the stone pump and (right) Skeldale House.
Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Lynda Bellingham in two scenes from All Creatures Great and Small; the dispensary at The World of James Herriot; Gayle Beck in the centre of Hawes.
MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Walkers make their way towards the Ribblehead Viaduct.
A train approaches Ribblehead station.