English Ex­cur­sions: Askrigg and the York­shire Dales

This England - - Contents - Steve Roberts

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.


Walk­ers make their way to­wards the Rib­ble­head Viaduct.

A train ap­proaches Rib­ble­head sta­tion.

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