With hands the size of bear paws and eyes narrowed to slits, this barrel-chested Yorkshire farmer seemed to be silently fuming, uninterested in the pub conversation. He stood at the bar, picking at his ploughman's lunch and sipping his pint of Yorkshire Best Bitter. He stared straight ahead.
Everyone left him alone.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the back of the pub. The door flew open, and in bounded a black Labrador puppy, its tail wagging furiously. The scowling Yorkshireman put down his glass and slowly turned around. Then his eyes lit up with delight, and he dropped to his knees to let the little dog lick his face.
"Aye, Jesse, you're a little monkey, aren't ye?" said the farmer. He picked up the puppy, tousled its ears and fed it a piece of bread. "You're just a little monkey, Jesse, that's what ye are."
The scene seemed straight out of a James Herriot book, and it should have. The country veterinarian was a frequent visitor to West Witton, this picturesque village in the Yorkshire Dales. Over the years he and his colleagues Siegfried and Tristan have ministered to the lambs, calves and puppies of just about every farmer here at the Fox and Hounds pub.
Some of the characters in All Creatures Great and Small and Herriot's other books were based on the actual people in this village _ or, more likely, their parents.
Across the street from the pub is the Wensleydale Heifer, the inn where Herriot and his wife liked to celebrate their wedding anniversaries.
Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, died in February 1995. To tens of millions of readers in 20 countries, his gentle and heartwarming stories of the tough-as-horseshoes farmers, their beloved animals and the gently beguiling landscape have painted a vivid picture of life in the Yorkshire Dales.
It was this vision of Yorkshire that had led my wife Jeri and me to this cozy pub.
Lunch finished, we stepped outside and shouldered our backpacks. The best way to see the Dales, we had decided, was to follow in the footsteps of Herriot _ literally. We set out to retrace a walking trip the writer took with his son Jimmy and a friend in the early 1950s.
Described in James Herriot's Yorkshire, it heads up the valley of Wensleydale, along the Pennine hills and down the valley of Swaledale, traversing what the writer calls some of his favorite country in the Dales.
It was hard to think of a better way to explore this corner of Great Britain. The Yorkshire countryside is a casual walker's paradise, crisscrossed by an extensive web of foot paths, bridleways, country lanes and walkers' rights-of-way. The hills are old and gentle, and you're never far from a pub or teahouse with a crackling fire.
We spent a leisurely six days and passed the nights in comfortable bed-and-breakfasts. By phoning ahead each morning, we had a hot shower and soft bed waiting for us at the end of the day.
Enclosed now in Yorkshire Dales National Park, the Dales are five idyllic valleys spread out like fingers in a glove through the Pennines, the range of craggy hills running down the spine of northern England. Dotted with stone walls and lonely farmhouses, the valleys are separated by stark moors festooned with purple heather, veiled often in mist and reverberating with the far-off bleating of sheep.
Herriot's home town of Darrowby was fictional. But one can recognize pieces of it in the four real-life towns: Richmond, Leyburn, Middleham and the author's actual home town, Thirsk.
Like Herriot, we began our walk in Leyburn, a stately market town perched on a hillside at the entrance to Wensleydale. It was here, in the late 1930s, that Herriot did much of his early Dales veterinary work as an assistant to Frank Bingham, a partner of Siegfied Farnon. In his books, Herriot based the character of Ewan Ross on Bingham.
The Friday market in Leyburn's square was in full swing. The town's residents bustled among stalls selling everything from flowers to fruit to hand-knit wool sweaters. We stopped at the cheese stall, where the purveyor let us sample half a dozen Wensleydale selections before we settled on a hunk of Huntsman, tart like an herb-laced cheddar.
From Leyburn our path angled down through countless farms toward the River Ure. The walkers' right-of-way passes through the farmer's back yards, and every few minutes we'd have to climb over footholds in a stone wall, called stiles, or try to squeeze through a "kissing gate," a narrow gate that proved difficult to manage when wearing a backpack.
In the distance, through the trees, we caught glimpses of forbidding Bolton Castle, square-towered and grim, built in the 14th Century to guard the entrance to Wensleydale. Legend has it that its mortar was mixed with ox blood to strengthen the walls. Its most enduring claim to fame, however, is that Mary Queen of Scots was held there for six months in 1568.
In the village of Askrigg we encountered a different dimension of Herriot's Yorkshire.
This sleepy village served as Darrowby in the popular BBC television series, All Creatures Great and Small. We watched a tour bus disgorge a dozen sightseers who snapped pictures of each other in front of Cringley House, a home for the elderly that was used as Herriot's surgery, "Skeldale House," in the TV series. And just up the street is the Kings Arms public house, which stood in for the Drover's Arms, Herriot's "local."
Later that day, as we walked across a farm outside the village of Hawes, we stopped to watch a beefy, ruddy-faced Yorkshireman at work. Sweating with the effort, he was herding black-faced sheep into a mucky pool the size of a hot tub. When he finished he came over to talk.
"Aye, they're off to market tomorrow," he said, wiping his hands. "The dip kills the germs, and it makes their coats look pretty."
He introduced himself as Mr. Thwaite and said he came from the town of the same name, over the hill in Swaledale. His son, he said, actually owned this farm; he was just looking after things while his son was in town.
"Ah'm supposed to be retired, but ah'll tell ye summat," he said. "Ah'll allus work the farm. If ah didn't, ah might as well be dead."
Just then his 2-year-old grandson toddled by. The boy's generation, said Mr. Thwaite, may not be eager to continue working the farms.
"It's a hard life, this is," said Mr. Thwaite. "In lambing season you're allus up all night, and it takes the strength of a young man. Maybe the boy will go t' school and learn about computers."
That evening, in a pub in Hawes, I was tucking into my Toad in the Hole _ Yorkshire pudding topped with a sausage and gravy _ when a couple at the next table overheard us talking about Herriot. It turned out that for many years they had a farm in Thirsk, not far from the writer's home. They were not fond of him.
"Alf Wight never cured an animal in his life," barked the man. "They should have had a cart follow him around to carry off all the dead animals. He was a city vet who liked to work on little dogs and cats. If you had a problem with your cow at 3 in the morning you could never get him out."
When the man went to the bar to refill his glass, his wife turned to us and said, "He's being a bit hard on old Alf. Alf was a good vet, but a lot of people here are jealous of the success he's had, and the way he wrote about us in his books. He made us all look a bit thick, didn't you think?"
I thought back to the farmers in All Creatures. To be sure, they were an uneducated, superstitious lot who often put their faith in quack cures before they'd trust a vet with newfangled antibiotics. But it's easy to forget that those stories were set more than 50 years ago, when most of the farmers in the Dales were considerably less sophisticated.
The next morning, as we left Hawes, we were greeted by a chill dampness and an ominous shift in wind direction. The timing couldn't have been worse: Our route that day was to take us up over Great Shunner Fell, a high, barren moor where we'd have no protection from the elements.
Herriot faced the same conditions when he passed this way, on his trip four decades earlier.
"My enjoyment of the scene was marred by the leaden sky which pressed down, dark and lowering, as we climbed," he wrote.
Jeri and I cinched down our parka hoods and leaned into the wind. Every so often a gust would catch our packs like sails and send us staggering sideways. The high Pennine moors were alive with heather and wildflowers, but there was no time to stop and appreciate it.
We were lucky. The rain, threatening all day, never let loose. Herriot, though, didn't fare so well here.
"From the dark canopy above, a solid sheet of water fell upon us," he wrote. "It never stopped all through the rest of that day."
On the other side of the hill, as we descended into Swaledale, we came across a simple stone barn clinging, bunker-like, to the steep hillside. In the distance, through the swirling mist, we could hear the bleating of sheep and the yelping of dogs. A few minutes down the trail we came upon the scene of the commotion.
Four black and white sheep dogs were systematically rounding up sheep from the hillsides. In a meadow aflame with orange and purple heather, two dogs kept the herd bunched together while the others flushed stragglers out of ravines and side canyons. The farmer, in brown corduroy trousers and gray wool sweater, leaned against a stone wall and puffed on his pipe.
When his dogs had collared every last hold-out, the farmer whistled twice and the dogs began marching the assembled herd his way, yelping and barking at their heels. Halfway to the pen a single sheep broke away and scampered down the hillside. One dog took off after it while another moved over to cover its position.
After the dogs had herded every last sheep into the pen, the farmer closed and locked the gate. He started back toward the barn and the dogs rushed to his side, heads high, eager for approval. He gave each an affectionate scratch on the head and they sprinted ahead, tails up, clearly delighted.
Our luck with the weather didn't last long. We awoke in Thwaite the next morning to the sound of wind-driven rain pelting the window.
We asked the guest-house owner if there was a bus to Reeth, our destination 12 miles down Swaledale.
"Aye," said the proprietor, "but only once a week."
"When is that?"
"Yesterday, A'hm afraid."
We slipped the rain covers on our packs, zipped up our GoreTex parkas and headed out into the downpour.
An hour later the village of Muker appeared through the rain. We ducked into the first teahouse we saw, where the owner seemed delighted to see us. She brought us a steaming pot of tea and some freshly baked ginger snaps and pretended not to notice the puddles forming beneath our parkas hanging in the entranceway.
And so it went the rest of the day. At the Kings Head pub in Gunnerside we temporarily dried out waterlogged socks by the fire as we slurped vegetable soup.
Our path took us along the banks of the River Swale, which Herriot called "a curving avenue of constant enchantment, a long delight of unfolding views of green fells . . . "
Reeth, where we arrived late in the afternoon, is a charming, prosperous little town where 18th-Century houses and inns cluster around an expansive village green. Here the steep hillsides that enclose Swaledale begin to flatten out, and the valley's aspect becomes more pastoral.
At a bed and breakfast we stood dripping on the front porch and rang the bell. The owner welcomed us in and told us to leave our wet clothes and boots in a pile in the entranceway. By the time we'd had a hot shower and changed into dry clothes, he'd hung our damp hiking clothes in a drying room and stuffed newspaper into our sodden boots.
"It'll all be dry by morning," he said, adding with a wink: "Jus' in time for ye to head out into the rain again."
His prediction came true. Our route followed a narrow country road over Bellerby Moor, through high, wind-battered pastures. This time there would be no teahouses for sanctuary.
As we neared the top of the moor, though, the rain stopped. We paused where a rushing stream flowed through purple heather. Inhaling the fragrant, earthy air, we turned back for one last look at Swaledale. A sliver of sun burst through the clouds, bathing the valley floor in golden rays.
It wasn't until later that we discovered we were standing at the spot where, in the late 1930s, Herriot had fallen in love with the Yorkshire Dales.
"I think the exact moment it dawned on me that Yorkshire was a magical place was when I pulled my car off the unfenced road leading over Bellerby Moor," he wrote. " . . . I looked back over the swelling moorland to the great wooded valley of the River Swale where it curves on its approach to the town of Richmond.
"I gazed at the scene in disbelief. There was everything here; wilderness and solitude breathing from the bare fells, yet a hint of softness where the river wound along the valley floor. And in all the green miles around me there was not another human to be seen.. . . "I was captivated, completely spellbound, and I still am to this day."
Feeling much the same way, we shouldered our backpacks and walked over the top of the moor.