As Britain’s most beloved vet, James Herriot’s delightfully honest and at times hilarious reminiscences of a vet’s life in 1930s Yorkshire charmed millions — and were turned into a long-running hit BBC series.
And as this exclusive reprint reveals around 50 years after it was first published, his magical work is still able to warm a nation’s hearts in the darkest of times…
When dealing with farmers who didn’t pay their quarterly veterinary bills, my boss Siegfried Farnon had what he called his PNS system of reminder letters — Polite, Nasty, Solicitors. Sadly, it seldom worked.
The real hard cases knew from experience that he always shrank from following through to the limit of the law, particularly when dealing with someone like Dennis Pratt.
A tubby, bouncy little man whose high opinion of himself showed in the way he always carried his entire five feet three inches proudly erect, Dennis was always either laughing or about to laugh.
On our visits to his farm, he invariably asked us in to sample Mrs Pratt’s baking.
Britain’s most beloved vet, James Herriot charmed millions in his books which offered an honest and at times hilarious account of a vet’s life in 1930s Yorkshire
In fact, on cold days he kept a Thermos ready for our arrival and had an endearing habit of sloshing rum freely into each cup before pouring in the coffee.
At one point Dennis still owed the practice a substantial amount despite being subjected to the full rigour of the PNS system 18 months previously — but Siegfried didn’t like getting tough with such a cheerful, hospitable figure.
‘You can’t put a man like that in court,’ he said. ‘But we’ve got to find some way of parting him from his brass.’
He looked ruminatively at the ceiling for a few moments then thumped a fist into his palm.
‘I think I’ve got it, James! You know it’s quite possible it just never occurs to Dennis to pay a bill. So I’ll arrange to meet him in here next market day when all the other farmers are paying theirs and I’m sure it will give him the notion.’
Clearly he was working on the same lines as a doctor who turns on a water tap full force to induce a pent-up patient to urinate into a bottle.
It was possible that the flutter of cheque books, the chink of coins, the rustle of notes might tap the long-buried well of debt in Dennis and bring it gushing from him in a mighty flood; but I doubted it.
Dennis duly arrived on market day, ostensibly to discuss his livestock’s welfare, and Siegfried seated him strategically by his secretary Miss Harbottle’s elbow, giving him an unimpeded view of her desk. Then he excused himself, saying he had a dog to attend to.
I stayed behind to answer the clients’ queries and watched the farmers began to come in, clutching their cheque books and frequently moaning that Mr Farnon had been ‘ower heavy wi’ t’pen’ and demanding a ‘bit knockin’ off’.
If the animal had died or the bill did seem unduly large, Miss Harbottle would make some reduction, but there was one man who didn’t get away with it.
He had truculently demanded a ‘bit of luck’ on an account and Miss Harbottle fixed him with a cold eye.
‘Mr Brewiss,’ she said. ‘This account has been owing for over a year. I can only allow discount when a bill is paid promptly. You should really be paying us interest.’
Dennis, sitting bolt upright, his hands resting on his knees, obviously agreed with every word.
He pursed his lips in disapproval as he looked at the farmer and turned towards me with a positively scandalised expression.
James Herriot’s books were transformed into a long-running BBC TV series and continue to entertain thousands of Britons
Among the complaints was an occasional bouquet. A stooping old man who had received one of the polite letters was full of apologies.
‘The vets allus come out straight away when I send for them so I reckon it’s not fair for me to keep them waiting for their money.’
I could see that Dennis concurred entirely with this sentiment. He nodded vigorously and smiled benevolently at the old man.
Another farmer, a hard-looking character, was walking out without his receipt when Miss Harbottle called him back.
‘You’d better take this with you or we might ask you to pay again,’ she said.
The man paused with his hand on the door knob.
‘I’ll tell you summat, missis, you’re bloody lucky to get it once — you’d never get it twice.’
Dennis was right in the thick of it all, watching closely as the farmers slapped their cheque books on the desk and looking with open fascination at the neat bundles of notes being tucked away in the desk drawer.
I kept making little provocative remarks like ‘It’s nice to see the money coming in. We can’t carry on without that, can we?’ But eventually I had to go out on a round.
When I got back, Siegfried was at his evening meal.
‘Well, how did it go?’ I asked. ‘Any sign of him paying his bill?’
‘No,’ he replied, a haggard look spreading over his face.
‘It didn’t work did it?’
‘Oh well, never mind.’
‘There’s something else, Siegfried. I’m afraid he talked me into giving him a couple of bottles of fever drink. I don’t know what came over me.’
‘He did, did he?’ Siegfried stared into space for a second then gave a wintry smile.
‘Well, you can forget about that. He got six tins of stomach powder out of me.’
Many farm dogs are partial to a little light relief from their work and one of their favourite games is chasing cars off the premises.
Often I drove away with a hairy form galloping alongside and the dog would usually give a final defiant bark after a few hundred yards to speed me onwards.
But Jock, the sheepdog belonging to farmer Robert Corner, was different. For him, chasing cars was a deadly serious art, practised daily without a trace of levity.
The vet and writer (pictured on his farm in Yorkshire in 1995) charmed millions in his books
On one of my first visits to the farm I saw him slinking about the buildings, playing out a transparent charade of pretending he was taking no notice of me — that he wasn’t the least bit interested in my presence, in fact.
But his furtive glances in my direction, his repeated criss-crossing of my line of vision gave him away. He was waiting for his big moment.
When I was putting on my shoes and throwing my wellingtons into the boot I saw him again. Or rather part of him; just a long nose and one eye protruding from beneath a broken door.
It wasn’t till I had started the engine and begun to move off that he finally declared himself, stealing out from his hiding place, body low, tail trailing, eyes fixed intently on the car’s front wheels, and as I gathered speed and headed down the track he broke into an effortless lope.
There was a sharp bend about halfway down and here Jock sailed over the wall and streaked across the turf, a little dark blur against the green, and having craftily cut off the corner he reappeared like a missile zooming over the grey stones lower down.
This positioned him nicely for the run to the road and when he finally saw me on to the road my last view of him was of a happy, panting face looking after me.
Clearly considering it a job well done, he then wandered contentedly back up to the farm to await the postman or the baker’s van.
And there was another side to Jock. He was an outstanding performer at the sheepdog trials and so Mr Corner purchased a bitch, a scrawny little trial winner in her own right, so that he could breed some world-beating types for sale.
When the pups arrived, seven fluffy black balls tumbling about the yard and getting under everybody’s feet, I soon realised that they were learning more than sheep herding from their father.
There was something very evocative about the way they began to prowl around in the background as I prepared to get into my car, peeping furtively from behind straw bales, slinking with elaborate nonchalance into favourable positions in readiness for a quick getaway.
The second I revved my engine and shot across the yard, the immediate vicinity erupted in a mass of hairy forms all pelting along shoulder to shoulder, their faces all wearing the intent fanatical expression I knew so well.
When Jock cleared the wall the seven pups went with him and when they reappeared and entered the home straight I noticed something different.
On past occasions Jock had always had one eye on the car as his opponent; but now as he hurtled along at the head of a shaggy phalanx he was glancing at the pups on either side as his main opposition.
And there was no doubt he was in trouble. These stringy bundles of bone and sinew which he had fathered had all his speed plus the newly minted energy of youth.
Eyes popping, nostrils dilated, he fought his way through the pack until by the time we reached the road he was once more in the lead. But it had taken its toll and as I drew away, Jock looked after me and his expression was eloquent.
‘How long can I keep this up?’
I felt for the little dog and on my next visit to the farm two months later I dreaded witnessing the inevitable final degradation. But when I drove into the yard I found the place strangely unpopulated.
‘Where are all your dogs?’ I asked Mr Corner.
He put down his fork.
‘All gone. By gaw, there’s a market for good workin’ sheep dogs. I’ve done right well out of t’job.’
The author, who was born in Sunderland, worked as a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire
‘But you’ve still got Jock?’
‘Oh aye, ah couldn’t part with t’awd lad. He’s over there.’
And so he was, creeping around as of old, pretending he wasn’t watching me.
And when the happy time finally arrived and I drove away it was like it used to be with the lean little animal haring along by the side of the car, but relaxed, enjoying the game, winging effortlessly over the wall and beating the car down to the road with no trouble at all.
I think I was as relieved as he was that he was left alone with his supremacy unchallenged; that he was still top dog.
‘It says here,’ Siegfried said, adjusting his copy of the Darrowby And Houlton Times with care against the coffee-pot, ‘that farmers have no feelings for their animals.’
‘Well, it wouldn’t do if they were all like poor Kit Bilton,’ I replied. ‘They’d all go mad.’
Kit was a lorry driver who, like so many of the working men of Darrowby, kept a pig at the bottom of his garden for family consumption. The snag was that when killing time came, Kit wept for three days.
I happened to go into his house on one of these occasions and found his wife and daughter hard at it cutting up the meat for pies and brawn while Kit huddled miserably by the kitchen fire, his eyes swimming with tears.
He was a huge man who could throw a 12 stone sack of meal on to his wagon with a jerk of his arms, but he seized my hand in his and sobbed at me. ‘I can’t bear it, Mr Herriot. He was like a Christian was that pig, just like a Christian.’
‘No, I agree.’ Siegfried leaned over and sawed off a slice of our housekeeper Mrs Hall’s home-baked bread.
‘But Kit isn’t a real farmer. This article is about people who own large numbers of animals.
‘The question is, is it possible for such men to become emotionally involved?
‘Anyway, I’m sending you to see a really big man this morning. John Skipton of Dennaby Close — he’s got a couple of old horses losing condition.’
Dennaby Close was not just a substantial farm, it was a monument to a man’s endurance and skill. The fine old house, the extensive buildings, the great sweep of lush grassland along the lower slopes of the fell were all proof that old John Skipton had started as an uneducated farm labourer and was now a wealthy landowner.
He had conquered, but to some it seemed he had himself been conquered in the process. He could be enjoying all kinds of luxuries now but he just hadn’t the time; they said the poorest of his workers lived in better style than he did.
‘We’ll have to walk down to t’river, ‘osses are down there,’ he said when I arrived and set off at a brisk pace from one gateway to another, often walking diagonally across the fields.
I puffed after him with my heavy box of tools, trying to put away the thought that he was at least 50 years older than me, and I was glad when we reached the flat land at the bottom.
The two horses were standing fetlock deep in the pebbly shallows just beyond a little beach which merged into the green carpet of turf; nose to tail, they had been rubbing their chins gently along each other’s backs, unconscious of our approach.
The mare was a chestnut and the gelding was a light bay but the flecks of grey in their coats and their deep sunken eyes gave them a truly venerable appearance.
For all that, they capered around John with a fair attempt at skittishness, stamping their feet, throwing their heads about, pushing his cap over his eyes with their muzzles.
‘Get by, leave off!’ he shouted. ‘Daft awd beggars.’ But he tugged absently at the mare’s forelock and ran his hand briefly along the neck of the gelding.
‘When did they last do any work?’ I asked.
‘Oh, about 12 years ago.’
I stared at John. ‘Twelve years! And have they been down here all that time?’
‘Aye, retired like. They’ve earned it an’ all.’
For a few moments he stood silent, shoulders hunched, hands deep in the pockets of his coat, then he spoke quietly as if to himself. ‘They were two slaves when I was a slave.’
He turned and looked at me and for a revealing moment I read in the pale blue eyes something of the agony and struggle he had shared with the animals.
Both horses had dental problems, dropping bits of half-chewed hay as they ate. The problem was that their overgrown and jagged molars were inflaming their tongues.
It was easily resolved by smoothing off the rough surfaces and back in the farmyard John thanked me awkwardly and walked away.
As I dumped my tools in the boot, one of his workman called out to me.
‘You’ve been down to see t’pensioners, then? Them ‘osses haven’t done a stroke o’ work for years and he could’ve got good money for them from the horseflesh merchants. Rum ‘un, isn’t it?’
‘You’re right,’ I said, ‘it is a rum ‘un.’
Just how rum it was occupied my thoughts on the way back to the surgery and I went back to my conversation with Siegfried that morning.
Those buildings back there were full of John Skipton’s animals — he must have hundreds.
So what made him trail down that hillside every day in all weather?
Why had he filled the last years of those two old horses with peace and beauty?
Why had he given them a final ease and comfort which he had withheld from himself?
It could only be love.
ADAPTED from James Herriot’s series All Creatures Great And Small, published by Pan Macmillan. © James Herriot 1970.