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Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Road to Kilburn

A Village with a View.

One of the things I still don’t understand about James Herriot’s life was how far he ranged from Skeldale House on his daily rounds.  He visits remote farms, and mentions rattling around the moorland roads.  He says “Most days I had a puncture.  The tires were through to the canvas on all the wheels; it surprised me that they took me anywhere.”  Even if Siegfried had regularly supplied him with new tires for his beat-up Austin 7, we’re still talking narrow-width bias-ply tires, not the wide, steel-belted radials on our rented Peugeot.  I had hoped to see his old car at The World of James Herriot, but they had sent it out to be restored, and although the car had been returned to the museum, it was covered up, apparently not yet ready to be on display again.

One of the men he and Siegfried worked with quite often, Ewan Ross, lived in Leyburn, which today involves a forty minute drive from Thirsk.  Yet whenever he mentions working with Ewan in his books, the man and his wife provided him with a guest room in order to save James the commute, even though he would have rather spent his evenings with Helen back in Skeldale House.  It’s not as if the cars back then were incapable of traveling at a decent speed: Herriot mentions that Siegfried often took roads at up to seventy miles per hour. 

Perhaps the difference back then was the roads.  My wife and I certainly found driving on English roads quite a shock in comparison with what we are used to.  One of our most fraught trips was the short drive from Thirsk to Kilburn.  While the road was well paved, it was scarcely wider than our car.  Nor was it straight: it often writhed like a maddened snake.  Each turn was blind, as tall grasses and bushes lined the asphalt, growing up around the wood and stone fences to shield the animals and fields from the cars passing by.  When another car approached, we sometimes slowed and pulled over to the side, but often, the road was too narrow for us to feel safe even doing that.  So we stopped and edged into the tall grasses or bushes, waited for the approaching vehicle to crawl past us doing the same, and then continued on.  This road, which wouldn’t rate higher than twenty-five miles per hour in the United States, was rated for Britain’s national speed limit of sixty. 

By the time we reached Kilburn we were nervous wrecks.  Before we left, we consulted Tom Tom, our satellite navigation system, for another way out.  In Chapter 10 of All Creatures Great and Small, when James is doing the Bellerby family a favor by driving them into town to attend The Messiah, he writes: “I could never remember much about that ride to Darrowby.  I had only a vague recollection of the car hurtling down the stony track at forty miles an hour.”  I doubt we reached forty many times on that drive to Kilburn.  We certain didn’t average anywhere near forty!  And this was with a smooth, modern asphalt surface, not some of the rutted dirt or rocky roads (assuming these weren’t washed out by a storm) that Herriot had to travel.  So how far did Herriot range from Skeldale House on his daily rounds?  That’s something I still don’t have a handle on.

As Faith Hill suggests, "Just Breathe."

I’ll say one thing though.  As trying as the drive was for us “soft Americans,” the view was certainly worth it.

Recovering nicely (thank you),
Dragon Dave

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve used the fictional pseudonyms in the books, rather than identifying James Herriot, Siegfried Farnon, and Ewan Ross by their real names: Alf Wight, Donald Sinclair, and Frank Bingham. 

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