Yorkshire Dales Cycle Route - Middleham
PUBLISHED: 09:22 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 20:39 06 August 2018
Paul Kirkwood cycles in the tracks of the much loved Yorkshire Dales vet, Alf Wight, better known as James Herriot
The theme tune of All Creatures Great and Small was the sound of Sunday evening in my house when I was growing up in the Eighties. We never missed an episode. Perhaps the appeal of the programme lay in the traits of the main characters - a sort of veterinary Three Musketeers - which must have rung a chord with my siblings and I. There was intrepid but vulnerable James Herriot, Siegfried, the clumsy uncle, and mischievous Tristan, who Siegfried described as 'a debauched choirboy'.
Eager to see some of the places associated with them I began my ride in Middleham, described by Thirsk vet and author Alf Wight as 'the jewel of Coverdale'. Crows called and the church clock struck nine. The only people up and about were either clutching newspapers, leaving hotels or clipclopping to the gallops through the early morning mist.
I, too, saddled up and followed in their trail on the road that was the final stretch of Alf 's journey from his home and surgery in Thirsk to his holiday cottage in West Scrafton, my first port of call. Alf bought the cottage, tucked away behind the corner of the village green, in 1978 which was the same year that the TV series started.
I passed through Carlton - where Alf used to buy digestive biscuits to sustain him on his rounds - then headed up and over a sea of heather that separates Coverdale from Wensleydale and rises on the left to the hulk of Great Whernside.
A sign reads 'Road unsuitable for coaches and HGVs'. It was unsuitable for a vet's car without brakes too as Alf found out while travelling to a farm at the bottom of the 1:4 bank. Reluctant to make a huge detour, he decided to attempt the double hairpin bends using first gear. Like my virtual guide, I didn't come a cropper but was reminded that my brake blocks needed changing.
The Wensleydale Heifer in West Witton was one of Alf 's favourite pubs but I didn't halt here knowing that there were two more notable Herriot hostelries further along my round.
A pristine old AA telephone box at the roadside after Aysgarth is a real throw-back to Herriot's heyday. Decommissioned and now a listed building, the box owes its smart appearance and flower beds to a couple from Darlington who come over every month to tend to it.
Skeldale House in Askrigg also looks just like it did all those years ago. I had lunch over the road in The Kings Arms which, for the purposes of the drama, became The Drover's Arms. Prints of the actors hang on the walls while the main bar with its huge hearth is just as gloomy as I recalled it.
All that was missing were pewter tankards and noisy farmers. I found the conviviality I was seeking four miles back along the north side of Wensleydale at The Wheatsheaf Inn in Carperby where I had my dessert. Alf and Greta Garbo spent the night here - a year apart, I hasten to add. She stayed during a break from performances at Catterick Garrison and he honeymooned with wife Joan (known as Helen in the books and TV series), as plaques both inside and outside the pub testify. They spent the week tuberculin testing and when they set off for home all the pub's staff had to push their car to get it going.
Minor roads, ideal for cycling, run parallel to the main road in Wensleydale and the Wensleydale Railway also threads its way along the valley. It would've been familiar to Alf before it closed in 1954 only to be reopened by enthusiasts three years ago. I watched as, unhindered by demarcation, the guard shut the level crossing gates at Wensley Station then jumped back on the rear coach before continuing his journey.
In my quest to visit as many Herriot landmarks as possible I dipped down to check out Redmire's bus stop which was in fictional Darrowby for the purposes of the TV series. The fabulous freewheel made up for the unremarkable - if, indeed, picturesque - site. I returned to Alf 's romantic rendezvous by visiting Bolton Castle, where he proposed and Wensley Church where James and Helen were married in the TV series.
The gravestones are at all angles like toppling dominos. Middleham has a fine selection of traditional pubs, posh restaurants and tea shops. For my evening meal, however, I had only one place in mind. I drove home via Bedale and the takeaway that's name makes me smile every time I pass: All Pizzas Great and Small.
Distance: 37 miles or 26 miles without the Askrigg loop.
Parking: In the square in Middleham. No charge.
Directions: Leave Middleham on the road signed to the castle. Take first left, pass over Coverham Bridge then immediately turn right signed 'West Scrafton 3'. Pass through West Scrafton then right at T-junction to and through Carlton to Melmerby. In village turn left signed 'West Witton'. After long descent turn left onto A684 at West Witton.
For shorter route missing out Askrigg: Take first right (after two and a half miles) signed to 'Aysgarth Falls', pass over bridge and at T-junction turn right to and through Carperby. Take first left to and through Castle Bolton then right at crossroads to Redmire. Follow road as it bears left in village then turn left signed 'Leyburn 5'.
Continue ahead at next junction (signed to Wensley). Take first left to divert through Preston under Scar forking right at end of village to rejoin B road. In Wensley at T-junction with A684 turn right then, in front of church left signed to 'Middleham 3'. Turn right at T-junction with A6108 to return to Middleham.
Extra Askrigg loop: Continue past turn for Aysgarth Falls then, at end of Aysgarth village, fork left to and through Thornton Rust. At bottom of hill in Worton turn left to rejoin A684 then immediately right (unsigned). At T-junction turn left into Askrigg and bear left in village to reach Skeldale House opposite cross. Leave Askrigg as you entered it but keeping ahead signed to 'Carperby 4' rather than returning to Worton. From Carperby follow directions for shorter route, above.