The Bus Up the Dale

James Herriot
Darrowby and District
(updated very slightly, September 2013)

The real-life James Herriot—Alf Wight (1916-1995)—was a veterinary surgeon who practised at Thirsk from 1940 to 1980. Thirsk is really located nearer to the North York Moors than to the Yorkshire Dales, and indeed when the first motion picture of James Herriot’s books was made in 1974, it was filmed in and near Malton. This production was titled All Creatures Great and Small, starring Simon Ward as James Herriot.

However, when a second picture was made in 1975, much of it was filmed in Swaledale—this was It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, starring John Alderton as James Herriot—and when the B. B. C. made the Herriot books into a television series in 1977, Swaledale and Arkengarthdale again featured prominently ; Christopher Timothy now played James Herriot, and continued in this role until the television series, All Creatures Great and Small, was humanely put down at the end of the 1980s.

Actor Christopher Timothy on Leyburn Market Place with the old United bus which was used in later episodes of the B. B. C. television series. Photograph : Bob Robson

When research for The Bus Up the Dale first began in 2005, several Swaledale residents—including some who had been connected with Percival’s—suggested that there must be at least one former Percival’s bus in preservation because it had appeared in All Creatures Great and Small, which of course had been made some years after Percival’s closed down. This was an intriguing lead.

With two different thirty-year-old motion pictures and a long-running television series all popularly known by the same name, it was also not an immediately simple lead to follow up.

It transpires, though, that this was an entirely understandable case of mistaken identity. One of the buses used in the filming carries bodywork by the same coachbuilders who built a body for a new Percival’s coach in 1936—a Thornycroft, registration VN 8391)—and the colours also resemble the once-familiar Percival’s livery of scarlet, maroon and cream.

So, alas, it seems there are no Percival’s buses left after all (but if you happen to have one at the back of your shed, please do get in touch !).

Still, it may be said, the buses used in these productions do count as Swaledale buses because so much of the filming was done in Swaledale. The village of Darrowby was James Herriot’s invention, presumably based upon the real-life Thirsk he had known in the 1940s. The bus company “ Darrowby and District ” was dreamed up by the production team on the first motion picture, All Creatures Great and Small. The Assistant Director on this picture was Michael Dryhurst whose name will be familiar to readers of bus-related publications.

At least half a dozen different buses and coaches had walk-on (drive-on ?) parts in successive screen renditions of the James Herriot books. So far as we can remember, James Herriot made little specific reference to buses in his stories (why should he ?) although, in Chapter 2 of the first novel, the newly-qualified young vet certainly does travel to Darrowby by bus—and this is the journey depicted using Geoff Lumb’s 20-seater, in both the first motion picture and the first B. B. C. television series. In later adaptations the company name “ Darrowby and District ” fell out of use.

We can hardly complain of a lack of “ continuity ” on the part of the television people here :  after all, there is no reason to suppose that the fictitious town of Darrowby was only served by one bus operator—Reeth of course had two, until mid-1938—and it is far from unrealistic to suppose that “ Darrowby and District ” could have closed down, or sold out to a rival firm, or whatever, as time went on. In one of his later novels, Vet in a Spin, James Herriot does remark that the bus which brings him home from the War is the same one which brought him to Darrowby in the first place, but it would have taken quite an obsessive-compulsive Props Buyer to think of this and then track down the same vintage bus after an interval of several years.

The not unlaborious task of watching every minute of both motion pictures and each episode of the television series, spotting buses, and then frantically trying to descry registration numbers or other identifying features, was finally completed in the Summer of 2010, apart from twenty minutes of one episode which suffered from a weak signal when repeated on a digital television channel. We are especially grateful to Margaret Fissenden who brought us a rare and precious copy of It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet on V. H. S. cassette all the way from Oxfordshire. Geoff Lumb’s Guy Wolf, JC 5313, appears in this production at Reeth and also at Oakworth Station, and thus earns the distinction of being used in both of the motion pictures and in the early B. B. C. television series as well. There then came the job of tracing each bus once it had been identified. For those who like to peruse a fleet list, we adduce the following catalogue of James Herriot buses, which is believed to be complete and definitive :-

Darrowby and District, and successors (in roughly chronological order)—
JC 5313, 1938 Guy Wolf, Waveney B20F ex Llandudno Urban District Council
OU 9286, 1931 Dennis 30cwt, Short B18F ex King Alfred (Winchester)
LYB 941, 1949 Bedford OB, Duple C29F apparently ex Tor, Street (Somerset)
RHN 548, 1952 Austin K8, Plaxton C14F ex Scott’s Greys (Darlington)
KJH 492, 1948 Bedford OB, Duple C27F apparently ex a Convent School in Hertfordshire
LHN 823, 1949 Bristol L5G, Eastern Coach Works B35R ex United Automobile Services (Darlington)

Compilation of the above would not have been possible without the assistance very gratefully received from :-
Carola Beecham, Chris Bulmer, Peter Chandler, Michael Dryhurst, Margaret Fissenden, Simon Frankau, The Friends of King Alfred Buses, Keith Kitching, Tracy Little, Paul Longden, Eddy Longstaff, Geoff Lumb, Marjorie and Ian Oikle, Julian Osborne, Bob Robson, and The Swaledale Museum.

Any errors are strictly our fault rather than theirs ! The Bus Up the Dale will include a photo-feature on each of these buses. If you’re in the right place at the right time, it’s still possible to travel on some of them—for instance, LHN 823 runs regularly in Wensleydale during the Summer, and OU 9286 turns out faithfully to give free rides round Winchester on New Year’s Day—and all of them are still in existence.

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