A tribute to the man behind a tourism explosion by one of the people who knows him best, Sarah Walker, the “Countryman’s Daughter”.
On April 21st 2017, we said goodbye to my wonderful father, the writer Peter Walker, who wrote under several pen names, his most well-known being Nicholas Rhea. Many people had no idea that a real policeman was behind the books that inspired the television phenomenon that was Heartbeat, a programme that shone a light on to one of the most beautiful parts of the country, the North York Moors and coast that had hitherto remained relatively unknown.
To this day, some people are unaware that there are two distinct national parks in North Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. As a very rough guide, the Dales stretch west of the A1 motorway all the way to the edge of the Lake District National Park. The North York Moors stretch east of the A1, all the way to the coast. Both are stunning parts of the world, although the the Dales seem to be more well known, thanks in a large part to the books of James Herriot and resulting film and TV series. On the subject of James Herriot, I do have a funny story about him, which my Dad used to recount regularly.
As a vet, Alf Wight (Herriot’s real name) covered a wide area of North Yorkshire, including the village where we lived. Alf sought my dad out because he knew he was already a published author and was looking for some advice about an idea he had for some books. Over a drink in the pub in the late 1960s, he told my dad that he had written some humorous tales set around his experiences as a vet. Dad, who was still a policeman then, had just had one of his ideas rejected. It was a collection of humorous tales based around his experiences as a moorland bobby. It was turned down because, he was told, “there is no appetite for Yorkshire humour.”
So Dad helpfully passed on this wisdom to Wight. Of course, Alf Wight ignored it and approached a publisher anyway and the rest, as they say, is history.
The desire to write had been in Dad since he was very young, ignited by the success of a local writer, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who wrote columns, books and articles on Yorkshire, countryside, dialect, folklore and horse-racing. Dad read and learned from his famous ‘Countryman’s Diary’ column that had appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times since 1922 (I have now taken on that column – more on that later). The Major was very well known, highly respected, and attended the same church as my dad’s family.
In 1947, aged 10, Dad won an unrivalled accolade in being named ‘best-behaved and best-dressed boy at Lealholm Church’ and was presented with his prize by The Major. It was a book he’d written called ‘Lizzie Leckonby’, a collection of stories from the Whitby Gazette about the exploits of moorswoman Lizzie and her wayward contemporaries. This little book was a source of huge inspiration to Dad, and the seeds that were to become his Constable series (which led to Heartbeat) must have been sown through reading that book.
Although he always dreamed of being a writer, Dad was positively discouraged by his teachers and left school having flunked English. But he wasn’t the kind of person to give up on a dream. Undeterred, aged 16, he approached the Whitby Gazette in 1952 with hopes of becoming a reporter, but he was turned away. So instead he joined the police force as a cadet. But the desire to write never left him, and he continued to dream of one day being a published author.
He was posted to Whitby as a beat bobby in 1956, which is when he started to write seriously, having his first short story appear in Police Review magazine. In 1959, he was moved to police headquarters in Northallerton, in the same year as he married my Mum Rhoda. While in Northallerton, they had three children, Janet, Andrew and Tricia, before Dad was posted to Oswaldkirk in 1964 to become the village bobby. He continued trying to get novels published, but without much success at first. He was writing ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, which were very popular at the time, but (by his own admission) were ‘awful’! Then someone suggested he should write about what he knew, being a policeman, and the light bulb was switched on.
After having 13 separate novels rejected, his first crime novel, Carnaby and the Hijackers, was finally published in 1967. It was a very fortuitous year for him, as that was the year I was born too!
Dad was promoted to sergeant in 1968, and then inspector in 1976, and soon after became Press Officer for the North Yorkshire Constabulary. It was only in the last year of his life that he told me this amusing tale about that time.
A new chief constable had arrived who summoned Dad to his office. “I’m going to employ a civilian to becomeour press officer, Walker,” he announced, much to Dad’s surprise and bewilderment, as he thought he was doing a pretty good job. The chief went on to explain, “In the police, we’re not trained for that sort of thing, we don’t have the skills. You need a professional who knows what he’s doing when it comes to dealing with the media and writing press releases and all that. My last press officer was a proper writer. He had nine crime novels published, you know.”
“Oh really?” Dad replied, “I’ve had 49 published.”
He let him keep the job.
It may well have been James Herriot’s success that encouraged my dad never to give up on his idea for tales about his life as a moorland bobby, and in 1979, his first Constable book, Constable on the Hill, was published. It was immediately popular, and more Constable tales followed, and by the early 1980s, they were attracting attention from Yorkshire Television. Spurred on by this, and by the fact that by now he would be entitled to a police pension, he retired from the police force to write full time in 1983.
However, it would be another eight years before Yorkshire TV finally decided to put the new police drama into production. Heartbeat eventually made to our screens on 10th April 1992. No-one, least of all my dad, could have predicted the success it would become. But it’s recipe of gentle stories, excellent characters, stunning setting, and nostalgic 1960s music, were an instant hit, attracting weekly audiences of up to 18 million viewers. Big names queued up to make guest appearances, including Daniel Craig, Gary Barlow, Charlotte Church, Sheridan Smith, Keeley Hawes, Samantha Bond and Phyllida Law to name but a very few who tread the footpaths of Aidensfield.
I remember excitedly checking viewing figures in the papers every week where the top ten TV programmes were listed. For most of its run, Heartbeat was only outwatched by the soap operas. After 18 series, 372 episodes, plus two spin-offs (The Royal and The Royal Today) the final episode was shown on 12th September, 2010. In December 2009, the Times Online placed it in their top ten most watched programmes of the decade, and in April 2014, it was named in the list of 75 Yorkshire Icons as voted for by 11,000 readers of The Dalesman magazine. It has also been screened (and continues to be) in around 30 countries.
Although both my parents were born and bred in the North York Moors, by the time Heartbeat was a TV hit, we had been living in Ampleforth, a village near Helmsley, for 25 years. However, we had regularly made the gorgeous drive up through Hutton-Le-Hole, Rosedale and across the moors to visit our grandparents in Egton Bridge and Glaisdale. Often, we’d pass through sleepy villages like Grosmont, Fryup and Goathland, where the only inhabitants you were likely to see were the sheep grazing on the common land in front of the tranquil cottages.
I will never forget the first time I drove through Goathland after Heartbeat became successful. My jaw dropped on seeing the swarms of people walking around ‘Aidensfield’. Literally busloads and trainloads of fans had descended on this once peaceful village. For some of the locals, it was an unwelcome intrusion, but for many more the TV series brought much-needed income and jobs to the area and it firmly pinned the North York Moors to the worldwide tourism map, a legacy which continues to this day.
The success of Heartbeat gave the North York Moors National Park international exposure and introduced this spectacular part of the world to a much wider audience.
Anna Lupton, who runs Carr House Farm Bed and Breakfast in Ampleforth, and knew my dad for many years, says:
"As Heartbeat fame spread, people would book with us just so they could visit Heartbeat Country. They were delighted when I could give them little local tip-offs, including the sighting of Peter taking his daily walk to the top of the Beacon at around 9.30am or they could catch sight of him around Helmsley market on a Friday. Fame never changed him, but his fame certainly helped generate a lot of income to the area. Heartbeat is to the Moors what Herriot is to the Dales."
Former Whitby Gazette editor, Jon Stokoe, added:
"It would be difficult to quantify the economic benefits of the show but it will no doubt run into millions of pounds, with many people still enjoying the sights of Goathland in particular. Peter’s warmth, wit and personable nature shone through in all the characters, whether you were reading the books or watching the television, and his love for the area was there for all to see."
Chris Price, General Manager of the North York Moors Railway, says:
"Heartbeat has been an integral part of the history of the railway as it showcases the area and natural beauty of the North York Moors National Park. Many of our passengers have either watched episodes which feature our steam engines in the programme or made plans to travel with us to specifically visit the fictional village of Aidensfield, known as Goathland to its local residents."
"Characters from the series could often be seen on the platforms of Goathland Station in the heyday of the Yorkshire Television series and even though the series ended in 2010 visitors from all over the world still love to visit the area and enjoy stepping back into the fictional world of Aidensfield, based on the novels by Peter Walker. With the show being repeated on ITV Encore we find that Heartbeat memorabilia from our shops is a great seller throughout the season, which is testament to the popularity of the show."
Richard Gunton, Director of Park Services at the North York Moors National Park Authority, says:
"The programmes have brought hundreds of thousands of people in to the National Park and especially in and around the village of Goathland where the series was filmed. The number of visitors to Heartbeat Country is still significant with benefits to local businesses and profile of the area. His legacy lives on!"
As I mentioned earlier, Major Jack-Fairfax-Blakeborough was one of my Dad’s earliest inspirations, and he dreamed of one day taking over his Countryman’s Diary column that had appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Time since 1922. As the Major continued to write into his 90s, Dad would have recognised that there would need to be a successor. In fact he had written a hopeful letter to the editor of the day, a Mr Ernest Pannell, in 1973 in which he stated his long-held ambition and offered his services for when the inevitable time came.
The editor’s reply, must have been a joy to receive. “Dear Mr Walker,” wrote Mr Pannell, “One of the most constant problems I have had in my 12 years as Editor has been that of finding someone to follow J.F.B. – your letter brings a prospect of relief!” It had previously never occurred to me to take over Countryman’s Diary after my dad. But I very clearly remember the moment when it struck me how sad it would be that something he had loyally written for so many years would come to an end. It came when I was staying with my mum, and along with my siblings we were sharing Dad’s care when he was in the final stages of prostate cancer. He’d moved into a room downstairs with a surgical bed and all the paraphernalia that was needed to look after him. By now, his health was deteriorating rapidly, and we knew the inevitable was a matter of days away.
I’d gone into my dad’s study for something and there lying across his now silent computer keyboard was his latest column, which my mum had cut from the newspaper to keep. I was taken aback, as his happy, healthy smiling face beamed out at me from the paper, while in reality, he lay gravely ill at the other end of the corridor. The contrast was stark, and hit me like a blow to the stomach. When you’re in the midst of caring for someone, you’re so busy, and so taken up with the practicalities of the care, that you can easily block out, perhaps intentionally, what is actually happening to them. Seeing him in that picture, reading his words, written as if there was nothing at all wrong, made it abundantly clear to me that his readers would have no idea what was about to happen.
And so I determined that I needed to do something to ensure the columns would not be forgotten. I knew Dad had written them for many years, but at the time, was unaware of the story behind him taking them on from the Major, and how it had been his childhood dream to take it on. So when I rang the editor to ask to do it, it was an honour and a privilege when he said yes, and also very scary, as Dad’s shoes are big ones to fill!
Dad kept every one of his columns, and so I use them as inspiration for my Countryman’s Daughter column today which appears weekly in the Darlington and Stockton Times and the Gazette and Herald newspapers. I look back to his column from the corresponding week from 40 years ago, when I was just 10, and see what he was writing about then. Revisiting our past is bringing so much pleasure, alongside inevitable waves of grief, reawakening long-forgotten memories, memories that are even more special now that Dad’s not here to share them.
At the same time, I feel extraordinarily lucky because through his passing I have stumbled upon a way of getting to know him better than I ever thought possible. I am so proud to be the Countryman’s Daughter.
Read all about the Countryman & the Countryman’s Daughter at countrymansdaughter.com
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @countrymansdaug
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