Farewell to the Countryman

Peter Walker with his daughter Sarah

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd June 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 21st June 2017)

I never imagined I’d be sitting here, in my dad Peter Walker’s chair, writing this column, the column that I grew up with week in week out for years. You don’t like to think about losing a parent, do you?

Dad was 80, and continued to write until a few weeks before he died. Even when he was no longer able to put finger to keyboard, he was writing tales in his head which he would share with those of us who were caring for him during his last days.

To Dad, writing was akin to breathing, he simply could not exist without it. He was also very determined, which was demonstrated early on. How many other budding writers would prevail after having 13 separate books rejected by publishers? But Dad did, and his first novel, Carnaby and the Hijackers, was finally published in 1967 (a very fortuitous year for him, as I was born that year too!).

Growing up, I just thought of it as his second job after a day’s work as a policeman. He’d come home, have his tea, then disappear into his study for two hours. He did this religiously, every night. I must mention my mum here, because she gave my dad the time to write by looking after us four children single-handedly for much of the time, which importantly meant he could earn extra money. Dad’s Catholic faith was very important to him, and he wanted to send his children to the top Catholic schools in the area, but a policeman’s salary would not support that, so he sought out opportunities to earn money from writing, and wrote and wrote and wrote, and ultimately achieved his goal.

I’m sure many of you know about his big break, which was having his Constable series of books picked up by Yorkshire TV to become Heartbeat, one of the most successful TV drama series ever screened. Dad was enormously proud, and its popularity was astonishing to him. I remember driving through Goathland (where the programme was filmed) and my jaw dropped on seeing the swarms of people walking around. Literally busloads of fans had descended on this once sleepy 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 pinned the North York Moors to the tourist map. Since Dad’s death, we’ve received countless expressions of gratitude from people who own moor-based businesses saying they benefitted directly from Dad’s achievement.

And on that note, I’d like to say an enormous thank you for all the warm comments and tributes that we received since Dad died on 21st April. They really did help us get us through those very difficult first days and will continue to help us through more difficult days yet to come. What struck me most was how many people mentioned his humility and his kindness, and that was my dad through and through. He liked to make people happy.

So I am taking on his column, and what a daunting prospect that is, for they are very big shoes to fill. I appeal in advance for your understanding and forgiveness – I’m not my dad, and do not possess his encyclopedic knowledge of all things country, nor his expert Yorkshire knowledge, but I do have access to his huge archive, of which I intend to make very good use. And if I can in some way fill just the big toe of one of his considerable shoes, then I will be content.

Farewell Dad, I hope I make you as proud of me as I was of you.

Who was the Countryman?

 

The Countryman was my dad, Peter N Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea), who died on 21st April 2017 from prostate cancer.

He was a full-time writer for more than 35 years, and before that, wrote in his spare time from his job as a policeman. He wrote stories based on his experiences and they were turned into the hugely successful TV series Heartbeat. But he also wrote much more, including crime novels, detective novels, short stories, local history books, collections of folk stories and tales, and also columns for local papers.

When he was younger, he used to read the Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times by a well-known writer and local history expert, Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough. The Major had always been an inspiration and source of encouragement to my dad, who dreamed of taking over his column, so when he passed away, Dad was thrilled to be invited to take over. He continued that column for 41 years, and another (Rural View) for around 30 years in the Malton Gazette and Herald. Despite his success, he had a huge sense of loyalty and would not give up the weekly columns, continuing right up until a couple of weeks before his death, although towards the end, they were a struggle for him.

After his death, I began to wonder what would happen to his columns, and felt it would be a shame for them to simply disappear after so many years. With support from my family, I called the editors of the papers who readily agreed to my taking them over, even though I don’t have Dad’s writing pedigree, nor his extensive knowledge of all things country and Yorkshire. But, as my brother pointed out, I do have access to my dad’s archive, 40-plus years’ worth of columns to draw upon.

So I decided to take each column from the same week 40 years ago and see what I could use to inspire my column for today. What I have found is not only a wealth of material, but that it is bringing back some memories that were long-since forgotten, memories of my dad, and of our family, of which he was so proud. And it feels like I am getting to know my dad in a way I never expected nor thought possible. It’s an honour to be able to do it and, step by step, week by week, it is helping me make my way along the long road of grief that his passing has left behind.

Sarah xxx