Peter Walker, the author of the D&S Times' Countryman's Diary and the creator of TV's Heartbeat, died last Friday aged 80. Chris Lloyd looks back on his career
PETER N WALKER was a man of many names, although it was in the guise of Nicholas Rhea that he will be best remembered, both as a country columnist on this paper and also as the creator of the Constable series that has had such a profound effect on the psyche, and the economy, of North Yorkshire.
He was a man of the moors, born as Peter Walker in 1936 in Glaisdale, the son of an insurance agent and a teacher. He won a scholarship to Whitby Grammar School, but left at 16 to join the police.
“I wore a uniform and was officially a police cadet but in reality I was the office boy who made tea, sharpened pencils and answered the telephone,” he once said. “At times there was little to occupy me in the office so a helpful young constable taught me to use a typewriter, a skill that led other constables to ask if I would type their reports.”
Now he could type, he began to write short stories, the first of which was published when he was 20 in the Police Review magazine. After he married Rhoda in 1959 – the snow was so deep on their wedding day at Egton Bridge that the bride had to walk to the church in wellingtons – the writing helped eke out the beat bobby’s salary as their four children came along.
In 1964, after serving in Whitby and Northallerton, he was posted to Oswaldkirk, north of York, where there was a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St Aidan with a field opposite. So Aidensfield was born, and many of the Constable characters also trace their beginnings to this time.
In 1967, when he’d become an instructor at the police training college at Solberge Hall, near Northallerton, his first novel was published after his previous 13 had been rejected. It was Carnaby and the Hijackers, and featured Det Sgt James Aloysius Carnaby-King, a Metropolitan police officer despatched to rural North Yorkshire to solve crime.
Once the dam was breached, there was a flood of Carnaby books, all published under the name of Peter N Walker (“I keep the N because Peter Walker is a fairly common name,” he once explained).
Nicholas Rhea first saw the light of day in early 1976, following the death on New Year’s Day of Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough at the age of 93. The Major had spent his life writing about horseracing and Yorkshire folklore. Mr Walker had been aware of him, and inspired by him, from an early age, as he sat in the pew in front of him in Glaisdale church.
For about 60 years, the Major had written Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington & Stockton Times and Peter was pressed to take over, his first column appearing on January 10, 1976, debating the meaning of the Yorkshire dialect word “kytle”.
But a new pen-name was required as this was a very different lore to the law that crime writer Peter N Walker specialised in. So Nicholas was adopted, partly because of the closeness of Christmas and partly in deference to Nicholas Postgate, the 17th Century Eskdale martyr, while Rhea came from the surname of Peter’s maternal grandfather.
“I think of Nicholas Rhea as my country name,” he said.
That same year, Mr Walker was promoted to inspector and placed in charge of the North Yorkshire force’s press office.
On his first day, he went into the police control room to find out what was going on. “Not much,” he was told. “There’s a motorcycle running up the A19 towards York with its panniers open and £5 notes flying out, but the Press won’t want to know about that.” He knew immediately that they would.
The press office’s busiest year was 1982. There was a Papal visit and 14 murders (the two were not connected), plus Barry Prudom, who had killed two North Yorkshire officers, went on the run, sparking the country’s largest armed manhunt. Knowing that Prudom was monitoring the media while holed up somewhere near Malton, Mr Walker’s press briefings had to be delivered with the greatest care.
“After that, I didn’t think there was anything left to do,” he said and, following 30 years’ service, he retired to concentrate on writing.
Under the pen name of Nicholas Rhea, and inspired by the success of James Herriot, Mr Walker had published the first Constable book in 1979. Rather than hard crime, Constable on the Hill was more about the gentle humour and farcical situations that a bobby in rural Yorkshire finds himself in, and it featured such beautifully observed characters that TV began to take an interest.
Not that it was an overnight success. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first Heartbeat series reached the Yorkshire TV screens. Constable Nick – “an amalgam of bobbies” – played by ex-EastEnders’ star Nick Berry, and characters like the lovable rogue Claude Greengrass, quickly became favourites of the 14.5m viewers.
In all, Heartbeat ran for 18 series, 372 episodes, quickly devouring Nicholas Rhea’s original material, although Mr Walker remained an advisor until the end of the TV run in 2010.
Crucially for Mr Walker’s home patch, the series opened the eyes of the nation – indeed the world, as it was a hit in 12 countries (it was called Tillbaka till Aidensfield on Swedish TV) – to the beauties of the Yorkshire countryside, and it turned Goathland, where it was filmed, into a tourist must-see.
Just like All Creatures Great and Small, Heartbeat became intimately associated with the country in which it was rooted, and in the Dalesman magazine’s list of 75 Yorkshire Icons, it came in at No 65, just above rhubarb.
The last of the 36 Constable books was published in 2011, Constable Over the Hill being a classic Walker turn of humour, although Nick soon reappeared in retirement, helping to set up the “monkstables” security force in Maddleskirk Abbey in Rhea’s last run of books.
In all, Peter N Walker’s prodigious output amounted to more than 130 books written under a variety of names – Christopher Coram, Tom Ferris, Andrew Arncliffe and James Ferguson all being employed when Nicholas Rhea was having a rest – on a variety of subjects.
“I have no idea where the urge to write came from,” he told the D&S on the 30th anniversary of Countryman’s Diary in 2006. “I don’t think there are any writers in the family, although my father had an article in the Prudential magazine.
“I cannot imagine doing anything other than writing. It’s as natural to me to write something now as it is to breathe.”
And he will be remembered for breathing breathed life into so many subjects in his D&S column, and into so many characters in his books.