|Near the summit of Haystacks, which is much
lower than surrounding fells, on the banks of a small tarn, the
ashes of Alfred Wainwright or "AW" as he preferred were scattered.
In Book Seven he had urged
"If you ... should get a bit
of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to
come," , "please treat it with respect. It may be me."
He died in 1991. There can't be much of him left now. Yet he is, to a
surprising degree, everywhere.
Surprising? Put it this way: two-and-a-half years ago, Alfred Wainwright
was half-forgotten. Changes in fashion, technology and the Lakeland
landscape seemed to be rendering much of his work obsolete. His books
were out of print. There was no memorial to his life, unless you count
the animal rescue centre that was the main beneficiary of his book
sales; nor was there any association of his admirers. Meanwhile, the
fells he helped popularise were increasingly being trodden by a new
generation of walkers to whom his name meant nothing.
This might not have bothered him, for he craved anonymity. When admirers
hailed him on the fells, he would turn aside and consult a map.
Once, when sales of his books were about to pass the million mark, his
publishers persuaded him to agree to have dinner with the purchaser of
the millionth copy; he then lost his nerve and made a 100-mile round
trip to buy the specially marked copy himself.
Nor, perhaps, could he reasonably have expected his fame to survive into
the 21st century, for Alfred Wainwright – or A W, as he
preferred to be known – was a man singularly out of tune with the modern
world. His hand-written, hand-drawn, self-published guidebooks to
Britain's best-loved mountains – the first ever to evoke the phrase
"creative genius" – were forged from the drab, repressed austerities of
the 1940s and 1950s: the half-mad visions of a small northern town's
municipal treasurer who travelled to the fells at weekends by bus and
explored them in his "third-best tweed suit" before painstakingly
committing his experiences to paper back in his cold, unhappy home. A
social and political conservative who believed that criminals should be
"birched until they screamed for mercy", he preferred animals to people
and liked solitude best of all. One can no more imagine him being
embraced by the emotionally and digitally aware young leisure-seekers of
today's Britain than one can imagine him contemplating such an embrace
None the less, the past two years – and especially the past few months –
have seen a remarkable Wainwright renaissance. One hesitates to describe
so trend-resistant a figure as fashionable, but his name is
unquestionably in the Cumbrian air. The Kendal-based Wainwright Society
– founded in November 2002 on the eve of the disappearance of his last
books from print – has steadily increased both its membership (pushing
500) and, this year, its activities. Last month, 50 years after the
publication of the first of Wainwright's seven Pictorial Guides to the
Lakeland Fells, celebrities such as Lord Bragg and Sir Chris Bonnington
honoured his memory by spending a week climbing (between them) all 214
fells described in the series. Those guides, meanwhile, have been
rescued from oblivion by a new publisher, Frances Lincoln, which bought
the copyright from Wainwright's widow, Betty, in 2003, and brought out a
new edition of the Lakeland guides in March.
Most significantly of all, was the publication (also by
Frances Lincoln) of a completely updated edition of the first of the
Pictorial Guides, The Eastern Fells, with more than 3,000 revisions of
detail by Wainwright's friend, a 62-year-old cartographer and
ex-taxi-driver called Chris Jesty – restoring absolute reliability to
the many other excellent reasons for letting Wainwright be your guide to
the Helvellyn range. Add to this the recent publication of The Best of
Wainwright (edited by his biographer, Hunter Davies), and the sense of
ubiquity becomes irresistible. It will be hard to visit the Lake
District this summer without sensing Wainwright's shadow.
This is no more than he deserves. Those seven guides – published between
1955 and 1966 – are arguably among that period's supreme British
cultural achievements. Devotees will need no introduction; to the
unfamiliar, one can only suggest having a look. They are, in Hunter
Davies's words, "not merely guidebooks, but philosophical strolls,
personal outpourings of feelings and observations, written and drawn by
a craftsman, conceived and created as a total work of art". Wainwright
himself described the first in the series as "a love letter".
Based on several decades' unpaid research – including a 13-year period
in which they occupied virtually every minute of his non-working time –
the guides combine maps, diagrams and drawings (both evocative and
explanatory) with descriptions, route recommendations and irresistible
digressions, all neatly drawn with pen and ink. Their defining
characteristics include: an obsessive attention to detail; a
connoisseur's eye for landscape; an encyclopaedic knowledge of related
subjects from geology to folklore; a sustained awareness of the
emotional power of mountains; and a creative joie de vivre that sits
oddly with his largely self-created popular image of miserable old git.
It's hard to go more than a few pages without finding some visual or
verbal joke – a talking sheep, say, or a discourse on "the use of the
Bottom in Mountaineering" – or, at the very least, a musing so
irrelevant that it gladdens the heart to yield to it.
The draftsmanship is that of a meticulous bookkeeper; the irrepressible
creative enthusiasm is that of an artist. Like other great
self-publishing English individualists, from William Blake to J L Carr,
Wainwright shared the contents of his teeming brain with an honesty and
a disregard for convention that were quietly revolutionary. The result
was something close to artistic greatness.
The seventh guide came out in 1966. Within a year, Wainwright had
retired, split up with his first wife, committed himself to the
relationship that would culminate in his second, happier marriage in
1970 – and begun a 24-year twilight of growing contentment and success.
He published 52 other books, most of which sold well and some of which
became famous. But none quite matched the idiosyncratic perfection of
the first seven.
This may have something to do with the circumstances of the works'
creation. Born in 1907, the youngest son of a Blackburn stonemason,
Wainwright grew up in poverty, and in the shadow of his father's
alcoholism. A brilliant pupil, he had to leave school at 13 in order to
support his mother. Starting out as an office boy at Blackburn Town
Hall, he studied accountancy at night school and eventually rose to be
Borough Treasurer. He married, almost casually, at 24 (to a friend of
his sister's called Ruth Holden), and spent the next 36 years regretting
it; as did his wife. (It was an odd relationship. The first time he
removed his cap in Ruth's presence was on their wedding night. His red
hair revolted her.)
He first visited the Lakeland fells in 1930 – the year before his
marriage. For a young man from a two-up-two-down in one of the smokier
streets of industrial Blackburn, the experience was "magic, a revelation
so unexpected that I stood transfixed, unable to believe my eyes ... I
had seen landscapes of rural beauty pictured in the local art gallery,
but here was no painted canvas: this was real. This was truth..."
His intoxication with the region grew as inexorably as his domestic
misery. Occasional visits with friends gave place to regular walking
holidays with his only son (Peter, born in 1933), which evolved into
habitual solitary weekend excursions. Finally, in 1952, he conceived his
plan for the seven definitive guides, and the habit became a full-blown
By then, the Lakeland fells had long since been his place of escape:
both from his frosty home and – less urgently – from the routine of the
Town Hall ledgers. He had moved in 1941 from Blackburn to Kendal, where
he accepted a less prestigious job (also in the Town Hall) in order to
be nearer the Lakes. He later became Treasurer there, too, but such
advancement seems to have meant little to him, except in so far as it
helped finance his true passion.
The romance of this passion is hard to imagine in our more affluent and
mobile age. When we do imagine it, it adds an extra layer of poetry to
the guides. Here was as respectable, convention-bound a man as ever
double-checked a municipal balance-sheet, raised from urban poverty by
his own application and prudence, suffocating in a sexless marriage, yet
somehow raising himself again to imagine another, more magical
existence. Then, having imagined it, he went out to find it, heading by
public transport each weekend for some of Europe's wettest mountains in,
initially, suit, shirt and tie, pockets stuffed with pipe, shaving
things, maps, sketchbooks and socks (but no other change of clothing),
relying on tolerant bed-and-breakfasts to help him dry out from his
regular soakings – or, in fine weather, sleeping in the open – with no
more by way of comforts than occasional rewards of beer, plaice and
chips and lashings of HP sauce.
In the days before mountain rescue, motorways or mobile phones, this
sustained adventure required both hardiness and heroic optimism. The
soul-stifling realities from which he was escaping made his love-affair
with the wilderness all the more poignant.
More than two million copies of the Lakeland Pictorial Guides are
reckoned to have been sold in the past 50 years. It's a reasonable
assumption that many thousands of the purchasers were seeking similar
escapes to Wainwright's – and may indeed have used them as guides not
just from A to B, but from various forms of imprisonment to freedom.
Perhaps that is why, to some, the very idea of revising his texts smacks
of sacrilege. Yet those who use them most can see that, if they weren't
updated, they would ultimately sink into oblivion. Originally, for all
their other virtues, the chief strength of the guides was their
infallibility. After all, if you're lost in a featureless waste of grass
and rock, cold, worried and immersed in swirling cloud, the one thing
you absolutely demand from the soggy guide-book in your pocket is not
charm or beauty or user-friendliness but simply that it should allow you
to identify the fragmentary landmarks around you with absolute
certainty. For many years, Wainwright did precisely that.
But even the Cumbrian hills change with the decades, and by the
beginning of this century the quantity of changes had become a problem.
Cairns had tumbled, paths had been diverted, fences had appeared,
car-parks had moved, quarries had closed and opened. Walkers in search
of infallible guides found it safer to rely on newer publications – many
of which built on Wainwright's work but made use of newer technologies
such as photography, global positioning satellites and computer mapping.
The Chris Jesty volumes represent just one step in a long campaign
to restore the Wainwright guides to their former pre-eminence. Jesty will
have worked on the project for nine years – or ten and a half, if you
include the period in 1990 and 1991 when, having finally obtained
Wainwright's consent for his long-contemplated updating project, he
moved from Dorset to Cumbria and did 18 months' field-work, only for
Michael Joseph, which bought the titles on Wainwright's death, to
announce that it didn't want a revised edition. (That field-work is now
out of date.)
Jesty has much in common with Wainwright. He is enigmatic, publicity-shy
and utterly dedicated. His working day lasts "from 3am or 4am until the
weather forecast at 5.30pm" ("so that I get the mountains to myself for
the maximum length of time"), and he works "365 days a year, unless I
become exhausted". He used more than two million squares of graph paper
when plotting his revisions to The Eastern Fells and expects to have
taken some 40,000 lines of notes by the time the project is finished.
When he first started it, its vastness "hung over me like a black cloud,
and I didn't want to do it. But as soon as I got started all the
enthusiasm I felt in 1990 came surging back and I have never looked back
The consensus among Wainwright buffs is that he has made a brilliant job
of it. But what would Wainwright himself have thought? "I like to think
that he would approve," says Jesty. Then again, he expected much the
same in 1984 when he sent a copy of his very first book to Wainwright,
whom he had come to see as both a mentor and a friend. Wainwright
wrote back with a string of criticisms, concluding: "I give you 5 marks
out of 10. No more."
Which brings us back to the recurring mystery of Wainwright: the fact
that, for all the bubbling good humour of his masterpieces, the man
himself was troubled and, sometimes, downright unpleasant. He barely
spoke to his wife for much of their 36-year marriage and, while he gave
£1m to the Kapellan animal rescue centre outside Kendal, he more or less
lost contact with his son, who suffered badly from arthritis, and left
him nothing in his will.
One can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the bruises of his childhood
never healed enough for him to overcome a fundamental mistrust of his
fellow human beings. Or perhaps it was just that the perfectionism he
ruthlessly applied to himself – with such extraordinary benefits for his
work – tended to express itself as intolerance when applied to other
What seems likely, however, is that there was some link between his
troubles and his creativity. Hunter Davies believes that, had he found
happiness 30 years earlier, he would have "walked far less and written
nothing". As it was, the success of his great Lakeland project – and of
his second marriage, to a long-term friend called Betty McNally – made
possible the second, sunnier act of his life, in which his fame grew and
his misanthropy softened. He created the Coast-to-Coast Walk, from St
Bee's to Robin Hood Bay, and did more than anyone to popularise the
Pennine Way. (His pledge to pay for a half-pint of beer at the Border
Hotel in Kirk Yetholm for any walker who completed the Way cost him an
estimated £15,000 between 1968 and his death.) When he was 80, he was
even persuaded to appear in a BBC television series. (His co-star, Eric
Robson, is now chairman of the Wainwright Society.) Yet, for all the
acclaim and contentment, he never quite recaptured the almost absurd
perfection of those first seven works of his innocence.
"They were," admits Eric Robson, "his masterpieces. There were so many
years in the hills behind them; they were totally rounded pieces of
work. The one thing he got wrong was to call them guides – they were
much more than that. Poetry, philosophy, conversations ... I don't know
what the right word would be. They were unique, and they still are."
Robson knew Wainwright well, and was aware that there were "dark
patches, or memories of past darkness's" in his character. But he
believes that his "curmudgeonly" side has been overstated. "He was a
complex man. He was shy, and he engaged his brain before opening his
mouth. He liked solitude. But he could be very generous, and, even when
he was older, cooped up somewhere inside him there was also a bit of a
Jack the lad. I would have loved to have known him when he was younger."
Ultimately, it is futile to ponder the mystery of Wainwright unless you
do so in his natural habitat, on the Lakeland fells – on Haystacks, for
example, on the shores of that same tarn where his ashes were scattered,
where the breeze soars past you from the sea and "the water gently laps
the gravelly shore".
Sit on a rock here and consult the relevant volume (The Western Fells),
and any sense of his troubles and contradictions melts away. ("For a man
trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind," he once wrote, "the
top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.") In their place, an image comes
to mind of a shy, ungainly young bookkeeper, indistinguishable from
countless other white-collar drudges except for having slipped the surly
bonds of municipal and marital half-living and found a paradoxical peace
that he was to share with millions. You can see him sitting on that same
rock, living his dream; and you can be sure that, as long as there are
spiritual chains and men and women who yearn to escape them, others will
follow in his footsteps.
As he wrote on the final page of that final Lakeland guide: "The
fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but
the hills are eternal."