Favourite fells reveal more about the modest AW

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The Independent Culture

Modesty led him to sign off his books with the mysterious moniker "AW" and to shun publicity until the last years of his life. So it is anyone's guess what Alfred Wainwright, famed for his walking books about the English Lake District, would have to say about someone publishing a compilation of his best routes.

Modesty led him to sign off his books with the mysterious moniker "AW" and to shun publicity until the last years of his life. So it is anyone's guess what Alfred Wainwright, famed for his walking books about the English Lake District, would have to say about someone publishing a compilation of his best routes.

The book, by his biographer, Hunter Davies, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first AW guide and highlights a dozen or so walks from the 214 tramped by Wainwright in his "third-best tweed suit". The publication reflects renewed interest in the writer, whose small, hand-drawn and handwritten guidebooks have so far sold two million copies worldwide - and reflects how difficult it is to please his discerning fans.

For Davies has already come in for some gentle flak from the Wainwright Society. Members want to know why he has not included Place Fell, a well-known route approachable from the Angletarn Pikes. Peter Linney, the society's secretary, is also fond of Fairfield Horseshoe, a 14-mile circular walk from Ambleside up to the ridges of Rydal, and the Buttermere Round.

Davies' admiration for Wainwright is born of the fact that he reached every fell by public transport (he couldn't drive) and his impressive organisation of the Lake District into seven chunks. "Then he wrote up all his notes for himself," Davies said. "If you look at any page of his work you will see that even though he's doing it in black ink and pen he can have about seven or eight different shades on every page and he also had about seven different types of lettering, italic and roman. Even the numbering is in his own hand.

"The most important thing is that the information he is giving is not only absolutely accurate but also informative. He managed to convey three-dimensional walks on the flat page beautifully and as he gets on with the book he conveys a bit more of his personality - he is amusing and outrageous and has personal likes and dislikes. His books are works of art and he, in his way, was a genius in his field."

A few years ago, after his publisher had lost interest in walking books, Wainwright was in danger of going out of print. This prompted the formation of the society, based at the Kendal Museum where Wainwright was honorary curator for 30 years, and where memorabilia in a permanent Wainwright display. One of his heavily darned socks takes pride of place, alongside maps he drew as a child, and a reconstruction of his office.

The son of a Lancashire stonemason, he left school at 13 and found a job in Blackburn council treasurer's department where he produced home-made magazines to amuse the other clerks and trainees sitting at their tall desks. He married in 1931 but began walking as an "escape" from his unhappy marriage, Davies said.

His first climb was of Orrest Head in 1930 but it was not until 1952, aged 45, that he worked out a plan to busy himself by spending the next 13 years writing all about Lakeland fells.

He claimed that publishing his work was never a part of his plan. "One should always have a definite objective in a walk, as in life it is so much more satisfying to reach a target by personal effort than to wander aimlessly," he wrote. "An objective is an ambition, and life without ambition is ... well, aimless wandering."

TOP WALKS

Dove Crag: The first fell AW drew. He depicted the more commonly used ascent from Ambleside, though he much preferred the climb from Patterdale

St Sunday Crag: AW was impressed by its regular shape and ridge routes but his drawings of it include a mysterious woman, believed to be a work colleague he admired, romantically, from afar

Helvellyn: AW names Helvellyn's Striding Edge - a narrow, 900ft spine - as the first of his six places for "a fell walker to be" (other than summits) for pure excitement

High Street: One of AW's top 11 ridges, which runs between Ullswater and Haweswater. He was taken by its name, from when the Romans created a high marching route

Eagle Crag: One of AW's top six summits (not to be confused with his top fells) When viewed from below, quite difficult, but AW had a safe way up

Scafell Pike: Highest mountain in England and an AW favourite. In the 30 pages he devotes to it, he includes 28 lines which he describes as a soliloquy

Haystacks: He asked for his ashes to be scattered here: "All I ask for is a last, lone resting place by the side of Innonimate Tarn on Haystacks where the water gently laps the gravelly shore," he wrote

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