ALFRED WAINWRIGHT, a curmudgeonly loner whose walking guides to the brooding fells of northern England made him world- famous, became an unwitting accomplice to an offence that must have appalled him - the despoliation of the countryside he loved.

This is the great paradox of the stonemason's son and town hall ledger clerk who died last year, aged 84: his 12 handwritten pictorial guides, full of an irascible humour that endeared him to generations of hikers, have sold one and a half million copies since he published the first one in 1952. Like Peter Mayle's books on Provence they have consigned an endearing and irresistible dream of simple country life to the supermarkets of mass tourism.

The damage is widespread and proliferating fast. Seven of the most popular Wainwrights cover the Lakeland fells, where he worked as borough treasurer in Kendal town hall for many years; two others, covering the Pennine Way and coast-to-coast walk (which Wainwright invented) have become bibles to generations of followers stumbling through hell and high water in their guru's grumbling footsteps, often far from a right of way.

As a younger man it never occurred to him, of course, that he was lighting a slow fuse under a time bomb. He wrote the books for his own pleasure, as memoranda to browse through when he retired to his house with its breathtaking panoramic views near Kendal. 'I wrote . . . not for material gain,' he said in his first one, a guide to the eastern fells, 'not for the benefit of my contemporaries, though if it brings them also to the hills I shall be well pleased. Certainly not for posterity, about which I can work up no enthusiasm at all.'

The guides were written in his ledger-clerk's hand because he never trusted the printers, even at the little Westmorland Gazette publishing house, to get it right. Written with infinite care - a single page could take a day to complete - they conveyed a sense of almost medieval simplicity, a purple homage to 'the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest'.

Reality, the pressure of legions of heavy boots trampling wildlife, gouging highways through soft peat moorland, vandalising ancient monuments, has inflicted a different kind of legacy across some of the wildest areas of rural England. Landowners, across whose acres Wainwright's routes sometimes trespass, are beginning to count the cost and ask who should pay for it.

The acquisition a year ago of Wainwright's copyright by the London publisher Michael Joseph and its nationwide promotion of the guru's works have increased the commercial and physical pressures as the guide book trade competes for the attention of thousands of ramblers.

The attention of both publishers and conservationists is focusing on the guru's most popular walk, the coast-to-coast, a 190- mile slog from St Bees in Cumbria across the lakes, dales and moors to Robin Hood's Bay on the Yorkshire coast. Here, across Wainwright's 'eternal hills', a publishing war is coming briskly to the boil (see below) and questions are being raised about the sanctity of the guru's works of art.

A year after acquiring Wainwright's 12 pictorial guides from the Westmorland Gazette, and relaunching them, the London company has run into serious problems with north country conservationists and landowners.

Unlike the Pennine Way, the coast-to-coast is not a designated trail; unknown to most walkers some 40 per cent of its western route involves trespassing across private land, including Lord Peel's estate in the Yorkshire Dales. It is to Wainwright's path through this area, roughly a 22-mile stretch from Shap to Nine Standards Rigg, near Kirkby Stephen, that Michael Joseph is being asked to make major changes to the drawings and hand-written text of Wainwright's book. The intention is to divert walkers away from sensitive wild- life areas and important archeological


The company has rejected pleas that Wainwright's hallowed book is now so out of date that it should be scrapped as a guide. The alternative, now under negotiation, is to fill it with scraps of addenda - typeset warnings about trouble spots and diverted paths. It is refusing to make any other significant changes on the grounds that Wainwright's original is a work of art. Conservationists fear that many walkers, disciples of Wainwright, will insist on following in the guru's sacred footsteps.

Michael Joseph is also resisting pressure to use some of the profits from its Wainwright imprint to help pay for the restoration of damaged terrain and way-marking diversions across private land which, unlike public rights of way, the county council highways departments do not have to maintain.

The question of liability for guides which, technically at least, encourage ramblers to trespass (one new guide in the northern Pennines has eight of its 14 walks crossing private land) has set alarm bells ringing throughout the highly competitive guidebook market.

Anthony Kilvington, a solicitor in Kirkby Stephen who has shooting rights on moorland damaged by coast-to-coast walkers approaching Nine Standards Rigg, puts it this way: 'No landowning family would say they didn't want the path today because that would be selfish; but the moor isn't meant for that number of people and I'll be writing to Michael Joseph about it in general. My feeling is that once it's been pointed out to them that part of the route is not a public right of way, they're certainly putting themselves at risk from litigation. The moral issue certainly is that if there's damage they should put it right.'

Michael Joseph's miseries are being followed with scant sympathy by rival publishers in the North. 'I think personally they don't see the problems because they're a London publisher and not au fait with what goes on in the countryside,' says Walt Unsworth, director of Cicerone, publishers of activity guides in Milnthorpe, Cumbria. 'When they got the Wainwright books they thought they were buying golden apples; instead they've found in the tree a hornets' nest.'

More than any other long-distance walk in Britain, the coast-to-coast has become a victim of its own success. Promotion of the route in a series of television programmes in 1983, starring Wainwright, has made it the most popular obstacle course in Britain. Wainwright himself recognised its special qualities. 'The Pennine Way is masculine,' he said. 'If there happens to be something in your temperament that makes you like the ladies the odds are that you will prefer the coast-to-coast.'

In two years it has become big business for publishers and village traders across the north of England's most marketable route. Even the physical pain has been removed. A pack shuttle service operated from Kirkby Stephen offers to carry rucksacks between overnight stops at pounds 3 a time. According to one estimate, the coast-to-coast, a creation of Wainwright's solitary imagination, is now tramped by 20,000 hikers a year.

It is this kind of pressure - and its consequences - that has alerted Andrew Nicholson of the East Cumbria Countryside Project, who is backed by the Countryside Commission and specialises in shuttle diplomacy between landowners and the access lobby. It is Mr Nicholson, in a series of letters, who is asking Michael Joseph to alter key sections of its coast-to-coast guide before a reprint is issued next year.

These include, travelling east from Shap, Black Dub, a monument to Charles II on Crosby Ravensworth Fell that tempts walkers off the route on to a Site of Special Scientific Interest - a breeding ground for moorland birds, including the golden plover (his request for the Black Dub drawings to be removed has been rejected); Sunbiggin Tarn, a grade one SSSI, botanically very sensitive and now showing signs of damage and litter; Rayseat Pike long barrow, a neolithic cairn described by county archeologists as a site of national importance and now vandalised by walkers who have erected a stone-built wind shelter; and the Severals Village Settlement, a complex of prehistoric villages. Paul Cairns, a chip-shop owner in Kirkby Stephen who owns land around Sunbiggin Tarn and used to breed ducks there, is particularly alarmed about increased pressure over his wild acres.

'I've written to my MP, Michael Jopling, about it and David MacLean the environment minister,' he says. 'When it comes to spring you've got all those nesting birds and for all we use it for shooting it's crucial nesting birds get a bit of peace and quiet and they're not getting it. They're all so colourfully dressed, these walkers, it frightens birds from miles away anyhow. The way they go about it they seem to head for the place that's most difficult to cross. And we're getting tins and bottles up there, which we didn't used to have. These publishers print all these books. They're the only ones that's making money out of it.'

Mr Nicholson says Michael Joseph's reaction to his letters has been less than co-operative. 'They've said they'll take on board variations to the route by inserting typeset amendments and that's good,' he says. 'The bad news is they don't want to make any changes to the book itself on the grounds that it's a work of art. This brought a pretty hefty response from a whole range of individuals, including ourselves, the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers' Union. Michael Joseph told me they've had a lot of flak about it. What worries me a lot is the purists who think his book is the Bible.

'We've suggested that one way out would be to print the original Wainwrights as hard backs with fancy bindings, ideal for collectors, and there could be a cheaper walking manual, incorporating the changes, that people could use with confidence. Michael Joseph said that would be too expensive and won't do it.

'The argument about whether it's commercially viable to produce two editions isn't really a strong one if you're faced with people in the countryside suffering real problems. I've also written to Michael Joseph twice requesting that they donate something towards repairs but the response hasn't been promising. They've stated that they can't consider any funding.

'There's a responsibility issue involved. Walkers are causing damage. In that light it's difficult to imagine any other consideration than that the author and publisher have a duty here. Repairs around Nine Standards will run into thousands rather than hundreds.'

Jenny Dereham, the editorial director of Michael Joseph, takes a firm line about preserving the original books. 'That's what Wainwright wanted and that's what the estate wants,' she says. 'All I know is that when it was intimated we were going to make changes we had a huge postbag saying it was outrageous.

'On the other hand we do see we have an obligation towards private landowners and conservationists. If we can retain the original but put in addenda saying 'we think this is a better route' then we'll put that in. We're still making decisions about it.

'We simply can't at the moment reckon to accept Mr Nicholson's request to double publish. We're in a recession, end of comment. We've put an enormous amount of money into these books. I'm talking about promotion we did in April to get them sold throughout the country.

'For the same reasons we can't consider contributions to maintenance or repair of the coast-to-coast path. In due course, maybe, one day when we're actually showing a profit on these books, maybe, but not now.

'If the time comes when we've more typesetting than hand-writing in the Coast to Coast we'll have to think again about what we

can do.'

Mr Kilvington cannot understand the publisher's obduracy. 'It's all very well for Michael Joseph to call it a work of art,' he says. 'The fact is that Wainwright, if shown to be wrong, was very quick to redress the situation and I know this from personal experience.

'From what you read about the man, he was basically a loner. Some of the places he discussed were very personal to him. I can't believe he would have wished so many people to have shared it, to spoil the very thing that he thought so much of.

'If Michael Joseph won't help, then what happens next will depend very much on the attitude of landowners. It will depend on whether any landowner wishes to take Michael Joseph on and, presumably, that would be a big landowner, someone as big as Michael Joseph. When they say work of art they're talking about possible loss of profits aren't they? They should be as big as Wainwright about it. The book's just one man's wanderings, really. It's not an oil painting, for God's sake.

(Photograph omitted)