Up close and personal on the Lakeland fells

Alfred Wainwright's first pocket-sized guide to the Lake District was published 50 years ago this month. Stephen Goodwin reports

Guides to the Lake District are as thick on the ground as Wordsworth's daffodils in spring. Hardly a week seems to go by without a volume on some new way of exploring the fells being added to the bookshelf.

Guides to the Lake District are as thick on the ground as Wordsworth's daffodils in spring. Hardly a week seems to go by without a volume on some new way of exploring the fells being added to the bookshelf.

My favourites are the area guides of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, with watercolour illustrations and drawings of each crag by the artist William Heaton Cooper. But this is specialist stuff for a slightly unhinged minority. Without a doubt, the guide to the mountains of the English Lake District in terms of long-lived popular acclaim, nay, out-right reverence, is the seven-book series by Alfred Wainwright - his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells.

The first of the idiosyncratic, pocket-sized volumes of intricate sketch maps, drawings and hand-written descriptions - The Eastern Fells - appeared 50 years ago this month. Since then, almost two million Wainwright guides have been sold, many of them to be carried for miles over the hills, to be pored over for sagely advice, and poured upon by Lakeland rain until over the years the little books become crumpled talismans.

Wainwright wrote in the introduction to Eastern Fells: "This book is one man's way of expressing his devotion to Lakeland's friendly hills. It was conceived, and is born, after many years of inarticulate worshipping at their shrines. It is, in very truth, a love-letter."

The heart-felt prose is curiously at odds with the commonly accepted character of the man - a solitary, blunt-spoken Northerner, fond of his fish and chips and a life-long supporter of Blackburn Rovers. Wainwright was born into poverty in Blackburn, left school when he was 13, made the life-changing move to Kendal in 1941, where he became Borough Treasurer, and died in 1991, aged 84, four years after emerging from a kind of anonymity between the covers of his guides, and becoming a television celebrity with a series of BBC walking programmes in the company of Eric Robson.

Robson, chairman of Gardeners' Question Time and of the Wainwright Society, is an arch-defender of "AW" - Wainwright was secretive about his Christian name and is almost invariably referred to by his initials or surname. Suggest to Robson that his hero was an unsociable "curmudgeon" and he quickly refutes it: "He was very shy and engaged his brain before he opened his gob, but the legends about his character were almost entirely wrong. He was kind and considerate."

It is hard to recognise this rosy portrait in Wainwright's own dismissal of his loveless first marriage in his autobiographical Memoirs of a Fellwanderer (1993). "The marriage was to prove a mistake although it produced a son who won a beautiful baby competition." While he was climbing the ladder to a professional career, Ruth, a mill girl, "had no wish to leave the bottom rung". However, his second marriage proved long and happy, with guidebook royalties channelled into his and Betty's shared passion for animal welfare.

To mark the golden jubilee of the first Pictorial Guide, every one of the 214 peaks in the series will receive a celebratory ascent during the week 14-21 May. The ascents have been organised by the Wainwright Society with each of the peaks allocated to an individual - mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington will be ticking off 2,157ft High Pike, for the umpteenth time, while Lord (Melvyn) Bragg, will go up more modest Binsey (1,466ft).

Wainwright's introduction to Binsey was typical of his endearing style: " ... well within the category of afternoon strolls ... without precipices and pitfalls, never killed or injured anybody, breeds hares instead of foxes, and is generally of benign appearance. Yet is much too good to be omitted ... " He liked Binsey's view over the Solway Plain to Scotland and included in the eight pages given to it in Book Five, The Northern Fells, a drawing with a figure - shirt sleeves and braces - seated on the summit stones.

The enduring popularity of Wainwright in an era when most guides are glossy affairs stuffed with colour photographs and computer-generated maps perhaps says something about the simpler, more elemental, intangibles we hope to touch in a day on the fells. When the Westmorland Gazette took on the first Eastern Fells, printing manager Harry Firth was amazed. "I don't think anybody since the days of the monks had ever produced a completely hand-written book."

There is an intimacy with a man and his landscape when he tells you the path turns "slightly right" at "the third ash tree" while ascending Jack's Rake on Pavey Ark. Or imparts that the top of Haystacks is where he wants his ashes scattered - as indeed they were.

This year, publishers Frances Lincoln, who took over the Wainwright stable two years ago, published new editions of the seven guides. Up to now every reprint has used the original metal plates, or film made from them, but these have faded. The pages of the new set have been "reoriginated" from the original artwork, held in the Kendal Record Office, revealing all AW's meticulous detail. Later this year, Frances Lincoln will also begin publishing an updated set of Wainwrights following a first-ever revision, by Chris Jesty. Many of the changes are at valley level - parking, road layouts - yet there are 3,000 revisions in Eastern Fells alone. More radical is the introduction of colour.

Wainwright is occasionally blamed for the erosion on some fell paths, but it is the grandeur and beauty of the Lakeland hills themselves that generate their popularity. He usually indicated several alternative approaches.

In The Eastern Fells Wainwright described 15 different approaches to the top of Helvellyn, at 3,118ft the third highest summit in England, including the rocky spine of Striding Edge. Of the many times I traversed this spectacular ridge, the only time I have never seen anyone else was in thick mist. But I don't blame AW for the crowds, Striding Edge's reputation goes back a lot longer; Wordsworth took Walter Scott "along that horn of the mountain" in 1805. Wainwright simply paid homage in pen and ink.

For information visit www.golakes.co.uk and www.wainwright.org.uk

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