Wainwright's Way: Coast To Coast

Today Blackburn will hold centenary celebrations of one of its most famous sons, Alfred Wainwright, the walker best known for his pictorial guides to the Lakeland fells. Stephen Goodwin follows the 190-mile route Wainwright established across Cumbria and Yorkshire and reports on a bid to make it a national trail

In Blackburn Cathedral today they will be celebrating a son of the city, Alfred Wainwright - although the industrial sprawl of central Lancashire is hardly the environment that the great walker is generally associated with. In fact, as a young man, Wainwright left the place whenever he could, usually heading for the Lake District, wandering the hills that he was to portray in a series of idiosyncratic guidebooks still selling well after more than 50 years.

"AW", as he was to become known to his followers, was born on 17 January 1907, the son of a drunkard father and a god-fearing mother who brought up her four children in a two-up, two-down terraced house in the shadow of cotton mill chimneys. Wainwright worked his way up from council office boy to become borough treasurer in Kendal.

The move to the Lake District town in 1941 was the realisation of a dream, although he didn't forget his roots. Blackburn Rovers remained a life-long passion, along with the fells and fish and chips. He died in 1991, aged 84. Today's centenary service has been organised by the Wainwright Society and will be attended by representatives of Blackburn Rovers and the city, as well as AW devotees. The society is also launching a campaign to gain its hero further recognition by having his 190-mile coast-to-coast walk officially designated as a national trail.

In the UK, Wainwright is best known for his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells - some two million have been sold - but overseas his reputation rests on the long-distance walk he devised from St Bees on the Cumbria coast, to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire. Traversing three national parks - the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, and North York Moors - it is a walk through England's grandest and most captivating scenery and has been acclaimed as one of the finest long-distance trails in the world.

Nobody can be sure how many people walk the route each year; certainly tens of thousands, though over such a distance it is unlikely to feel busy. Some take it in small bites of a couple of days, many split it into two, breaking the journey at Kirkby Stephen or Keld, either side of the Pennine watershed, while the fit and determined can knock the whole thing off in a fortnight.

It isn't a stroll in the park - even with the back-up of a portering outfit that will transport your baggage between overnight stops. The route climbs to 2,560ft on Kidsty Pike in the Lake District - higher still, to 3,118ft, if you take AW's Helvellyn alternative - and crosses miles of heather moorland in Yorkshire, with no nearby prospect of shelter or respite. Then there's the mud and a tedious trudge over the Vale of Mowbray - a deceptively pretty name for the lowland corridor of the A1 and A19 roads.

Winning national trail status will not be easy. Natural England, successor to the Countryside Commission and the Government body responsible, is focused on improving and maintaining the current 19 trails and will not be keen to take on the expense of another.

The most obvious benefit of official status would be unified signposting along the route. Essentially, Wainwright strung together existing rights of way and occasional stretches of minor roads. Anyone who expects to be able to follow a succession of coast-to-coast signs will be seriously disappointed, or maybe lost. At St Bees you start on what is marked as the Cumbria Coastal Way, at Robin Hood's Bay you finish on the Cleveland Way while in between are a variety of path names with no signs at all.

Over the summer, members of the Wainwright Society will survey the whole route, looking at signposting, the state of the paths and the possibility of re-routing roadway sections on to field paths, as was done in the recent creation of the Hadrian's Wall National Trail. The survey report and a supporting petition will be handed to the Government in September.

Eric Robson, chairman of the Wainwright Society (and also of Gardeners' Question Time) believes national status would benefit both walkers and the economies of communities along the route. "Above all, I think this man should be celebrated," he says. "Wainwright understood the landscape and man's bond with landscape better than anyone else. He gave so much to people by enabling them to believe that they could do this sort of thing. At a time when the Government is constantly coming up with this or that initiative to encourage people not to be couch potatoes, here's a man who did it in spades 50 years ago."

Robson is aware that he could face grumblings from purists within the 600-strong society. Wainwright was equivocal about official status, emphasising that the route was not definitive, but "an example of what might be done without any opening speeches and fanfares".

"People were free to follow their own course - the idea was simply to walk from one side of England to the other."

However, Robson, who made a series of walking programmes with Wainwright for the BBC, believes the old fell-wanderer was enough of a pragmatist to see the advantages of national trail status. "He wasn't the purist some people have made him out to be. Frances Lincoln [the current publishers of the pictorial guides] have been working on a revisions programme, even introducing colour to AW's maps, but the sky hasn't fallen in. I haven't detected any thunderbolts coming from Haystacks." As every devotee knows, Wainwright's ashes lie scattered on Haystacks, his favourite Lakeland fell.

Official recognition or none, Wainwright's coast- to-coast walk is only likely to gain in popularity. It's just so good. You might actually spend more time pondering whether it is really best to walk from west to east as AW recommended or vice versa. Would I rather finish in a commodious hot bath at Fleatham House in St Bees (good enough for the Blair family to take one of their rare UK breaks there) or tucking into superb haddock in the bar of Ye Dolphin Hotel in Robin Hood's Bay? One dousing from a westerly gale should convince you that Wainwright had correctly worked this one out, too.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

How to get there:

Fleatham House, St Bees (01946-822 341; fleathamhouse.com) offers double rooms from £80 per night, including breakfast, and afternoon tea on arrival.

Lee-Side b&b, Robin Hood's Bay (01947 881143) offers double rooms from £80 per night, including breakfast.

Further information:

A Coast to Coast Walk, A Wainwright, published by Frances Lincoln, price £11.99.

Coast to Coast, two linear maps at 1:40,000 scale covering west and east sections, published by Harvey, price £9.95 each (harveymaps.co.uk).

The Wainwright Society (wainwright.org.uk.)

Western Lake District Tourism (01900 818741; western-lakedistrict.co.uk).

Cumbria Tourism (01539 822222; golakes.co.uk).

Yorkshire Tourist Board (01904 707961; outdooryorkshire.com).

Sherpa Expeditions (0871 520 0124; coast2coast.co.uk).

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