Alfred Wainwright: Grumpy, reclusive and eccentric

Alfred Wainwright transformed the landscape of Britain with his superbly knowledgeable guides of the Lake District. Richard Askwith celebrates a very English hero

Saturday 02 July 2005 00:00 BST

Near the summit, on the banks of a little tarn, the ashes of that same author were scattered. "If you ... should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come," he had urged his readers, "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 pretend to urinate. Once, when sales of his books were f 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 Wainwright, 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 without horror.

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, this week has seen 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 f 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 mania.

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 new Chris Jesty volume represents just one step in a long campaign to restore the Wainwright guides to their former pre-eminence. It will be 2012 before all seven have been updated, by which time 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 since."

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 f 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 people.

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 darknesses" 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."

'A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: Book 1, The Eastern Fells' by A Wainwright, revised by Chris Jesty, is published by Frances Lincoln (£11.99). To buy the book for £10.99 (including p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897. Richard Askwith is the author of 'Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-running and Obsession' (Aurum, £7.99), which won the Bill Rollinson Prize for Landscape and Tradition in the 2004 Lakeland Book of the Year Awards

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