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Events > 2007 > Wainwright Centenary

The Alfred Wainwright Centenary 2007
Friends, football fans and walkers gathered at Blackburn Cathedral to celebrate the life of Britain's most famous fell walker, Alfred Wainwright.


Broadcaster and author Eric Robson, chairman of the Wainwright Society, lead the address:

"In the introduction to Wainwright the Biography, Hunter Davies makes the quite reasonable point that it’s probably unwise to allow a fan to do a biography.

I’m faced with the same problem. How can I be true and honest about Alfred Wainwright when I admire his work so much? So in an attempt to be even handed let me begin with the quibbles.

I’ve never shared AW’s fondness for Coronation Street or third rate fish and chip shops.

I rarely talked to AW about politics and when I did realised he must be joking.

I’ve always rather preferred people to animals – even though Celebrity Big Brother has recently dented that assertion.

But all that said, what exactly are we celebrating this centenary year? And after fifty years of us immersing ourselves in his books is there anything new to say? Well I think there are some important points that have been rather overlooked.

The first relates to this place. I don’t think people have recognised the fundamental importance of Blackburn to Wainwright’s achievement. The grit and self sufficiency bred in his early days in mill town Lancashire were a profound part of his character. When we were filming the BBC series with him we brought him back here. We took him to the first hill he attempted – the walk out to Darwen Tower. He told me that as he sat there as a young lad he had a real revelation. It was as if he’d been given the keys to the kingdom of the hills. It was a moment matched only by that first visit to Orrest Head when it was as if he’d walked off the edge of the world into a sort of heaven.

And then there’s the Wainwright legacy. Is it really anything more that a fading library of fastidiously produced guides? I like to compare Wainwright with the man who devised that finest, simplest graphic device, the London Underground map. Wainwright, like him, took a three dimensional image ( in AW’s case a Lakeland mountain) and turned it into two dimensions. In doing so, and in the face of all logic, he made it more understandable, more accessible to a wider public. We’re used to it now but in its day it was nothing short of revolutionary.

Wainwright also had some profound things to say that were way ahead of their time. In one of my day jobs – chairing Cumbria Tourism, we spend much effort in pursuit of the holy grail of sustainability. Sustainable is a tricky word. Put ten people into a room and they’ll give you fifteen definitions of it. But I often say in those meetings that if we really want to find a sustainable way of managing fragile upland landscapes such as the Lake District we should go back to the writings of A. Wainwright. He was advocating sustainability (and defining it) decades before the quest became fashionable.

Spiritual is another tricky word and one that didn’t often trip off AW’s lips. But he had a vision, articulated in his books, of a sort of spiritual bond between man and landscape that’s writ large across the Lakeland fells. He knew that he wasn’t describing a wilderness. He knew that the fingerprints of man were all over it. He knew that the mountains of Lakeland were capable of speaking down the generations of spirit and soul and redemption.

But the core of Wainwright’s considerable achievement is simpler than that. Simply, he changed the lives of tens of thousands of people for the better. He showed them an opportunity of challenge and possible achievement that allowed personal transformation.

So even though AW would rather be on the hill than in the pew it’s appropriate that we should be celebrating his life in this cathedral church in Blackburn. And having reminded myself of his achievements I can even forgive him his fascination with Ena Sharples hair net and his love of third rate fish and chip shops."

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