Alfred Wainwright (1907 – 1991) is, perhaps, best-known for his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, a series of seven volumes describing the natural features, routes of ascent and descent and the view from the summits of 214 Lakeland fells. These handwritten and hand-drawn works of art have given inspiration to thousands of fellwalkers and armchair ramblers for the past sixty years. He described these books as a ‘love letter’ to the Lakeland fells and for this achievement he was awarded the MBE.
More books followed, including guides to other upland areas of Cumbria and Yorkshire, several series of sketchbooks and, in his later years, seven large format books in collaboration with photographer, Derry Brabbs and one with Ed Geldard. Wainwright was also the creator of A Coast to Coast Walk: the 190 miles from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire and is now of one most popular long-distance walks in the country. He made three series of films for the BBC and broadcast on BBC2, bringing Wainwright to a national audience for the first time.
He was Chairman of Animal Rescue Cumbria, a charity that took in stray and unwanted cats and dogs with the object of rehoming the animals with caring owners. The royalties from sales of Wainwright’s books enabled an animal shelter to be established at Grayrigg, near Kendal in 1984 and the work of the charity continues to this day.
Alfred Wainwright died in 1991 and his ashes were scattered on his favourite mountain, Haystacks, by the quiet waters of Innominate Tarn as was his wish and described in his book, Fellwanderer.
‘Would I could start my fellwanderings all over again! But time is running out. Every day that passes is a day less. That day will come when there is nothing left but memories. And afterwards, a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone.
And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.’ A Wainwright, Fellwanderer 1966
Wainwright was not born in Cumbria, but in the mill town of Blackburn on 17th January 1907. His childhood was one of relative poverty, his father, a stonemason, experiencing periods of unemployment. To make ends meet, his mother took in washing. Alfred was the youngest of four children but was not destined for a life in the mill, as happened to so many of his peers. He left school at thirteen and went to work at the Town Hall, at first in the Borough Engineer’s Office, transferring three years later to the Borough Treasurer’s, where, after years of night-time study, he qualified as an accountant.
At the age of 23, in 1930, Wainwright visited the Lake District for the first time. He travelled by bus from Blackburn to Windermere with his cousin, Eric Beardsall. On their arrival, they climbed the 780’ of Orrest Head where, as Wainwright wrote later, ‘Orrest Head cast a spell that changed my life’. It was the view from the top that proved to be the turning point.
‘It was a moment of magic, a revelation so unexpected that I stood transfixed, unable to believe my eyes. I saw mountain ranges, one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich woodlands, emerald pastures and the shimmering waters of the lake below added to a pageant of loveliness, a glorious panorama that held me enthralled. 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. God was in his heaven that day and I a humble worshipper.’ A Wainwright, Ex-Fellwanderer 1987
From that point, his one aim was to move to the Lake District, an aim that was realised in 1941 when he applied for a post in the Borough Treasurer’s Office in Kendal where he stayed until his retirement in 1967. During the 1940s, Wainwright explored the hills and mountains, climbing to many of the summits. On 9th November 1952, he began work on his Pictorial Guides, an idea that had been slowly germinating for many years. The first page completed on that evening was the ascent of Dove Crag from Ambleside.
It was the start of a literary career that occupied the next four decades until his death on 20th January 1991.
Alfred Wainwright is often portrayed in the media as a reclusive, anti-social curmudgeon. His wife, Betty described him like this: ‘a sensitive, shy man who sought anonymity, hiding himself behind a gruff exterior.’ Foreword, Memoirs of a Fellwanderer
Reading his books reveals a different personality to that popularly portrayed: an emotional and passionate man who cares deeply about the upland landscapes of this country. There is a strong sense that he is at one with Nature and the natural world despite the presence of the hand of Man in the landscape. The desire to protect and conserve this precious and fragile landscape is a recurring theme in his work. Whilst Wainwright is often critical of Officialdom and people that cause wanton damage on the fells, he also strives to educate and inspire fellwalkers.
And who can fail to be inspired to walk these quiet hills when reading these lines from the final page of Book 7 of the Pictorial Guides:
‘The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is yet time will be blessed both in mind and body.’ A Wainwright, The Western Fells 1966