Monday 1 August 2016

Who was Alfred Wainwright?

Many people reading this blog will already know the answer to this - after all, he has been a well known figure in relation to the Lake District and fell walking since his famous Pictorial Guidebooks were first published from the mid 1950's. Many people will remember his TV series in the mid 1980's with the broadcaster Eric Robson; and a new generation of TV viewers were introduced to his work in 2007, when in celebration of the centenary of his birth in 1907, Julia Bradbury presented two series of programs called Wainwright Walks.

Other people may have heard of AW, as he is often referred,  but know little about him other than he was vaguely associated with Lakeland fell walking.  Now the centenary of his birth has passed, it seems to be more difficult once again to find his work in book shops outside of the Lake District.  At the height of the resurgence of interest, the larger book shops such as Waterstones in Manchester would have selves stocked full of his pictorial guides and other publications, but this now seems to have dwindled to an isolated volume of two if you are lucky. Thankfully the situation is not quite as bleak online.  The Wainwright Society has an active forum for people who appreciate his work, and social media such as Facebook is full of references to his guides. As such, part of the reason for writing this post on Alfred Wainwright, is to do my own small part in keeping his work alive and well within this medium. 

Sketch of Scafell Pike from Great Moss, Upper Eskdale in his volume on the Southern Fells
 (Copyright (c) The Estate of A. Wainwright. Reproduced by permission of Frances Lincoln Ltd).
As to the man himself, Alfred Wainwright originally came from Blackburn in Lancashire.  His "love affair with the Lake District", as he called it, began in 1930 when he visited the area on a walking holiday. Eleven years later he moved to Kendal, on the outskirts of the National Park, where he began work in the Borough Treasurers office. Over the next decade he spent his spare time becoming intimately familiar with the Lakeland Fells, and then in 1952 he started to compile his Pictorial Guides, a task which dominated the next 14 years of his life.

If you are not already familiar with Wainwrights Pictorial Guides, there are two key things which define them, and help account for their popularity.

The first thing I want to mention is their unique nature.  The text is handwritten, and interspersed with his own pencil sketches and hand drawn maps.  He also included hand drawn 3d diagrams of fells showing his various recommended route options to the summits. His style of writing is another factor which adds to the unique appeal of his work. It is full of warmth, often humorous, and indicative of his intimate knowledge and love of the Lakeland fells.  Here is a sample from his chapter on Allen Crags: -
"This quiet, attractive top is a pleasant refuge from the busy thoroughfare converging on Esk Hause, only five minutes away. Unexpectedly there are three good cairns on the twenty yards of level summit, that in the middle, set on a rock, being slightly the highest. Patches of stones and low outcrops add an interest to the top of the fell but the distant views will appeal more." (Wainwright 1960 - The Southern Fells, Allen Crags 5)
The second thing is their comprehensive categorisation of the Lakeland Fells.  His 14 year work is divided into seven volumes, documenting 214 fells.  These have come to be known within the fell walking community as the "Wainwright's", and have become the focus of "peak baggers" who aim to visit each of the summits. In fact, the Long Distance Walkers Association, and the Wainwright Society have both created registers of people who have completed these 214 fells.  With regard to his division of the Lakeland Fells into seven areas, he aimed to do this in a way that made sense to the fell walker.  In so doing he made " ...
the fullest use of natural boundaries (lakes, valleys and low passes) so that each district is, as far as possible, self contained and independent of the rest" (Wainwright 1955, A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, Introduction).

If you are interested in finding out more about Alfred Wainwright and his pictorial guides, I recommend you visit the Wainwright Society website, or the Lakeland Fells section of my own English Lake District website where there are also Amazon links to purchase his books online.  And if you are thinking of walking the 214 Lakeland fells, or are in the process of doing so, I wish you the best of luck.  Enjoy them all!

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