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Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991) will always be known for his seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells. These handwritten and hand-drawn works of art have given inspiration to all true fellwalkers for the past forty years.
Wainwright was born into poverty in the Lancashire town of Blackburn in 1907. The son of a stonemason, he left school when he was 13 and became an office boy in Blackburn Borough Engineer's Department. At the age of 23 he managed a holiday away from home, to the Lake District. It was love at first sight. In his book Fellwanderer Wainwright described his first visit there.
"I was utterly enslaved by all I saw," he said. "Here were no huge factories, but mountains; no stagnant canals, but sparkling crystal-clear rivers; no cinder paths, but beckoning tracks that clamber through bracken and heather to the silent fastnesses of the hills. That week changed my life."
He qualified as an accountant and moved to Kendal in 1941, rising to become Borough Treasurer seven years later. He spent every spare moment walking the fells that he loved so deeply.
Many people coming into the museum still remember him sitting in the museum office, under a large no smoking sign, smoking his pipe. The museum has a re-creation of his office as it would have been in his day.
The first Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells was published in 1955 and in his introduction he wrote: ‘This book is one man’s way of expressing his devotion to Lakeland’s friendly hills. It was conceived, and is born, after many years of inarticulate worshipping at their shrines. It is, in very truth, a love-letter.’
He spent 13 years compiling the seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, tramping the fells in all weathers at weekends, with raincoat, map and camera. Most of his fine, individual drawings were taken from his photographs.
The Pictorial Guides were and are still distinctive. Fearing that printers would misspell words, his handwritten work was reproduced directly on to the page; the Westmorland Gazette of Kendal published them all.
Wainwright also devised, during 1970-1, the Coast-to-Coast Walk which starts at St Bees Head on the Cumbrian coast and ends at Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea. This is perhaps the most popular of all long-distance walks.
An Eden Sketchbook
Numerous sketchbooks and volumes of drawings followed but in 1984 his writing took a dramatic turn. He agreed to write a book for the London publishers, Michael Joseph, which was illustrated with photographs by Derry Brabbs. Fellwalking with Wainwright became a bestseller overnight and was followed by a further seven illustrated books. Two of the books, Wainwright in Scotland and Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast Walk were accompanied by BBC2 television programmes and suddenly the reclusive walker became a virtual ‘national treasure’.
Eric Robson, who appeared on the television programs with Wainwright and is now chairman of the Wainwright Society as well as presenter of BBC Radio Four’s Gardener’s Question Time, says: "He communicated better than any guide book writer before or since the essence of the Lakeland landscape, the visceral attachment of man to place, the spiritual power of weathered rock and angry sky. He was priest and poet in his own blunt way."
There is a stone tablet set into the windowsill of a south window of St James Church, Buttermere, as a memorial to AW. The window looks out on his favourite place to walk, Haystacks, where at his wish his ashes were scattered.
last updated: 10/04/2008 at 15:56