Alfred Wainwright

 

Some Personal Notes in Conclusion

In the very personal way AW wrote his books, he would finish each guide by sharing some reflections under this title banner. So it seems apt to use the banner here for all I sense a continuity of his influence on me, gleaned not just through the pleasure I derived from his cleverly crafted writing and impeccable line drawings, but through the warmth of his friendship and generous encouragement.

AW and Betty

AW and Betty a photo taken on 23rd March 1973 on the misty summit of Hugh's Laithe's Pike above the Haweswater dam.
My humble camera was of the most rudimentary type, the confidence to take landscapes - and worthy portraits takes time!

The unique genius of an individual, whose influence and creativity record the high watermark of a former age, cannot be lightly dismissed. Alfred Wainwright was one such figure. His guidebooks, a master-class of order and record, were founded on the common touch bequeathed by his working class roots. During the last fifty years their message of affection for the Lakeland Fells has registered with the nation like no other artist or writer’s work. His books were, and are, an inspiration, on a par with the songs of Lennon and McCartney, both innovative in their time and now classics of their genre.

Wainwright upheld the philosophy of Victorian mountaineer, Albert Mummery believing that ‘The true mountaineer is a wanderer’. Explorers of high, wild places with a keen eye and a desire to express themselves seek their own means, for Wainwright is was guidebooks.

Free-spirits like AW see a map as a licence to explore, he needed nothing more. For those few highly fortunate in their introduction into the craft of mountaineering, indeed after the stamp of the great man himself, guidebooks may be an anathema, though intrepid rock-climbers’ certainly know their value. However, we live in a society of restrictions, fearful of boundless liberty, many need reassurance: I frequently meet cautious walkers on the fells vague about their location, knowing little about the view, they are grateful for guidance on routes to top or bottom. Hence it is not surprising that down the years tentative explorers have valued the ‘in-the-pocket, on-the-spot council’ of a seasoned fell-wanderer, AW’s handy little guides packed with precise detail have proved to be gold-dust, though now inexorably drifting out-of-date.

 

Who was this enigma? 

Wainwright was quiet, self-centred and confident. He consulted few. His obsession may be seen by some as selfish, but it brought definition and joy to life in his declining years. The end product brought him fame beyond his wildest calculation. He must be admired for his self-discipline, focus and for following his dream.

Yes, AW loved to work in pen and ink, a medium that today finds little expression beyond the cartoonist’s craft. The results of his steady hand, critical eye and imagination singled him out as one of the finest landscape pen artists of the twentieth century: his ledgers written when Borough Treasurer are also works of art. Wainwright’s hobby, and solitary nature, removed him from the culture and society that would have naturally embraced him.

Tools were simple, the fine metal nibbed ‘crow quill’ dip pen - remembered from schooldays by those over 50 - pencil, rubber, ruler and Indian ink. A geriatric bellows camera provided monochrome photographs: his sole reference for drawings. On-the-spot sketching was but an aide-memoire. Methodical preparation meant few errors: words and drawings were penned at home, every page set out in pencil with military precision. His guides, open notebooks, personal accounts resonating to an appreciative audience.  

Typical of the man: Wainwright claimed only to read cowboy comics. Whereas his writing revealed a command of English ‘light-years’ removed from such frivolous reading matter, his mixture of line drawings and tidy blocks of text undoubtedly had its roots in comic format. Having embarked upon ‘Lakeland Fellranger’, an eight-part magnus opus of comparable proportion and detail, my admiration for AW has been magnified. Wainwright’s seven-part ‘Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells’ is a masterpiece of graphic artistry and descriptive clarity showing discernment with choice of routes and words, descriptions succinct, often expressed with wry humour.

The proverbial ‘Mr Grumpy’, Wainwright cut a sad public figure, yet inwardly he derived tremendous satisfaction from the acclaim. His background made him self-effacing, lacking desire for social rapport and brutally frank. Exceedingly uncomfortable in company, cringing from small talk, AW did not like meeting people. Only latterly tolerating well-behaved, cat-loving children. I remember my son tending to his cats whilst my daughter read some fan mail to him when his eyes had failed - ‘twas a touching scene. AW the Teddy - sums up the man - beneath the almost impenetrable shell ticked a soft heart of gold - why else would a small girl name her beloved teddy ‘Alfred’? Alison, now 25, still has Alfred - unlike the man, the bear has travelled all over the world!

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength...” wrote the psalmist. Wainwright was exceedlingly lucky, he derived his spiritual uplift from the fells, for a special treat he gave himself an annual holiday testing his fell-craft in the Scottish Highlands. His urban upbringing meant that he saw the landscape in terms of a romantic pictorial story, not as a dynamic workplace to nurture. Hence he bequeathed his ‘windfall wealth’ to cats and dogs, not mountain rescue, the pitching of paths, or to secure the delicate mountain flora he adored. AW didn’t see the need to care for the environment that was the basis of his fascination. To be fair: sustainability was not part of anyone’s agenda at that time. Quite rightly he didn’t envisage his guides contributing to path erosion. Follow any one of his dotted routes and you’ll find little trace of a path, proving his actual influence on the ground was quite minor. The number of people venturing onto the Lakeland fells has less to do any guidebook more to do with the growth of a leisured society and mobility: the M6 has been a greater culprit.

AW used the bus, he didn’t drive, he walked in the mind-set of someone in the 1940’s and 50’s. He wandered at will having no interest in the consequences of his work. His guides were lyrical of high places and deserve to endure as a record of the post-war golden age of fellwalking when all branches of society embraced a love of the fells.

AW gave people the confidence to have a go. It is true to say that since his death 12 years ago the sense of nostalgia has been accentuated, hence the emergence of the Wainwright Society. Nevertheless, I trust his guides can linger as a record of times past, and that people appreciate the changes by using contemporary maps and guides, perhaps even Lakeland Fellranger.

I have very fond memories of AW, his passion for fish and chips, his enthusiasm for new projects, an ‘infection’ we shared. We even started planning a joint guide to the Cambrian Way. He allocated Cardiff to Aberystwyth to me of course, reserving Snowdonia for himself! However, as he sensed his ability to walk was faltering Scottish Mountain Drawings eventually proved the greater fever.

Fan clubs abound. Manchester United, The Beatles, Robbie Williams and Alfred Wainwright all have them. So AW has become mainstream, almost establishment, and is most certainly a hero.

Confession time: I’ve never used his guides on the fell, but have adored their tiniest detail since first discovering them at the age of 12. At 22 I met the man. During the early 1970’s I spent weekends in his company, watching him craft his final guidebooks. His influence was monumental and quite magical. I will be forever grateful.

 

 
 
Mark Richards
 
 

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