18 July, 2008

Alfred Wainwright



Alfred ("A.") Wainwright was a British hill walker, guidebook author and illustrator. His seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, published between 1955 and 1966 and consisting entirely of reproductions of his hand-written manuscript, has become the standard reference work to 214 of the fells of the English Lake District. Among his 40-odd other books is the first guide to the Coast to Coast Walk, a 190-mile long-distance footpath devised by Wainwright which remains popular today.

Alfred Wainwright was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, into a family which was relatively poor, mostly due to his stonemason father's alcoholism. He did very well at school although he left at the age of 13. While most of his classmates were obliged to find employment in the local mills, Wainwright started work as an office boy in Blackburn Borough Engineer's Department. He spent several further years studying at night school, gaining qualifications in accountancy which enabled him to further his career at Blackburn Borough Council. Even when a child Wainwright walked a great deal, up to 20 miles at a time; he also showed a great interest in drawing and cartography, producing his own maps of England and his local area.

In 1930, at the age of 23, Wainwright saved up enough money for a week's walking holiday in the Lake District with his cousin Eric Beardsall. They arrived in Windermere and climbed the nearby hill Orrest Head, where Wainwright saw his first view of the Lakeland fells. This moment marked the start of what he would later describe as his love affair with the Lake District. In 1931 he married his first wife, Ruth Holden, a local mill worker, with whom he had a son Peter. In 1941 Wainwright was able to move closer to the fells when he took a job at the Borough Treasurer's office in Kendal, Westmorland. He lived and worked in the town for the rest of his life, serving as Borough Treasurer from 1948 until he retired in 1967.

Book One of the Pictorial GuideWainwright started work on the first page of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells on 9 November 1952. He planned the precise scope and content of the seven volumes from the start, and worked conscientiously and meticulously on the series for the next 13 years at an average rate of one page per evening.

The Pictorial Guides are currently being updated, for the first time since their original publication, to take account of changed conditions on the fells. The revisions are being made by Chris Jesty, who uses an imitation of Wainwright's hand lettering to make the alterations look as unobtrusive as possible. Perhaps the most notable change is that the covers of the revised books show photographs of the Lake District by Derry Brabbs, rather than the drawings that were on the covers of the originals.

Wainwright followed the Pictorial Guides in 1968 with the Pennine Way Companion, applying the same detailed approach to Britain's first long-distance footpath. This was for many years a leading guide to the Pennine Way, rivaling the official guide book by Tom Stephenson. Wainwright's book consists of a continuous strip map of the route with accompanying commentary, with an unusual quirk: because the route goes from south to north, contrary to normal reading order, the map and commentary start at the bottom of the last page and work upwards and backwards towards the front of the book. The guide was prepared with the aid of four helpers and its preparation was affected by the major outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in 1966 and 1967, which closed access to many of the moors.

In 1972 Wainwright devised the Coast to Coast Walk, partly as a conscious alternative to the Pennine Way. The Coast to Coast, he declares in his guidebook to the route, which follows the same format as the Pennine Way Companion, "puts the Pennine Way to shame" for scenic beauty, variety and interest. The 190-mile route traverses the north of England from St. Bees to Robin Hood's Bay, passing through the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors national parks.

The Outlying Fells of Lakeland, published in 1974, was his last major guidebook. Thereafter he concentrated on sketchbooks of larger-size line drawings until his eyesight began to fail in the mid-1980s. His Ex-Fellwanderer, an autobiographical work published in 1987, was clearly intended to be his last written work – to the relief of some, shocked by the misogyny and right-wing views it revealed – but he continued to lend his name and some written commentary to a series of "coffee table books" featuring the photography of Derry Brabbs. Although commercially successful, these were not highly regarded by fans of Wainwright's earlier work as they contained little new information and the octogenarian's prose had become stilted and humourless.

In the mid-1980s Wainwright began to become a TV personality; several TV series based on his work were largely devised and presented by the farmer and broadcaster Eric Robson.

Wainwright died in 1991 of a heart attack.

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