For lovers of the English Lake District there are a set of seven hand drawn and hand written guidebooks which have become synonymous with the hills and mountains of the region – The Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells by A. Wainwright.
For a long time the author of these books was little known and the books published by a small publisher using the printing capabilities of the local newspaper.
The first of the guides was published in 1955, it wasn’t for another 11 years, in 1966, that the seventh and last was available to buy. During that time the books grew in popularity, but A. Wainwright remained a little known figure.
The strange thing was that Alfred Wainwright was quite well known in his local community, not for the books, but because he was the Borough Treasurer. This is a role which required him to attend civic functions and interact with the public. Apparently few people put A. Wainwright and Alfred Wainwright together as the same person.
Since their publication climbing the 214 hills documented in the Pictorial Guides has become a target for many, myself included.
This biography isn’t really about the guides it’s about the man who wrote the guides.
A man who came from Blackburn, a Lancashire mill town, but fell in love with the beauty of the Lake District.
A man who we all know as silver haired and old, not as someone with red hair, which he had for most of his life.
A man who had a difficult home life, much of it his own creation.
A man who scrapped the first hundred pages that he created because he preferred a fully justified writing style to the left justified one he’d started with.
A man who preferred low living and high thinking to high living and low thinking.
A man who became frustrated by the popularity of the Lake District, a popularity that he had a significant role in creating.
A man who despite being quoted as saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” rarely went out in poor weather and didn’t wear specialist mountaineering equipment, preferring instead to wait until the weather improved before venturing out.
A man who didn’t appear on the television until the 1980’s when he was well into his 70’s and around 30 years after the first guide was published.
A man who never learnt to drive and did much of his work by public transport.
A man who closely guarded his privacy, yet put a self-portrait in each of the guides.
The guides are masterpieces but I’m not sure how much I would have connected with the man. There are all sorts of lessons in his life about dedication and sticking to the task for the long run, but those things come at a high price.
It was great to learn something more about the man from the writing of Hunter Davies who knew him.