Alfred Wainwright: misogynistic, misanthropic, conceited, spiteful, selfish, a surly old bastard who was eccentric, witty, passionate, energetic, quietly spoken and without doubt a national treasure!
What makes Alfred Wainwright or A.W. a genius, a hero? The answer are seven small hand drawn, hand written self published guide books. Seven love letters to the landscape, the fells and mountains of his beloved Lake District of the north-west of England. They are a passionate outpouring of emotion, opinion, advice, history and detail; all of which is underscored by a dry, gentle sense of humour. To borrow a phrase the books are "philosophical strolls", road trips of the footpath. Both conceived and created as a total work they are the work of a master craftsman, a folk-art in the Arts and Craft Movements aesthetic, indeed they are a work of art!
A.W. was born the fourth child to a working class family in the industrial mill-town of Blackburn, his father an alcoholic stonemason and his mother a mill worker who took in washing when money was especially scarce. A.W.'s mother was literate and encouraged her son at school where he excelled. Rather than leave school at twelve to work in the mills A.W. stayed on moving on eventually to become a clerk at the borough treasurer's office. A.W.'s eye for detail and analytical mind was well suited to this kind of work. He had risen from his humble working class background to the professional middle class.
Aged twenty-three in 1930 A.W. visited the Lake District for the first time, he had some money in his pocket and outside of his mother to whom he always felt very grateful no commitments. He had always read maps as if they were books and planned routes and expeditions, even to places he would never visit. Whilst stood on Orrest Head looking out over the Lake District something happened, that something was that he fell deeply in love with a landscape. Regularly for his two weeks annual leave from work he would return to his beloved Lakeland. A.W. married Ruth Holden and together they had a son, Peter. The marriage was loveless, some say it was A.W's obsession with the fells that strained his marriage, or, the marriage was already bad and the hills were his release from it.
A.W. helped found Blackburn Rovers Supporters Club in 1939 with himself as the first Hon. Treasurer. The small club, chiefly formed of friends and work colleagues petered out during the war until it was once again firmly established in the 1950's. During the darkest days of the second world war A.W.'s luck changed when in 1941 he moved from Blackburn to Kendal to take up a role as an accountancy assistant for Kendal Borough Council. A move which would mean a drop in both status and salary, but, he would live in the middle of his obsession, the Lake District.
In 1952 A.W. set him self the task of producing in thirteen years what had been forming in his head ever since that first time stood on Orrest Head - namely Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. He would say himself that they were love letter, "one man's way of expressing his devotion to Lakeland's friendly hills . . . conceived, and born, after many years of inarticulate worshipping at their shrines." He started on the first page of book one, The Eastern Fells on 9 November 1952, the ascent of Dove crag from Ambleside. The following July, after eight months of work, he decided he didn't like the look of the pages and so scrapped them. A hundred or so pages were simply thrown out! Book One was published in May 1955 by Henry Marshall, (the local librarian), of Westmorland for the cost of 12/6d. The seventh and final book appeared in 1966, at the end of which he boasts that he has completed his self-imposed thirteen year task one week ahead of schedule. The following year he retired as Borough Treasurer of Kendal aged sixty.
During the completion of that final book A.W. began a clandestine relationship with Betty McNally, a divorcee whom he would marry after and acrimonious separation from Ruth. A.W. would continue to write and illustrate books as well as a small number of television programmes, an event in itself for a painfully shy person who didn't even like his own photograph being taken. The latter books however lacked the humour of the guides, they were often repetitive and smacked of pomposity. His seven books were alone for himself, all the other books were for others, royalties for them were given to good causes, often animal charities. beneficiaries included the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, the R.S.P.C.A., Bleakhold Animal Sanctuary, Animal Rescue Cumbria and the Furthergate Congressional Church in Blackburn, even though he had long given up attending any services. He established the Wainright Animal Trust saying that "no animals have chips on their shoulder, unlike all the people I have ever met." He was always generous enough to give advice and guidance and sometimes co-operated with struggling writers and artists giving words and drawings for free.
Alfred wainwright died on Sunday 20 January 1991. He wrote in 1966, "All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me all my life will take me there and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me." On the 22 March, two months later his wife Betty and close friend Percy Duff scattered his ashes over Innominate Tarn on Haystacks.