Alfred Wainwright

wainwrightAlfred Wainwright (“A.W.”) MBE (17 January 1907 – 20 January 1991) was a British fellwalker, 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 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 192-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 because of his stonemason father’s alcoholism. He did very well at school (first in nearly every subject) 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 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 showed a great interest in drawing and cartography, producing his own maps of England and his local area.

wainwright guide

In 1930, at the age of 23, Wainwright saved up for a week’s walking holiday in the Lake District with his cousin Eric Beardsall. They arrived in Windermere and climbed the nearby Orrest Head, where Wainwright saw his first view of the Lakeland fells. This moment marked the start of what he later described as his love affair with the Lake District. In 1931 he married his first wife, Ruth Holden, a mill worker, with whom he had a son Peter. In 1941 Wainwright moved closer to the fells when he took a job (and a pay cut) 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. His first marriage ended when Ruth left three weeks before he retired and they divorced. In 1970 he married Betty McNally (1922–2008), a divorcee, who became his walking companion and who carried his ashes to Innominate Tarn at the top of Haystacks.

wainwright and wife

Image credit – Mark richards

Wainwright was a lifelong Blackburn Rovers fan and a founder member of the Blackburn Rovers Supporters Club. He had no time for organised religion, and was agnostic.

Pictorial Guides – Wainwright 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 and worked conscientiously and meticulously on the series for the next 13 years at an average rate of one page per evening.

wainwright Eastern_Fells_coverAccording to Wainwright, in his autobiography Fellwanderer, he initially planned the series for his own interest rather than for publication. When he published his first book it was privately, as he could not face the prospect of finding a publisher. His friend Henry Marshall, Chief Librarian of Kendal and Westmorland, took charge of publicity and administration, and his name appears as publisher on the early impressions. Another friend, Sandy Hewitson (of Bateman and Hewitson Ltd) agreed to print the books using Wainwright’s original manuscript, although the printing was done by the Westmorland Gazette in Kendal, who had taken over Bateman and Hewitson Ltd. From 1963, the Westmorland Gazette became his publisher, and its name appears on the first impressions of Books Six and Seven. Wainwright’s books were in turn taken over by Michael Joseph in the 1990s. When they ceased publication in 2003, the rights were bought by Frances Lincoln.

Between 2005 and 2009, all the Pictorial Guides were updated for the first time, to take account of changed conditions on the fells. The revisions were made by Chris Jesty, and the publishers used an imitation font of Wainwright’s hand lettering to make the alterations look as unobtrusive as possible. The most notable changes were the inclusion of photographs of the Lake District by Derry Brabbs on the front covers, rather than the drawings that were on the covers of the originals, and footpaths shown in red on the maps. These revised versions are titled ‘Second Editions’. Revised editions of Wainwright’s other Pictorial Guides, A Coast to Coast Walk, The Outlying Fells of Lakeland and Pennine Way Companion were published between 2010 and 2012, with the amendments again being made by Chris Jesty. Edited from Alfred Wainwright

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One Response to Alfred Wainwright

  1. alfy says:

    Wainwright books have two great virtues. Firstly, is the great accuracy of his illustrations; to call them “sketches” is to suggest a free and rather impressionist view of the small mountains of the Lake District. Many a walker, uncertain of his way in rain or mist, has been grateful for this accuracy when trying to identify their precise location.
    Secondly, the books are excellent in answering the kind of questions that an ordinary walker might ask as he moves through the landscape. What is that ruined farmhouse over there? What was that set of rusted rails for? Why is there a big ring of stones on this hilltop? (It is called “High Keckwith” and was lived in by the Kirkworth family who seem to have abandoned it about 1925. The rails were part of a lead mining business which closed down in the 1880s. The ring of stones is an Iron Age hillfort which was partially excavated by archaeologists from Durham University in 1952.)
    Personally, I always regretted Wainwright’s preoccupation with the Lake District, because I thought he might have produced similar books on the high places of other parts of Britain, like the hills of Shropshire, North Wales, the Isle of Arran, or the Anglo-Scottish Border country.
    However, Wainwright produced a useful format for others to copy, and all credit to him.

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