One should always have a definite objective, in a walk as in life – it is so much more satisfying to reach a target by personal effort than to wander aimlessly. An objective is an ambition, and life without ambition is … well, aimless wandering. A Coast to Coast Walk Introduction p iv
Although the Lake District skyline and landscape haven’t altered a great deal for the last 12,000 since the last ice age, it was during the following Neolithic period that saw the biggest change as the world started to warm up. Consequently, 7,000 years ago, much of Cumbria was covered by plants, woods, and forests. Between then and circa 2-2,500 years ago, the late Neolithic cave dwellers started to clear the trees and the land to create permanent homes, plant crops, and allow easier hunting of wild animals. Less than seventy-fifty years ago, between 1955 and 1966 Alfred Wainwright gifted us with his seven-volume hand-drawn and detailed Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. There are 214 fells in the Lake District and they are often called ‘The Wainwrights’, it has become the go-to and standard reference work.
Alfred Wainwright was born in Blackburn in 1907 and died in Cumbria in 1991. He was an accountant, walker, writer, illustrator, and cartographer. During his lifetime he did much for the Lake District, and clearly, his biggest contribution was his Pictorial Guides written and drawn by Wainwright himself, a copy of which sits on my bookshelf and it was this collection for which Wainwright earned his MBE.
Wainwright was born in relative poverty and it wasn’t until the age of 23 that he was able to visit the Lake District for the first time. He travelled by bus from Blackburn to Windermere with his cousin. On their arrival, they walked the circular walk from Windermere to the viewpoint at Orrest Head (783’) It was the view from the top that proved to be a turning point in his life. He said later,
It was a moment of magic, a revelation so unexpected that I stood transfixed, unable to believe my eyes. I saw mountain ranges, one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich woodlands, emerald pastures, and the shimmering waters of the lake below added to a pageant of loveliness, a glorious panorama that held me enthralled. I had seen landscapes of rural beauty pictured in the local art gallery, but there was no painted canvas; this was real. This was the truth. God was in his heaven that day and I a humble worshipper. Ex-Fellwanderer (1987).
In 1941 Wainwright realised his ambition and moved to the Lakes when he secured a post in the Borough Treasurer’s Office in Kendal where he lived until his retirement in 1967. It was over this period that Wainwright explored the hills and mountains, climbing to many of their summits. He began work on his Pictorial Guides in 1952 which was an idea that he had been slowly developing for several years. The first page completed for his guide was the ascent of Dove Crag from Ambleside. This was the start of a literary career that lasted for over forty years until his death in January 1991.
The influence of Wainwright’s Lake District guides cannot be understated. Over a forty-year period, Wainwright managed to publish over fifty books. He also contributed forewords, introductions or drawings to a further 28 books. In 1968 Wainwright curated and wrote the Pennine Way Companion and in 1973 he created and published The Coast to Coast walk, (C2C) one of the most popular long-distance walks in the country from St. Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire. Whilst I’ve only completed less than half of the 214 Wainwrights, the C2C is close to my own heart as I’ve cycled it five times.
In my latest book Grief and Other minds (2022), I’ve included an essay about the growth of tourism from the 18th Century and in particular its attraction and influence on the writers and artists that have trickled here over the last few hundred years. The philosophy, creativity, and ideals that these great minds brought to the Lakes are still very much alive today. They drew and wrote about the unbound wilderness that stretches beyond the horizon that offers an unlimited sense of freedom, and a landscape beautiful in both the sunshine and rain These people and their contributions will forever be a part of the Lake District, and by following in their footsteps, you can really begin to understand how these historical figures were inspired. The popularity of the Lake District has boomed in modern times, and much of that attraction can firmly be put down to the prolific output from Alfred Wainwright.
Wainwrights dying wish to scatter his ashes on a favourite mountain of his was fulfilled by his second wife Betty. Wainwright’s final resting place is on Haystacks, by the quiet waters of Innominate Tarn.