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People have been walking in the Lake District for pleasure since Victorian Times. Thomas West’s ‘A Guide to the Lakes’, published in 1778, brought the first flurry of walkers, but for well over half a century, it’s been a very different author who has been at the heart (and in the rucksack) of visitors seeking the best in Lake District walks: Alfred Wainwright.
Wainwright was 23 when he set out on the first of what became a lifetime of Lake District walks. He travelled by bus with his cousin from his home in Blackburn, Lancashire to Windermere. For a complete novice Wainwright took on one of the more challenging Windermere walks, the 780 feet of Orrest Head. When he reached the summit he was captivated:
“I was totally transfixed, unable to believe my eyes. I had never seen anything like this.”
The impact of that day never diminished. More trips to the Lakes followed, as did more adventurous Lake District walks. The fells were starting to feel like Wainwright’s second home.
Eleven years after his first visit Wainwright moved to Kendal in the South Lakes, where he could be closer to his beloved fells. He worked for the Borough Treasurer’s Department but spent almost every spare hour walking in the Lake District.
In 1952 he penned the first of his guides to walking in the Lake District: an ascent of Dove Crag from Ambleside. Six further Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland fells followed, the last completed in 1965.
They have become the benchmark against which all other guides are measured. Indeed, for many, Lake District walks would be unthinkable without a well-thumbed copy of a Wainwright in hand.
What makes them so indispensible is not their accuracy (although, aside from some changes to footpaths and stiles over the past half-century, they are accurate). The true appeal lays in their personality.
Hand-written, hand-drawn with deliberate distortions in scale to aid clarity, the guides are just that. Wainwright’s works aren’t maps. They are companions. You feel as if Wainwright is walking in the Lake District with you. His opinions are clear, as is his humility. He refers to his illustrations as merely ways of “filling up awkward, blank spaces.”
He’s understated: “It is hoped (the illustrations) will be useful and interesting.” He is honest and, in a way the Ordnance Survey could never hope to be, he’s completely charming.
He completed over 50 other books during his lifetime, almost all devoted to northern England and Scotland. The last was published in 1990, a year before his death at the age of 83.
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