To most Cumbrians, but especially to walkers and hill climbers, Alfred (AW) Wainwright is as well known as Santa Claus. And, in fact, he has certainly been a Santa to Cumbria’s walkers no matter what part of the country they come from. With the publication of his first series of hand-drawn, hand-written guide books of his fell walks and sketches he came into the limelight and has stayed there well past his death almost 20 years ago. Because of these books there are now over 200 fells known as ‘Wainwrights’.
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Alfred Wainwright (1907 - 1991) grew up poor in a mill town, breathing bad air. Because of his early life in Blackburn he treasured the outdoors and the wide ranging views and clear air of Cumbria’s hill country.
Wainwright moved to Kendall and worked as an accountant at Kendal Borough Council, therefore was able to spend weekends on the Lakeland fells. The book also includes accounts of hill-walking in the North Country and the wilder parts of Scotland, which AW visited annually for over 30 years, along with jaunts in Bowland and the Pennines, and the Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay.
The book Wainwright: His Life from Milltown to Mountain was written by his friend WR Mitchell, now in his 80s. Rather than a biography or sequential accounting of Wainwright’s life, the book is a reflection of the author and his three friends associations with Wainwright. Their story is told in vignettes.
WR Mitchell reveals how Wainwright came to marry his first wife Ruth, who was really the only girl he’d got to know as a shy young man growing up in Blackburn. He said, “Nobody ever regarded me with admiration. So when one at last showed an interest, I married her.” Almost forty years later Wainwright met and fell for Betty, though still married to his first wife, Ruth. Not long after, in March 1970, he was divorced and married Betty.
In later life Wainwright granted interviews and allowed the BBC to make documentaries based on his books. WR Mitchell documents how the shy, lone walker from Blackburn felt about the increasing media interest in him and his walks. Wainwright always preferred to walk alone whenever possible.
In the book there are black and white photographs of Wainwright’s family and pictures of him as a child and young man. Coloured photos show off some of Lakeland and Scotland’s scenic views. Personal letters from Wainwright make up other illustrations.
Author Mitchell was the former editor of the Dalesman and Cumbria magazines. His most recent book, Thunder in the Mountains, also published by Great Northern Books, was about the Ribblehead Viaduct, considered an outstanding feat of engineering. In 2008, the Outdoor Writers' and Photographers' Guild presented him with their highest accolade, the Golden Eagle award and praised him as “one of the founding fathers of outdoor writing”. He has recently been named Greatest Living Cultural Icon of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
In a foreword to one of the author's books, Wainwright once wrote: “Bill Mitchell has been a journalist of consistent excellence throughout his working life, with an outstanding talent for research and description that established him as a leading literary figure in the north of England.”
Wainwright: Milltown to Mountain
by WR Mitchell
Published by Great Northern Books
Publication Date: October 2009
Hardback, 160 pages
Purchase at Great Northern Books