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Wainwright remembered

Eric Robson recalls some favourite memories of AW:

“It was (film-maker) Richard Else who persuaded Wainwright to make the TV programmes. It was never supposed to be me alongside him – it was going to be someone much grander. But Wainwright wouldn’t have anything to do with ‘these television people’. On the spur of the moment Richard said: ‘The person I was thinking of doing it is actually a fell farmer from Wasdale’. Now, I live in Wasdale and I have a smallholding but a fell farmer I’ve never been. I was summoned to Kendal to meet the great man in a truly dreadful cafe – in any district he could find the worst cafe! Out of the corner of my eye at some point during lunch I noticed a slice of boiled ham disappearing off my plate, which he put into a napkin and then into his pocket. Nothing was said, but afterwards I asked Betty about the ham. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘he was taking it home for Totty, his cat.”


“Richard is a patient man and he had to be. On the first day of filming we met Wainwright on top of Pen-y-ghent and he appeared with a full script of his own. This was going to be the start of the series and Wainwright’s idea was that I had to meet this chap and we’d be sitting there having a cup of tea. I would notice the Wainwright guide to limestone country or something on the ground beside him and he would say: ‘I know the chap who wrote that vaguely’. Then we’d walk down and he’d point various things out on the way. Then we’d get to the car park in Horton in Ribblesdale and somebody would walk past, clap Wainwright on the back and say: ‘Hello AW , nice to see you here!’. I was supposed to say: ‘Not the AW ? Will you sign my book?’”


“That first day we were making two programmes: we were making Wainwright’s script and we were making Richard Else’s script. But on the way down all he wanted to talk about was my herdwick sheep, so we got halfway and we still hadn’t got anything useable for the programme! Eventually I realised I had to bite the bullet, so I said: “Well go on, what first put the idea of the Pictorial Guides into your head? There was a long pause as he drew on his pipe, then he said: “You can’t ask me that, because you don’t know who I am yet.” At which point, out of the corner of my eye, I saw our sound recordist go face-first into a peatbog, he was laughing so hard.”


“Wainwright was never very fond of cows. That’s why he reckoned he’d never camp out on the hill, because he was always frightened of finding a cow sticking its head into the tent. When he was caught out on the hill, he always used to sit behind a wall and chainsmoke – all night. He didn’t do climbing and he didn’t do camping.”


“He was good fun. I remember him saying to me: ‘People often ask me what my favourite place is. Well I’ll tell you what my favourite piece of grass is.’ I was running through Haystacks and all the obvious places, and he said: ‘I bet you can’t guess: it’s the centre circle at Ewood Park’ – which is Blackburn Rovers football ground. He was one of the founders of the Blackburn Rovers supporters’ club and he just loved the football. We couldn’t film on any day when Coronation Street was going out because he had to be back to see it. He loved Coronation Street, fish and chips, and you had to be somewhere near a radio to get the football results on a Saturday. That was at the core of his being.”


“Film crews are not the most forgiving creatures but they were absolutely besotted by Wainwright because it was so obvious that he knew his subject so well. By the time we were filming he was, as he described himself, living in a world of mists. We would get him to a viewpoint, which was entirely for the camera because he couldn’t see. You’d say: ‘Tell me what you can see’ and he would give you the complete horizon, complete panorama, every summit. He really wasn’t seeing it, he was seeing it in his mind’s eye. He just had an encyclopedic knowledge – he knew every viewpoint.”


tumpline internet

tgo magazine

interviewFellwalking Phenomenon
August 2010


Interest in Alfred Wainwright has soared over recent years, and it shows little sign of abating. Emily Rodway met up with Eric Robson, Chairman of both the Wainwright Society and Cumbria Tourism, to discuss the ongoing appeal of AW.

Eric Robson and Alfred Wainwright, photographed by Richard Else

Eric Robson and Alfred Wainwright, photographed by Richard Else

Every so often a suggestion will be made for some controversial change in the Lake District – the recently proposed zip-wire on Fleetwith Pike being a classic example – in response to which, a journalist or concerned member of the public will pose the classic question: “What would Wainwright make of that?”

It’s not surprising that people speculate: old AW had strong opinions about his beloved fells. But the fact that what he might think is still considered significant, nearly 20 years after his death, demonstrates the extent to which Wainwright’s metaphorical bootprint remains firmly embedded in the Lakeland landscape. Forget William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter – to many fell-wanderers, it’s the gruff author of the Pictorial Guides who will always be the Lake District’s most significant (adopted) son.

The “great man” is how fans sometimes refer to their idol. That honour is undoubtedly a tribute to Wainwright’s books, in particular the uniquely quirky, fastidiously accurate hand-drawn works of art that are the Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells. As a human being, it’s generally accepted that AW was difficult – grumpy, reclusive and more than a little misanthropic, fonder of animals than he was of people. That’s not an entirely unanimous opinion; Eric Robson, who considered Wainwright a friend after working alongside him on several television series, remembers a shy, gentle, thoughtful man who often turned up with presents for Eric’s young children. But whatever your opinion of Wainwright as a person, you can’t question his creativity, dedication or passion for the fells.

The ironies of his success are much debated: Wainwright loved solitude, particularly out on the Lake District hills, and yet through his books, thousands of people have been attracted into that same landscape. He hated publicity, and yet in this age of celebrity he’s been posthumously appointed a hillwalking superstar. Type “Alfred Wainwright” into Google and it’ll thank you with some 65,000 responses.

Eric Robson

Eric Robson

Eric says that if Wainwright hadn’t existed, someone would have had to invent him. “Nobody’s done any better,” he explains. “Wainwright made one mistake, and that is he called his books guides. They’re so much more than that: they’re works of artistic excellence, cartographic excellence, there’s poetry, there’s all sorts. I’ve had my wrists slapped for saying this, but I’ll carry on saying it – any fool can be a guidebook writer: I write guidebooks. But what he did was so much more, and it crosses the generations. It keeps on attracting new generations of people that it introduces to the hills.”

New visitors to the Lake District may continue to be drawn by his books, but Wainwright’s name hasn’t always had the high profile it has today. He inadvertently became famous during his lifetime, something he presumably deemed an unfortunate side-effect of his publishing success. (When sales approached one million copies in 1985, it led to one of his famously misanthropic moments – a stunt was organised involving the promotion of a special marked millionth copy, the purchaser of which would win dinner with Wainwright, among other prizes; AW was so dismayed by the prospect that he bought the book himself.) But just over a decade after his death in January 1991, a dark cloud hung over the future of Wainwright’s archive, when his then-publishers decided to stop producing the Pictorial Guides, which were deemed insufficiently profitable following declining sales in the Nineties capped off by the devastating impact of the countryside being closed down due to foot and mouth disease.

Some 45 other publishers showed an interest in acquiring the rights and since 2003 the books have been published by Frances Lincoln, whose Managing Director John Nicoll is a Cumbrian himself. “As a boy who was born and brought up at the foot of Kentmere in the heart of the Lake District I remember treasuring each new volume as it was published,” he said at the time. “Now I am honoured to be the publisher of these extraordinary books and look forward to introducing them to a whole new generation.”

Frances Lincoln were fortunate to receive positive publicity from influential newspapers whose journalists had been delighted to see the archive saved, and since they took over the collection, sales have flourished. The company “reoriginated” the pages of Wainwright’s guides, using AW’s original artwork, to create better quality, more sharply reproduced books. And there have also been more radical developments: on finding out that Chris Jesty, a friend of Wainwright’s, had started revising the books some 10 years previously to bring them in line with changes to the Lakeland landscape, John Nicoll commissioned him to finish the project, visiting every crag and corner to ensure that the descriptions and maps were brought up-to-date. The seven main titles in the Pictorial Guides are now completely revised and republished with photographic covers and other relatively subtle alterations (routes are shown on the maps in red ink, for example), but with any textual changes reproduced in the style of Wainwright’s own handwriting.

It’s only been in the past year that the revised guides have started to outsell the originals, and many people still prefer the untouched versions. John Nicoll says that overall, the Wainwright collection sells “amazingly well by any conventional publishing standards” – around 500,000 copies have been bought since the company took over the rights, taking the total sales of Wainwright’s work to an estimated 2.5 million books.

Eric Robson is impressed with what Frances Lincoln have achieved. But when it comes to bringing Wainwright back into the public eye, there have also been several other key factors. According to John Nicoll, sales of Wainwright books increased five- or six-fold after the broadcasting of the Julia Bradbury-fronted Wainwright Walks television series, and have continued to thrive since. He also believes the introduction of Thwaites Wainwright beer in 2007 (the anniversary of AW’s birth) had an influence. Meanwhile, the Wainwright Society, of which Eric Robson is Chairman, boasts some 1,000 members, all keen to keep AW’s memory alive.

Wainwright Society members gather to celebrate the 80th anniversary of
Alfred Wainwright’s first holiday to the Lake District (photo: Andy Beck)

Wainwright Society members gather to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Alfred Wainwright’s first holiday to the Lake District (photo: Andy Beck)

Eighty years to the day after Wainwright first visited the Lake District on June 7 1930, Wainwright Society members recently recreated his journey, taking a bus from his home in Blackburn to Windermere and climbing Orrest Head. Eric believes the occasion they were celebrating was a highly significant landmark. “The fact of the matter is that that moment of revelation on Orrest Head in 1930 wasn’t just a moment of epiphany for Wainwright,” he explains. “It changed his life, that view out over Windermere, but by God it’s changed the lives of tens of thousands of other people as well.

“Before Wainwright, people stood in the valley bottom and said: ‘We can’t get up there; we can’t do it.’ Then they’d see his way of dissecting mountains – which is phenomenally clever; he’s every bit as clever as the man who invented the London Underground in my opinion – he took a mountain, he filleted it, turned it into a two-dimensional image and made it more understandable.

“When Wainwright’s books became an accepted accompaniment to Lakeland visiting, people suddenly thought: ‘If he can do it, I can do it’. And they suddenly found that if they followed this line on the map, it made sense: it got them to the top. And they got to the top and thought ‘That wasn’t very difficult was it? We’ll do that one next, then that one...’ And off they go.”

Some people continue to argue that by bringing so many people to the fells, Wainwright was shooting himself in the foot – that he was limiting the opportunity to enjoy hillwalking the way he liked it: without human intrusion. Eric Robson recalls that, even once AW’s vision had seriously deteriorated in old age, he was able to spot an eager fan from 20 feet away out on the hill, and would avoid the possibility of an interaction by announcing “I think I need to pee” and then proceeding to do so. However, Eric also firmly believes that Wainwright gained great satisfaction from introducing new walkers to the fells via his guides. “He loved the fact that people got pleasure from the mountains as a result of his books – he loved that,” he says.

The other oft-made argument is that, by attracting so many visitors, Wainwright indirectly caused substantial damage to the upland landscape he loved so dearly. The impact of our boots on the hills is a topic which as hillwalkers we each have our own opinions on. When it comes to Wainwright’s influence, Eric says: “You can’t do those books without encouraging people to go on the hill. But from day one, from book one, from page one, he was encouraging people to do it the right way: to think about what they were going to do. That this was a very special place, it was a fragile landscape, a landscape that they were borrowing. It was a landscape that they should be handing on in good fettle to future generations.

“All those messages are so obvious now but in the Fifties and Sixties they weren’t. Wainwright wouldn’t claim to be an environmentalist but he was, and he was so far ahead in his message – people are still catching up on it. He was espousing low carbon footprints long before that became a buzz phrase. Most of the carbon footprint from Wainwright would have been knocked out of his pipe, from the ashes of his Three Nuns Tobacco!

Eric also has a suggestion for those who want to minimise their impact: “If you follow Wainwright’s way of approaching the mountains, of not doing it mobhanded... if you come across groups of people, go another way, find your own route, don’t slavishly stick to his!”

It was Wainwright’s wife Betty who asked Eric Robson to chair the Wainwright Society, in order to avoid the society “becoming too precious” and also to campaign against two intrusions to the Lakeland landscape – a plaque to Wainwright at the top of a mountain, and the renaming of Innominate Tarn in his honour – both of which had been suggested at the time. Eric says he’s of the Groucho Marx disposition – that he’d “hate to join any club that would have me as a member” yet he makes an exception for the Wainwright Society, because he believes in keeping AW’s memory and achievements alive. The organisation also raises large sums for relevant charities and Eric’s eventual goal is, through the society, to create a Wainwright foundation, which would enable individuals to achieve positive outcomes in the Lake District, such as novel ways of protecting or interpreting the landscape.

In the mean time, Kendal Town Council has plans to erect a statue of Wainwright in the town centre. It’s tempting to speculate, as so many have done before, what Wainwright would have made of such a monument. Eric reckons he would have been rather chuffed, because he was so proud of the town in which he made his home. Other innovations, such as ‘Wainwright – The Podcasts’ would have been more likely to attract a characteristic harumph, but as long as the statue wasn’t on a mountain top, he might have been secretly pleased.

In reality, of course, it’s impossible to guess, especially as Wainwright could be so contradictory. “He was a very, very complex man,” says Eric. “You’ve just to look at the ways he changed his mind – the Pictorial Guides were not designed for publication, they were designed as an aide-memoire. As soon as he saw that they were too good to grace one person’s bookshelf, they were published. He would never have anything to do with the devils of broadcasting, but when he wanted to raise money for his animal charity he went out with Richard Else and I and made five television series. He appeared on Desert Island Discs, even though he supposedly hated music!”

It has been suggested on several occasions that the reason Wainwright finally agreed to the Desert Island Discs invitation was down to the reputated shapeliness of Sue Lawley’s legs. Leaving aside any accusations of sexism, there’s something rather appealing about that hint of impishness in an individual who history remembers as a curmudgeon. For the same reason, Eric’s favourite Wainwright book is his Pennine Journey, because it depicts the author as a young man, back when he was finding his way in the hills for the first time, a bit of a jack the lad, eyeing up the waitresses in the cafes. “I fear that people think they know what Wainwright thought, because the image of him has somehow become ingrained in the Lakeland landscape, of this curmudgeonly old duffer who hated everything,” he says. “My experience of him was entirely different.”

Emily Rodway for TGO Magazine

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