ALFRED Wainwright loved solitude, particularly on the Lake District fells, and yet through his books thousands have been attracted into that spectacular landscape, writes Tony Dewhurst.
To many fell-wanderers, it was the gruff and sometimes cantankerous author from Blackburn – brought up among mill chimneys, noisy factories and dirty canals – who will always be the Lake District’s most significant adopted son.
One man who knew him better than most was writer and broadcaster Eric Robson, who will be staging a special presentation on the life of Wainwright at Clitheroe’s The Grand on February 27th.
Robson, who accompanied Wainwright on his Lake District walks in the BBC television series, said: “I don’t think people have recognised the fundamental importance of Blackburn to Wainwright’s achievement because he did his early fell walking in that area.
“Also, the grit and self-sufficiency bred in the early days in mill town Lancashire were a profound part of his character. When we were filming the BBC series we brought him back here. We took him to the first hill he attempted – the walk out to Darwen Tower.
“He told me that as he sat there as a young lad he had a real revelation. It was if he’d been given the keys to the kingdom of the hills. I remember him saying to me on a walk up Pendle Hill: ‘Do you know, 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 Wainwright said: ‘I bet you can’t guess: it’s the centre circle at Ewood Park’.
“If we were out walking on a Saturday he would always have a transistor radio for the football results. Blackburn Rovers and walking was the core of his being.”
While Robson never shared AW’s fondness for Coronation Street, third rate fish and chips or Blackburn Rovers, he recalls Wainwright as a kind and considerate man.
Robson added: “When the TV series was first mooted, I was summoned to Kendal to meet the great man in a truly dreadful café. Out of the corner of my eye 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 later I found out he was taking it home for Totty his cat who quite ill. I remember a shy, gentle and thoughtful man.”
The BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time presenter is chairman of the Wainwright Society, who, 80 years after Wainwright first visited the Lake District in June 1930, recreated his journey, taking a bus from his home in Blackburn to Windermere, and climbing Orrest Head.
“It changed his life, that view out over Windermere from Orrest Head, but it’s changed the lives of tens of thousands of other people as well,” added Robson.
“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 Wainwright’s way of dissecting mountains – which is phenomenally clever and suddenly found that if they followed this line on the map, it made sense: it got them to the top.
“Wainwright is 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.”
Robson said Wainwright made one mistake: that he called his books guides.
“They’re so much more than that – they’re works of artistic excellence, cartographic brilliance, there’s poetry, all sorts really. I’ve had my hands slapped for 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.”
“Eric Robson on the life of Alfred Wainwright” takes place at The Grand on February 27th, with a special question and answer session following the presentation.
Tickets at £8 are on sale from The Grand box office on 01200 421599 or online at www.thegrandvenue.co.uk