Literature and books

The only man on Earth

— The strange world of Alfred Wainwright —

A few days ago I watched a BBC documentary called Wainwright: The Man Who Loved the Lakes. For some reason – perhaps it was my mood that day – it seemed a much better programme than when I first saw it a few years ago. It moved me greatly. It stood out in sharp relief from all the other TV programmes and books about Wainwright and his walks that the ever growing Wainwright ‘industry’ has spawned, milking his memory and achievements for all their worth, and then some.

image of pages from wainwright's guides

Some pages from Wainwright’s guides

There has been a glut of programmes and books on Wainwright, quite a few presented and written by Julia Bradbury. Julia was chosen in part because programme-makers now assume the audience must prefer a pretty face on their screens, whether male or female. This is ironic when the subject of the programmes, Wainwright himself, was a person unadorned with superfluous decoration or even unnecessary conversation, an unpretentious man, one not out to impress, except with the quality of his books and sketches. The documentary I watched made me realise, deeply and for the first time, how huge an achievement they were for so many reasons. Julia, who I have nothing against, often begins by jauntily crossing a pack-horse bridge in the drizzle, and then bounds jauntily up a steep path, smiling broadly, in a thick hat. Let’s be frank for a second: a single man never encounters a woman like Julia Bradbury alone on the high fells. Or if he does she is accompanied by a fit but dour man of about thirty-two, of average height but of supreme confidence and admirable occupation. His closely-cropped hair compliments well the stubble on his angular jaw, revealing in all a perfectly proportioned skull. My friend, also single and of similar age, height and outlook to me and who also walks the fells, can offer no competition, not against such a handsome man, a man who is also clearly “doing well for himself”. My friend usually manages a nod and half-smile as he passes, and – drawing his oversized jacket around his shivering torso – he presses on, dreaming.

In contrast to Julia’s programmes, as I watched the Wainwright documentary, his era felt shockingly distant to our own, even though it is only a few decades ago. It seemed a simpler and less cynical age, and yes, more innocent. And free of our modern media’s insistence that the world, both exterior and interior, should be presented as being bright and contented, optimistic and quickly and easily understood. I was, for that hour, transported back into the strange world of Wainwright.

photo of alfred wainwright


From the early 1950s through to the 1970s, Wainwright wrote a series of unique and original guidebooks for hiking in the mountains of the English Lake District. He was an intensely shy man who shunned publicity and most social contact. Even his marriage was a solitary affair: it had been, for very many years, and to use his own word, loveless. He felt trapped. The days were spent working quietly alone in his office, the evenings alone writing, and the weekends walking with only himself for company. He and his wife briefly exchanged words as she served him his pie and chips, pie and mash, or chips and steak. And, during most of his thirteen years of research, he used only public transport to get to and from his walks. No easy task. He would tramp the fells in wool and tweed, sporting a tie and, later in life, a flat cap. There is no printer’s typeface in his books. Each page is printed exactly as it was handwritten and drawn by Wainwright, with awe-inspiring precision and brimming with intricate diagrams, hand-drawn maps and various asides with the occasional well-judged quip. Their original format, the control, aesthetic beauty and the love of his subject which oozes from each page, seem now almost part of the mental landscape of the Lake District itself. Few walkers can think of the Lakeland region and not also think of this man as somehow intimately bound up with it. What a sublime thing that is. To be the prism through which these ancient hills are seen. He was forty-five when he embarked on the immense task he had set himself. It was carried out unpaid and initially without knowing that the books would sell. He remained working nine till five at his local council offices until he was sixty. The whole project was conducted entirely alone with only the faith in his own pioneering vision. It seems somehow fitting that it was a solitary exercise, that the play of the land upon his soul was best appreciated alone, and imagining it happening any other way becomes almost inconceivable. As I watched the documentary, the whole phenomenon of Wainwright became as fateful, solid and immense as mountains about which he wrote and to which he is now indelibly linked.

My feelings about the programme were reinforced by its brief dramatisations of scenes from his life. After I managed to dismiss the idea that the actor looked irritatingly like historian and political commentator David Starkey, these became, for me, its essence. Interspersed were interviews with those who had known Wainwright, and of course sweeping aerial views revealing the Lakes’ unique character: the lead-grey crags hung beneath grey low cloud; great green whalebacks receding towards the coast; part of a lake, twinkling with silver, curling round a secret headland; the frozen gold of the winter’s grass beneath a silent blue expanse; and that indescribable arrangement found on discreet lowland slopes, where dead bracken, weathered rock and a little yew all merge together in the low evening sun in sorrow and joy. Behind, the mountains are falling ever deeper into shadow, now the walker has departed.

photo of dunmail raise lake district

Dunmail Raise, Lake District
photo: D Hansard

Those whose dedication to their life task becomes ever more inseparable from their day-to-day existence, we call obsessives. It is only with that in mind that commentators can accurately call Wainwright’s achievement the result of an obsession, without risk of platitude. This really was a very unusual man. And a man who, in addition to his skill as an artist and draughtsman, could write with understated familiar charm, like uncovering the words of an old friend whose name you thought you had forgotten. A man whose flashes of wit and playfulness were but signs of an increasing self-assurance, now that his books were growing in popularity and the penury of his childhood was fading away.

By the end of it I was left, as surely many are whenever they think of him, with the impression of Wainwright forever alone upon the fells, as if he is still there and all of Lakeland’s solitude is drawn into him as he weaves his way this way and that. Towards the end of his fifth book, in describing his state of mind while researching it, he says: “… these were glorious days for me. Days of absolute freedom, days of feeling like the only man on earth.” And I was struck in that moment that maybe that is the very best we can sometimes be given on our walks, whether low down or high up: a feeling, or a mood, in which we find every part of our being filled with serenity, moments when we know with great certainty that nothing should be other than it is; and the path beneath our feet, having long known of our coming, silently welcomes us.


Wikipedia – Alfred Wainwright

Wikipedia – The Pictorial Guides

Article about Wainwright’s marriage and divorce

Wainwright: saint or sinner?


Copyright © 2014 David Hansard /
All articles on are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.



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