Why Wainwright still matters

Wainwright expert Clive Hutchby is revising the renowned fell walker’s series of Lakeland guidebooks. He explains why Wainwright’s books remain indispensable, but also why they need an update.

Clive Hutchby 

The most common question I had to field after the publication of the first volume of the new Walkers Editions of Alfred Wainwright’s legendary guidebooks was: “Why do they need revising again?” If I didn’t know better I might have been tempted to reply, “Because it’s a guidebook, and a guidebook that’s out of date is not much of a guidebook,” but I do know better, and have since I was 12 years old. They are much, much more than just guidebooks.

I was 12 when I got my first taste of the Lake District, my first great achievement in life, which arose only because of two solid years of nagging my parents. We camped in the Newlands valley and I made my first ascent of a fell, the mighty Catbells! It was a memorable two weeks, not least because we arrived home with three ‘Wainwrights’ – books four, five and six – which spent the following 12 months on my bedside table before our next trip to the Lake District the following summer. Even then, barely a teenager, I realised they were more than guidebooks, and I think the clue is there on the covers of the original editions, with the subheading that reads: being an illustrated account of a study and exploration of the mountains in the English Lake District, by… followed, of course, by that memorable signature.

Wainwright signature

‘Normal’ guidebooks to the Lake District fells – by which I mean those that include a description of the mountain and the route with some photographs and a map – tell you about the ascent; Wainwrights show you. They show you because AW really did study and explore the fells, and he used the knowledge he gained in a highly visual way. In the Pictorial Guide nearly every fell has an introductory section called ‘natural features’ which explains its topography, usually with an easy-to-follow drawing of the fell showing the ridges you might walk, the crags you might have to avoid, the becks you might cross and the tarns you might sit by to have your lunch. 

And then there are the ascents themselves, with the vast majority of every way up the 214 fells featured in the books being given the ‘space station’ treatment. AW described this as follows: “The routes of ascent…are depicted by diagrams that do not pretend to strict accuracy: they are neither plans nor elevations; in fact, there is deliberate distortion in order to show detail clearly: usually they are represented as viewed from imaginary ‘space-stations.” There may be distortion, but not to the degree that causes confusion; exactly the opposite, in fact. They bring clarity.

Place Fell 6]

Lastly, there are Wainwright’s maps. These are no substitute for Ordnance Survey or Harvey maps (they don’t show magnetic north nor any grid lines), but they are an excellent complement. AW’s maps show broken walls and broken fences, important cairns, gates, stiles and other landmarks that don’t feature on other maps. And they are far more accurate and useful when showing paths, not least because the paths are graded according to how clear and distinct they are ‘on the ground’, something you will not find on any other map.

Of course, a GPS unit or smartphone with uploaded mapping will show your exact position at any time (very useful in the mist on pathless terrain), and I admit I always take my iPhone with me on the fells. Well, I have to have some gadgetry to supplement my Wainwright guide, don’t I!

But I will answer that opening question about why the guidebooks need revising; or rather, I will let AW answer it. In the introduction to all seven volumes he praises the quality of OS maps, but adds “…there is a crying need for a revision of the paths on the hills: several walkers tracks that have come into use during the past few decades, some of them now broad highways, are not shown at all; other paths still shown on the maps have fallen into neglect and can no longer be traced on the ground.” Those words were first published in 1955; they are just as relevant 60 years later, perhaps more so considering the number of walkers that now tread the most beautiful hills in the country.

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