Wainwright's Walks Friday March 23, 2007

The BBC recently did a great mini series on the walks of Alfred Wainwright. I’m not very enamoured with his books, and agree with the comment of a Lake District walking guide with whom I once conversed: “I think they just have a curiosity value…I can’t walk with them”. There are actually better walking guides, contemporary to AW – check out the books by WA Poucher, published around the 1960s. I used to take them into the hills before I was familiar with the place as I am now, when I almost never need a navigation aid. Poucher had a similarly quaint way of making an artistic rendering of the landscape, in his case not with laborious drawings but with route lines drawn onto photographs. It works quite well, much better than AW’s idiosyncratic artistry.

A few years ago AW’s books nearly disappeared from the shops, lacking a publisher. Now not only are they easily available, but so are follow on volumes with titles like “After Wainwright”. I do have all his books, but almost never consult them. I recommend though, his autobiographical volume Memoirs of a Fell Wanderer. It’s a fun read: quirky, romantic, interesting.

I don’t agree with the walk-bagging approach large numbers of people have, inspired by AW’s books. I think he himself would have been appalled; he thought the fells should be savoured, not regarded as tick-off targets. ‘Doing the Wainwrights’ is a popular pastime but I recall meeting someone at the top of Harter Fell in Eskdale explaining he was doing just that, and that he’d walked from a very boring and dull place towards the Duddon Valley. Indeed. I’ve never looked at the books closely, but I understand some of the walks lack interest. If I lived in Kendal as he did, I’d no doubt explore with a similar thoroughness. But when it needs time, effort, and money to get there, I maximise the delights with the best rather than mediocre walking.

He did though, have a romantic affection for the Lake District that it’s nice to read about. He is very popular, and it was a great idea the BBC making four programmes depicting his walks. And they sent one Julia Bradbury to tackle them, who’s a bit of a cutie with a game, smiley, ‘I’m a city girl but this is fun’ demeanour. Julia stops for lunch. Julia says the wind blowing her trousers is like ferrets running up and down inside them. Julia says, “this…is…just…gorgeous”, or tells us how disheartened she is seeing a drop down before she has to go up again, etc. Cute. And I liked the girly embroidery on her walking trousers.

Programme One showed the Buttermere route up to Haystacks which was a good choice, being AW’s most beloved spot and where he asked his ashes to be scattered. It is indeed a lovely location with views swooping down to Buttermere one side, and across to Gable and the Scafells in the other direction. I clearly recall when I first saw the latter, didn’t know what mountains they were but found the view exceptionally beautiful. I still feel that way, not necessarily even from Haystacks, for example the same panorama from the Buttermere ridge (High Stile and Red Pike) is also enjoyable – but Haystacks is a more attractively miniature setting, with the added benefit of Inonimate Tarn.

Near to Haystacks summit, looking towards Great Gable and then the Scafells peeping through:

High Stile to the Scafells:


Programme Two took intrepid city girl Jules to Sharp Edge on Blencathra, which is a slightly worrying proposition the first time you do it. They sensibly had a guide with them, an elderly but sprightly fella who’s been walking the fells for decades. I like Blencathra, for a quick and easy walk accomplished in a leisurely four hours but with a rewarding viewpoint. Sharp Edge is exciting but actually quite dangerous in wet, slippery or icy conditions; there’s one section in particular where you traverse a large flat rock that’s smooth, polished, and from which if you fell, it would probably be your last living experience. I currently have no worthwhile photos from Blencathra! I’ve done it two or three times, but it’s always been grey skies.

Programme Three took city cutie up to Castle Crag in Borrowdale, another mini walk she described with enthusiasm as a satisfying “bijou mountain”. And “look at this!”, she says, just before the peak, admiring a lovely moment with distant views through an overhanging tree. Aaw, bless. You’re right, Jules, and so was Wainwright: the Lake District is full of wonderful mini moments, compositions of hill, tree, tarn and vista that are a simple delight.

Castle Crag looking towards the ‘Jaws’ of Borrowdale:

Castle Crag from the Borrowdale valley:

Programme Four ended with the walk Wainwright regarded as the best of all, not for prettiness as such but for rugged panoramic grandeur: up to Scafell Pike from Borrowdale. It is indeed a tremendous walk, although I’m not sure it’s clearly the best. For example the walk up to neighbouring Scafell from Eskdale is a favourite of mine, reaches a nearby similarly impressive point, and has many delightful attractions. The approach is up an exceptional waterfall valley and across a silent plateau called Great Moss in Upper Eskdale, which is a singular Lake District location:

But it’s fun to rank your all time favourite walks, and Borrowdale up to the highest English mountain is certainly up there at the top, as is its impressive height. Hey Julia, you paused at Styhead Tarn and it is indeed a lovely spot, but you really need to see it in winter:

Or perhaps from the path up to Great Gable:

And you paused at Esk Hause, but just below did you look back and notice this composition, or indeed the view while you crossed the stream:

One memorable autumn day I went up to Scafell Pike from Wasdale, seriously disheartened with the cloud literally sweeping in from the Irish sea, filling the valley and obscuring everything. One moment blue skies, the next about fifty foot visiblity…damnit. However, onward and upward, and suddenly I was above the cloud layer and witnessed an astonishing cloud inversion covering the land and sea from the Isle of Man, to Scotland, to Borrowdale and Keswick, indeed as far as you could see in every direction, an ocean of cloud with a vibrant blue sky above it: and there I was, at Scafell Pike, highest point in England, about 4 pm, and no one else was there – a very rare occurrence.

Jules, you should have been there. Failing that, check this out:

And from slightly below Scafell Pike on a peak called Lingmor, across to Great Gable:

Next up, city girl, I recommend maybe a visit to this area, Helvellyn, especially in winter like you see it here. What’s that?! – you’re stuck in traffic on the Fulham Road?

Part 2: the second BBC series

Lake District Photos


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