Article by Chris Butterfield
It is hard to believe it has been 70 years since Wainwright first penned Dove Crag when he began working on the seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells. This unique book series forever changed how many people viewed the Lake District. The journey of how they came to be is an interesting one. Writing a book on Lakeland was on Wainwright’s mind long before he took on the job as an accountancy assistant at the Borough Treasurer’s office at Kendal in 1941.
During the early 1940s, Wainwright was eager to make a name for himself in his new adopted town. It didn’t take long, as he soon became the talk of the town after the success of the Kendal Holiday Week event in 1942. Wainwright was also commissioned to produce a Kendal handbook. However, this never materialised, so he turned his attention to the Lakes instead. Many book ideas were proposed but were subsequently dropped when he decided to produce a series of guides to the Lake District.
Wainwright was the first person to divide the Lake District into seven regions. The original list of fells produced within these regions was greater than the 214 we know today, but several were omitted as the project developed. There appears to be no hard and fast rule to the criteria each fell had to meet to be included in Wainwright’s list. Excluding Castle Crag, they were all above 1000ft. Some were chosen out of personal preference, and others down to their relevance and connection to certain fell groups. A few fell choices garner varied opinions on why they were included, which always makes for great debates.
Wainwright always said the project initially began as a personal walking journal to record his memories, so he could look back on them in later life when he could no longer walk the fells. He was thinking of publishing very early on, so this must have been in the back of his mind from the beginning. During the planning stage, Wainwright calculated that completing all seven guidebooks would take 13 years. He didn’t include a single day off when working on his strict itinerary.
On Sunday, 9 November 1952, Wainwright was likely involved with Kendal’s Remembrance Day activities, especially with him holding an important position in the Town Hall. Later that evening, Wainwright finally put pen to paper and described the route from Ambleside to Dove Crag. His Lakeland guidebook odyssey had finally begun!
Wainwright’s original notebook, which he used when starting the project, is held at the Kendal County Archive. I was fortunate to acquire two facsimiles of the notebook. The first was given to me by a friend, and the second was auctioned off by Hunter Davies and many other Wainwright items back in 2016. The notebook revealed that he’d researched Fairfield and Little Hart Crag well before Dove Crag. So, although Dove Crag was the first fell Wainwright worked on for The Eastern Fells guidebook, we know from his notebook it wasn’t the first fell he’d researched.
If so, why did he begin the book with Dove Crag? Well, one can make an educated guess. Fairfield is a parent fell with several spurs linking it to multiple routes to the summit. Wainwright was still working on the book layout, so starting with a simpler fell made sense before moving on to one more complex. Dove Crag is one of the prominent spurs off Fairfield, with a simple summit and almost a straight line to Ambleside. This made it the perfect first write-up for the book.
Wainwright had been a pen and ink man all his life, so every page was immaculately handwritten with detailed drawings without any printers’ type. Eight months later, Wainwright wasn’t satisfied with how it looked. Each line had been justified down the left-hand side but not the right, which was jagged. He threw away over one hundred pages of work and started again, justifying the lines down both sides. Wainwright wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection.
The seven guides were published between 1955 and 1966 and became a huge success. Even today, they are considered the definitive guides to the Lakeland fells. Wainwright continued producing books for the rest of his life, and by 1986 he had sold over one million books. That figure has more than doubled in recent years and is a testament to his ongoing legacy, inspiring generations of fellwalkers.
As part of the anniversary celebrations, I was granted special permission to visit Wainwright’s original Kendal home to see where it all began. It was a hot summer’s day when I attended with Andrew Nichol, the former General Printing and Book Publishing Manager, at the Westmorland Gazette. It had been over 30 years since he’d last been to Kendal Green.
The owners, Colin and Susan Rowley and their son Chris were terrific hosts and made us feel welcome. We learned about the house’s history from Susan, and she recalled a Wainwright documentary – The Man Who Loved the Lakes- filmed in the house in 2007. We were kindly given a full tour, where I matched up original photos of Wainwright in certain rooms. Susan had never seen these photographs, so I gave her a complete set as a souvenir. Andrew shared many vivid memories of his twice-weekly meetings with Wainwright, mainly in the living room.
It felt surreal standing in Wainwright’s original study, where he’d produced over 50 books all those years ago. I looked out the window towards the Kentmere fells to see if I could feel the same inspiration he would have felt when looking out. It was a magical moment for me and a very emotional one for Andrew. I can’t thank Colin, Susan, and Chris enough for their hospitality. We planned to return on the evening of Wednesday, 9 November, the exact day of the anniversary.
Leading up to the anniversary, I planned a walk to the summit of Dove Crag from Ambleside via Low Pike and High Pike in the footsteps of Wainwright. I invited Alfred Wainwright Books & Memorabilia Facebook group members to join me and my wife, Priscilla. It was a fabulous day, with everyone coming together for a common cause in celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Alfred Wainwright starting the Pictorial Guides.
We met early in Ambleside and, after a brief introduction, made our way up the mountain. Some people were climbing Dove Crag from different locations, so we’d all agreed to meet at the summit at midday. It was a joy bonding with the community during the climb, and despite the weather slowly closing in on us, we barely noticed, simply down to the great camaraderie between us.
The cloud base was low, and it wasn’t long before we were engulfed in mist, but our spirits remained high. After a short time, other groups appeared out of the thick fog yards from the summit. I was pleased everyone braved the weather to be here on this special day. After lunch, we took several group photographs on the summit before descending to Ambleside via Scandale.
The weather slowly improved as we descended, and a couple of hours later, we arrived in Ambleside, which was basking in glorious sunshine. With the mission a complete success, we all went for a celebratory drink in the Golden Rule. Meeting everyone was an absolute pleasure, so I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who attended the walk. The weather was not in our favour that day, but many turned up nonetheless, which meant a lot.
One final celebration remained. On the evening of Wednesday, 9 November 2022 – exactly 70 years to the day Wainwright began work on the Dove Crag chapter of his first guide, my wife Priscilla and I, with Andrew Nichol, headed for Kendal Green. Meeting Susan and Colin again was wonderful to spend this special anniversary together. Andrew told many insightful stories about Wainwright, and I brought many rare artefacts, including an original Wainwright manuscript produced in this room. The photos of Wainwright I had previously given Susan were currently being framed, ready to hang in Wainwright’s former study.
As a thank you to Susan and Colin, we took them to the Wild Boar Inn at Windermere – for fish and chips, of course! The Westmorland Gazette booked this venue for many important outings, including Harry Firth’s 1982 retirement party, which Wainwright attended. In keeping with those traditions, booking the same venue seemed only fitting.
Following the meal, one final task remained: for us all to raise a glass to Wainwright as thanks for the pleasure he has given to so many people. Cheers, Mr Wainwright… here’s to the next 70 years.
Photo acknowledgements, the Duff Family and Mike Barker.Back to top of page