Post by Chris Butterfield.
Alfred Wainwright passed away on January 20, 1991. In the sprint of that year, Betty Wainwright honoured the request he had made in his 1966 autobiographical work Fellwanderer – The story Behind the Guidebooks (Westmorland Gazette) by scattering his ashes on the shore of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks. She was accompanied by Percy Duff, who had succeeded Wainwright as borough treasurer in 1967, and his two sons Mike and Paul. Wainwright was watching over the four of them, as they were blessed with a bright sunny day. The route they followed was “Haystacks 7” which features in The Western Fells Pictorial Guide (Frances Lincoln) and begins at the Honister Slate Mine car park. Paul assisted Betty by carrying the heavy brown container, which held Wainwright’s ashes, in his rucksack.
Mike and Paul Duff have commemorated the event by walking the same route every ten years. The latest walk, on the thirtieth anniversary of Wainwright’s ashes being scattered, would be their third, and my wife Priscilla and I were honoured to be asked to accompany them: we would be remembering not only Wainwright, but also Betty and Percy, who are sadly no longer with us.
The four of us met at the slate mine’s car park at about 6am. We were the only people there, so there was a good chance that we might have the fell to ourselves for the duration of the walk. It was planned so that we could set off for Haystacks at the same time as the party had done thirty years earlier. There was a slight chill in the air but luckily no rain was forecast, and the morning’s mist was slowly dispersing: a promising start.
We followed the old tramway path to Dubs Quarry. Mike recalls Betty and Percy managing the initial steep section with ease. His dad was almost seventy years old at the time and wasn’t a seasoned walker like Betty, but he was quite fit.
As we approached Dubs Quarry, we paused to take in the route ahead. Haystacks and High Crag came into full view with the summit of Pillar just visible under the cloud base. Three decades earlier, nobody had stopped to rest in the quarry hut, so we followed suit and descended to Warnscale Beck.
We continued past Little Round How and Great Round How. It was here, out in the open, that I stopped to scan the horizon. I spotted two people in the distance beyond Great Round How heading towards Honister. They were clearly on the Coast to Coast walk path and had possibly come up through Ennerdale. We wouldn’t see anyone else for the rest of the day. We paused at the gap between Haystacks and Green Crag to take in the magnificent view down to Buttermere and beyond. On clear days, Buttermere is like a mirror. There were no reflections today because of the cloud, but it was no less spectacular.
The final approach to Innominate Tarn is via the steep stone steps. As you near the top, the rugged plateau with its reclusive tarn immediately opens up before you, and for a moment, you are beneath the water level. Spectacular.
In his 1987 coffee table book Wainwright’s Coast to Coast (Michael Joseph), Wainwright described the tarn as Haystacks “finest jewel…a small shallow sheet of water in which flourishes the lovely bog bean and over which Great Gable and Pillar stand guard in ceaseless watch. A lonely spot of haunting charm…life seems good here. It is a venue for happy pilgrimages.”
Today was quiet, without a breath of wind, and barely a ripple troubled the tarn’s millpond-still surface. We each went to the spot where Wainwright’s ashes had been scattered and paid our respects in silence. Thirty years earlier, to the day, Betty had found the perfect spot: she had stood transfixed by the landscape and, holding the ashes close to her, spent some time alone in her thoughts before letting her husband go. Wainwright would now become part of the landscape he loved, forever.
We sat down for lunch at the same spot they did all those years ago, on a huge slab of rock overlooking the tarn. The cloud base was lifting slowly, and Pillar was in near-full view. Apart from a single Herdwick watching us cautiously from across the tarn, and a couple of ducks introducing themselves in exchange for a bit of food, we were alone.
Mike had brought along his photo album, which contained every photograph taken on the original trip thirty years ago. We held the photos in front of the exact locations we were at today, and nothing had changed. The features on every crag and rock were the same as they were all those years ago. It emphasised the timelessness of this landscape.
Our final destination was the summit and its two cairns. Despite its modest 1,959ft, Wainwright described this as the best fell top of all: “…for beauty, variety and interesting detail, for sheer fascination and unique individuality, the summit-area of Haystacks is supreme…a place of great charm and fairyland attractiveness,” he wrote in The Western Fells. As we stood by the northern cairn, Mike spoke a few words about Wainwright, Betty and Percy before we returned the way we had come. On the way, the sun started to break through the clouds. We took advantage of the improved weather and spent more time at Innominate Tarn and, again, at the location where Wainwright’s ashes had been scattered.
The last refreshment stop and excuse to linger on the fells a little longer was near Dubs Quarry. Sat on the grass, Mike and Paul reminisced about their last visit, ten years earlier. They had set off from the mine early, in torrential rain and appalling visibility. Conditions had not improved all morning, and they were severely weather beaten by the time they reached the tarn. They had stood by the spot where the ashes had been laid and considered their next move. They couldn’t even see across the tarn. Deciding it was too dangerous to make for the summit, they wisely turned back.
They were pleased with how things turned out this time round. Twenty years had been a long time to wait for finer weather. We all wondered whether it would be our final trip together. Much might happen over the next decade. Wainwright himself was conscious of the passage of time, and his advancing age. Every day we spend on the fells is one day less. Life is about enjoying the moment, and it was a privilege to share this one with Mike and Paul.
The clouds cleared as we rested, revealing deep blue skies. The sun was like a glowing medallion, its emanating rays illuminating the dark shadows on the outcrops of Haystacks and its many crags. We surveyed the landscape behind us and bade a final farewell to Wainwright before following the old tramway path back to the car park. The day was a complete success. We had had the whole fell to ourselves while completing the task in hand. Just when Priscilla and I thought the surprises were over, Mike and Paul kindly presented to us both with an A4 printout of the route from The Western Fells guidebook. It was signed and dated by them both. We signed it too and have the original as a memento of the day.
Priscilla and I want to thank Mike and Paul for allowing us to accompany them on this very personal journey. We all hope to do this walk again in another ten years, but if this proves to have been the last time, we will always be grateful for having been part of such a special day.
This feature was originally published in Lakeland Walker May/June 2021. A big thanks to editor John Manning, not only for his work putting this piece together, but for encouraging me to put pen to paper and record this important day.
An alternative report of the walk also appeared in the May 2021 edition of Lakeland Walker’s sister title, Cumbria magazine.
A special thanks goes to our good friends Mike and Paul Duff for inviting Priscilla and I to accompany them on their Wainwright pilgrimage. It was a day we will never forget.
1991 photos courtesy of the Duff family.Back to top of page