Wainwright’s Tour in the Lake District

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Whitsuntide 2021 marked the 90th Anniversary of Wainwright’s Lake District Tour 1931, also known as the ‘Grand Tour’. In the summer of 1930, Wainwright and his cousin Eric had already spent a week in the Lake District. They arrived at Windermere on June 7, and headed for Orrest Head. The spectacular panorama that greeted them would change the life of Alfred Wainwright forever.

Wainwright returned to Blackburn, but the memory of this life-changing event was etched in his mind. He immediately planned his next trip to the Lakes. The purpose of this second visit was to take in every lake, mountain and valley in the district. It was a 102-mile walk split into six days. This was an expedition of gargantuan proportions, and a real test of endurance for Wainwright.

Wainwright's Tour collection.
All material based on Wainwright’s Tour.

After months of meticulous planning, he presented his programme, written on six foolscap sheets, to his Blackburn Borough Treasurer colleagues, who would be his walking companions on this holiday: Eric Maudsley Jim Sharples and Harry Driver. The original six sheets were not discovered until after Wainwright died in January 1991. Eric Maudsley had them in his possession for several decades until his own death one year later.

Wainwright’s original Itinerary:

Day one: May 23, 1931, Windermere to Patterdale

Day two: May 24, 1931, Patterdale to Keswick

Day three: May 25, 1931, Keswick to Buttermere

Day four: May 26, 1931, Buttermere to Wasdale

Day five: May 27, 1931, Wasdale to Langdale

Day six: May 28, 1931, Langdale to Windermere

Eric Maudsley’s personal account of the tour reveals an unfortunate start for the four young heroes. The driving rain on day one forced them to abandon most of their original planned route. As the day progressed, the weather, exhaustion, and the group’s lack of experience with high-level fell walking would begin to show. Shortcuts had to be made for the next three days to compensate for the relentless rain. On the final two days, the weather improved and raised everyone’s spirits. The route could now be completed exactly to Wainwright’s original plan.

Wainwright was a perfectionist, perhaps he was disappointed with his performance. Reluctantly, he may have conceded to the fact that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Was this the reason he never spoke about the ill-fated tour later in life? Whatever the reasons, this was one event in his life that was never mentioned in his biographies.

Wainwright in 1990. Photos by Ed Geldard.

This was a significant period for Wainwright. What we have learned is that this tour brought him another step closer to embracing the Lakes as his new home. This would eventually inspire him to produce the now famous Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells.

Wainwright married Ruth Holden on Christmas Eve 1931.  He planned another walking tour for Whitsuntide 1932, with his wife. However, this never came to pass, and he started to regret the marriage.

To commemorate Wainwright’s ‘Grand Tour’, a series of publications have been produced over the years. In 1993, Michael Joseph published Wainwright’s Tour in the Lake District, with photographs by Ed Geldard and maps by Chris Jesty. In 1998, Michael Joseph published a guide to the walk, which was slightly extended to 104-miles, and broken down into eleven bite-size stages as opposed to the original six. It was renamed, The Wainwright Memorial Walk. A film of the same title, presented by Eric Robson, is also available.

The fell data featured in Wainwright’s Tour in the Lake District was produced from The Official Wainwright Gazetteer by Peter Linney, also published in 1993. 

Ed Geldard would also make a return in 2010 as the author of Wainwright’s Lost Tour, in which he gives the final word about Wainwright’s original walk. He believes that if the weather had been more favourable for the four intrepid adventurers, their tour would have been a complete success and a proud moment in Wainwright’s young life.

Ed Geldard revisits Wainwright’s Tour.
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