Remembering an Unsung Hero

Article by Chris Butterfield

The saviour of Alfred Wainwright’s acclaimed fellwalking guidebooks, Andrew Nichol, has recently passed away at the age of ninety-one. Born in Durham in 1932, Andrew lived a life of significance not unlike his colleague and friend Wainwright, and it is because of him that the latter’s celebrated guidebooks still grace our shelves today.

From a young age, Andrew dreamed of becoming a car mechanic, but destiny had other plans. In 1946, at just 14 years old, he left school and embarked on a career in the newspaper industry. He started as an apprentice compositor for the Durham County Advertiser, immersing himself in the world of print. In 1950, Andrew’s journey changed course when he began his National Service. He served in the Infantry and spent the majority of his two-year tenure stationed in Korea.

Andrew Nichol aged 15
Andrew Nichol, aged 15, in his hometown of Durham with his dog, Rover

Following the war, Andrew returned to England and refined his craft in the printing industry, working in various locations, including Darlington and Sunderland. In the 1960s, he seized a new opportunity and relocated to Tamworth, where he continued to advance his career.

Andrew Nichol, Tamworth 1969
Andrew with a colleague, working on the latest Yellow Pages in Tamworth, February 1969

Yet, in September 1969, Andrew’s career took another significant turn: he was the successful applicant for a new role of composing room overseer at the Westmorland Gazette in Kendal. This role would shape his professional trajectory in ways he could never have anticipated. Within a month of the interview, he’d moved to Kendal with his wife and four children.

Westmorland Gazette 15th Sept 1969
The interview for the position of Overseer at the Westmorland Gazette was successful
Westmorland Gazette 17th Sept 1969
On the 6th of October 1969, Andrew Nichol’s life would change forever

Andrew’s leadership abilities were acknowledged early on, leading to his promotion in 1972 to oversee the entire newspaper department and general printing. Thus, he was put in charge of the famous Wainwright books, although he would not meet the iconic fellwalker for another decade.

The old Goss printing press churns out the Westmorland Gazette in 1972
Westmorland Gazette Promotion 1972
Andrew’s skills were duly recognised, and promotion soon followed

In June 1982, when Harry Firth – general printing and book publishing manager – retired early, Andrew stepped into his role. Unfortunately, he inherited a department in crisis. It was on the brink of closure after enduring losses for two consecutive years. Facing a critical third year of potential losses, the department risked numerous redundancies and discontinuation of the beloved Wainwright books. Losing these works would have been a significant setback for Cumbria.

The primary cause of these losses was the decision from the Gazette’s upper management not to renew the printing contracts for the Dalesman and Cumbria magazines, which accounted for thirty per cent of the Gazette’s revenue—a substantial loss. Andrew was unhappy with this decision, feeling it was unjustified, and suspected it was the reason for Harry’s early retirement. Recognising the urgency of the situation, Andrew took decisive action. He instinctively felt that the solution involved leveraging the Wainwright publications.

Wainwright Guidebooks
“The Wainwright books were the key to everything” – Andrew Nichol.

For years, printing the Wainwright books was merely a fill-in job and was insufficient to sustain the book publishing department. Book one: The Eastern Fells was nearly thirty years old, and a new generation of walkers had emerged. Wainwright’s aversion to publicity meant that the books did not achieve national sales, preventing these exceptional works of art from reaching a broader audience.

After consulting with the directors of Westminster Press – the owners of the Gazette – Andrew made a bold offer of £40,000 to Wainwright for the copyrights to his books, contingent upon his agreement to participate in publicity efforts. This strategic move proved highly successful: the book publishing department soon reversed its financial decline. Previously burdened with over £70,000 in unsold stock, the company eventually achieved profits exceeding £100,000. This financial turnaround not only saved more than thirty-five jobs but also preserved Wainwright’s legacy for future generations of fellwalkers.

Andrew installed rows of dexion racking in the stores to house the thousands of Pictorial Guides

After acquiring the copyright, the Gazette was not legally obligated to continue paying royalties to Wainwright. However, they chose to continue the payments as a gesture of appreciation and commitment to him. Wainwright valued this act of goodwill, which, along with the copyright money, provided him with the funds necessary to establish a headquarters for Animal Rescue Cumbria. Under his leadership, starting in 1974, the organisation gained registered charity status. In 1984, Wainwright purchased a property in Greyrigg, Kendal, called Kapellan, which has flourished ever since.

All the Wainwright merchandise sold throughout the 1980s originated from Andrew’s innovative ideas. He collaborated closely with Wainwright on various projects, such as framed letterpress plates, signed prints, calendars, cards, and diaries. Andrew was also the brain behind the now-common Pictorial Guide box sets. Initially, Wainwright was sceptical of many of these ideas. However, he was eventually proven wrong, as the surge in profits from books and merchandise led to a 300 percent increase in his royalties.

Behind the Scenes with Wainwright
After twenty years, Andrew finally shared his experiences working with Wainwright

When I was first introduced to Andrew over seven years ago, I was just as captivated by his story as I was with Wainwright’s. Andrew was a gentleman and a devoted family man, always modest about his crucial role in preserving the Wainwright books. His humility spoke volumes about his character, revealing him as the ‘unsung hero’ of the Wainwright story. I’m still unsure why he passed all his knowledge on to me. Perhaps it was because I was the new kid on the block and knew very little about Wainwright, making my mind a blank canvas, free of bias. Or it might have been my sheer enthusiasm: Andrew noticed how eagerly I hung on his every word.

Andrew Nichol in the Archive
Andrew visits the Wainwright archive in 2021 while working on Wainwright Memories

Very early in our collaboration, Andrew impressed upon me the importance of our conversations, saying, “What I am about to tell you is very important. You need to record our sessions about Wainwright. If anything happens to me, these stories are gone forever.” I followed his instructions, though perhaps without fully grasping their significance at the time. It was only after reviewing those hundreds of hours of recordings that I truly understood. Andrew was a visionary, almost as if he had meticulously planned out everything between us in advance.

As time passed, Andrew shared with me his one major regret: he had never paid his respects to Wainwright at Innominate Tarn on Haystacks, where the author’s ashes were scattered in 1991. Motivated by gratitude for all he had done for me over the years, I resolved to fulfil his final wish. With assistance from my wife, Priscilla, and Sheila Richardson, who had known Wainwright personally, we coordinated with the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team. They graciously facilitated Andrew’s journey to the tarn in late October 2023.

Andrew was deeply moved and grateful for the team’s generosity in helping him reach Innominate Tarn. Having waited over thirty years for that moment, the opportunity to sit by the tarn was profoundly meaningful to him. I cannot express enough gratitude to the team for what they did for Andrew, and I will forever be indebted to them.

Andrew finally pays his respects to his old friend by Innominate Tarn

Andrew was one of the most remarkable people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Even near the end, he often spoke of how privileged he felt to have met Wainwright in 1982. My perspective has shifted over time: I now believe that Wainwright was the one who was truly fortunate to have met Andrew.

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