Guest article by Darren Harridence
Way back when – in a former life as a very young man – I once worked in a large outdoor leisure shop with my department specialising in all things walking, mountaineering, and backpacking. Nestled within the centre of leafy Warwickshire, it was a long way from Wainwright’s Lakeland, but just about every day, a customer would regale their tales of recent trips to Cumbria’s National Park as it clearly occupied the hearts and minds of just about every hill walker in the country.
By the late 1980s, Wainwright’s fame had spread beyond the generations of fellwalkers that had devoured his guidebooks due to his sudden (and unexpected) rise in profile following three successful television series – which were part biographical and part travelogue where Wainwright was our guide – all airing on primetime BBC2 in the evenings. As you can imagine, I recall selling a steady stream of his famed guides and the growing array of AW coffee table books, all displayed with a healthy stock of the prerecorded VHS video cassettes that relived his newfound television “fame”.
I can remember unpacking and putting on display his recently published Ex-Fellwanderer book and not fully appreciating the significance that this nascent Lake District and hillwalking luminary was still a contemporary author (who was rapidly being quoted in equal reverence alongside the likes of Wordsworth and Ruskin) and who in time would become the renowned authority on Lakeland, to be quoted and referenced no doubt for centuries.
In his later years and those that followed his death (in 1991), numerous items of memorabilia, collectables, and ephemera were and have been created to celebrate the author and his work, ranging from extravagant limited edition table mats and coasters to humble Wainwright address books and calendars. But for my money, the finest and most convincing use of Alfred’s name came posthumously in the form of the Wainwright walking boot, created by K shoes of Kendal.
THE CHRIS BRASHER BOOT
In the outdoor industry, the celebrated runner Chris Brasher CBE (1928-2003) had long established his successful design of walking boots, having first conceived the idea in 1978, which would inspire a distinctly alternative way of interpreting boots for the hills. It was completely novel, being previously unimaginably lightweight and instantly comfortable, using EVA wedged midsoles (for weight reduction and underfoot shock absorption), a reimagined anti-clogging outer sole, a thin and soft leather upper and came complete with a waterproof lining fitted inside.
For many years, these were manufactured by K Shoes of Kendal (Cumbria) as contract manufacturers (CM), who were no strangers to mountain footwear themselves, having made the mountaineering boots for Kendalian Howard Somervell’s participation in the historic 1924 Everest expedition. They were also manufacturers of military boots for British and allied forces during both world wars and were later famed for their range of shoes and a national chain of retail stores.
By the 1970s, K Shoemakers Limited had several factories – mostly in or local to Kendal – producing 130,000 pairs of shoes weekly. It’s believed that at one time, 20% of the eligible Kendal workforce (and at least one member of every family in the town) were in their employment. In 1981, the company was acquired by C & J Clark Limited – aka Clarks shoes – of Somerset, but the K Shoes branding survived, and Kendal manufacturing continued.
CALLING MR A. WAINWRIGHT (MBE)
Eventually, the production of Brasher boots moved overseas, and in subsequent years, they used different manufacturers in several countries during the evolution of its product range. But for K shoes and the skilled shoemakers of Kendal, this left a sizable hole in the shape of a walking boot to fill. This familiar scenario from the textbooks of industry and commerce often leaves one party compromised. However, the Kendal manufacturing base decided they should venture into the direct production of walking boots in their own right – or very nearly in their own right.
To enter a market, chasing the volumes an established manufactory might expect requires starting from the position an established brand enjoys. From a standing start, K Shoes wisely harnessed the powers of branding to help give their product any chance of elbowing its way into this competitive field. In a genius marriage of their skills with a reputable and much-loved icon so prominent within their target audience, they promptly enrolled the services of a certain A. Wainwright, no less.
Furthermore, the brilliant symbiosis between this historic and significant Kendal employer rooted in the very town Wainwright had long adopted as his home (and for whom he had proudly been treasurer for much of his working life) was exquisite. It would seem reasonable to suspect that the Wainwright Estate largely agreed to support the use of AW’s name – and various copyrighted materials – in this context due to the synergy between the town he loved and the livelihoods of those who worked in it. By circa 1992, the Wainwright walking boot was in production and getting ready to hit the hills.
Wainwright’s facsimiled signature – now Trademarked – appeared across the tongue and along the outside heal. It formed a repeating pattern (“A. Wainwright by K”) running diagonally across the removable inner footbeds as part of their synthetic textile top lining. The heel counter also sported the increasingly familiar silhouette ‘logo’ of AW sitting on a pile of rocks smoking his pipe (as part of the burgeoning efforts to secure a formal and commercial Wainwright brand identity).
Wainwright’s graphic design legacy presumably made the box livery design effortless, with an instantly recognisable interpretation of his iconic Lakeland guidebook dust jackets and distinctive pen and ink drawings. This immediately placed the boots within the already established and familiar AW ‘brand’ ecosystem. Using a new blue, the box somewhat bombastically referred to AW as “The master fellwalker” (which, likely, would have made him blush) in a mild discrepancy between marketing pizzazz and brand sensibilities.
K Shoes also enlisted their royal warrants, positioned prominently for good measure. Such was the strength of the branding that no name was seemingly required for the product itself. It was instinctively referred to as ‘the Wainwright walking boot’.
The reputation of British-made walking boots had deservedly endured years of self-imposed humiliation due to old or deplorable designs and manufacture, but here was a British-made boot that oozed quality, fitted well, used premium materials, was contemporary in design, and used fabulous branding in the form of Wainwright’s endorsement to instantly lend it gravitas and heritage. It was bold, audacious, defiant, and we loved it. Upon first seeing and holding the product, I instantly ordered around 50 pairs. About three weekends later, I repeated the order.
From memory, I believe they retailed for around 80 or 90 pounds then and were instantly popular with our customers straight out of the blocks. I remember their distinctive boxes being scattered across the boot fitting room floor on many a busy Saturday afternoon. The modest half-page adverts announcing their arrival in UK walking magazines seemed unnecessary. Partly due to their unusual appeal with both women and men in fit and feel and the high recognition of the Wainwright name, there was little hesitation from walkers, and in particular novice walkers, seeking general-purpose footwear and they quickly became a mainstay of our boot range.
The boots enrolled the familiar anti-clog wide lugged tread design, and EVA wedged midsoles seen previously, which were still made in England but now proudly embossed with a logo that saw the manufacturers suddenly describing themselves as “K the bootmaker”. A lightweight but substantial (1 to 1.5mm gauge) leather upper was also upgraded to a single-piece upper (without any side seam). It was a beautifully supple, smooth, full-grain calf leather, free from any shiny (PU) coating and had a pleasingly tactile natural feel. They used the same ‘rocker’ (forward roll) lasts, had a rubber rand and a waterproof lining (bonded behind a synthetic inner lining used for moisture management).
A heel counter was added to provide protective strength to the rear heel seam, and a substantial leather was employed for the stitched-in tongue gussets. The internal midsole was sufficiently strong for respectable underfoot support and protection against lateral twists. Still, it was noticeably more flexible than many traditional products or for what was considered necessary by many. It was, it has to be said, ostensibly very inspired by the Brasher boot (as were several other brands at the time), but in my opinion, enlisted a marked upgrade in materials.
This modern boot was draped in mono traditional colours reminiscent of conventional British hiking boots. From the leather tan and eyelet hardware to the laces, it skilfully merged the new with the old and blended well with the Wainwright aesthetic. Ironically, at the time, this style of boot wasn’t typically what you might recommend for out-and-out fell walking or the type of high mountain routes found across central Lakeland, but for people apprehensive of any form of boot the Wainwright boot was something they were prepared to wear.
Unlike other brands, we were able to draw directly from the manufacturer’s stock, which would only need a quick jaunt down the M6 (without ordering several months in advance), while the manufacturers themselves were presumably enjoying good margins selling directly from their factory floor straight to the retailer; free of middlemen (distributors or importers). Wainwright’s credentials are unlikely sufficient to give the boots a leg-up for overseas sales, but I don’t recall the project having broader ambitions beyond the UK.
Legend has it that there was a short-lived ‘mountain’ version, with more substantial ankle support and an Italian Vibram sole, but these were so fleeting that eyewitness accounts are few and far between. (I don’t recall ever having been presented these by any form of company representative.) Eventually, there would also be the option of an even softer version of the boot utilising a suede (or split leather) upper pitched at a lower price point and very much in the vein of the original suede Brasher Hillmaster boots.
THE SOLES EVENTUALLY WORE OUT
It was never made clear why Wainwright boots ceased production, with their quiet disappearance made without announcement and their withdrawal practically unnoticed; its production only seemed to have survived for two or three years, with its demise seemingly coinciding with the general decline of shoe manufacturing in Kendal. From the 1980s onwards, a litany of market forces had plagued shoe manufacturing in the UK, and the continuous announcements of K Shoes redundancies and their factory closures in the town became a depressing reoccurrence, which accelerated to an almost annual pattern throughout the entire 1990s.
It’s tempting to speculate whether there may have been repercussions from the legacy of boots they’d replaced involving registered design protections (different to trademark, copyright, and patent protection). But this is purely a personal musing, and many simple reasons could explain the retirement of this once buoyant product, which burst onto the scene, thrived, and then silently disappeared. At the very least, it was an outlier product and may not have sat naturally within the company’s broader catalogue and wider strategic priorities. Ultimately, in a crowded marketplace, it can be tough for a new entrant to compete against the excitement of constantly revised models and mature ranges from established industry goliaths and an army of industry specialists catering for the nuanced whims of a specialist retail sector.
In 2003, the last of the Kendal K Shoes factories closed, and by 2021, it was announced that the surviving distribution centre would also close. Eventually, the Brasher boot company was acquired by Pentland Group. In 2015, the Brasher name was replaced by Berghaus (before the trademark was revived in recent years for a range of products by Blacks Outdoors Retail Ltd).
And, as you know, Wainwright’s name, due in no doubt to the exceptional quality of his books, art and considered opinion, continues to be a powerful symbol of quality and integrity. His books continue to sell, but no AW-branded footwear has followed in K Shoes’ footsteps.Back to top of page