Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
Nick Burton starts at 331 Audley Range, Blackburn. Alfred Wainwright’s life began there on 17th January, 1907, and Nick Burton’s walk begins in Blackburn and, following in AW’s footsteps, traces his life through the mill streets and on to the Treasurer’s Office in Kendal and up onto the Lakeland Fells towards the great pedestrian’s final resting place.
It took the young Wainwright half an hour to walk to his school at Blakey Moor. A fellow pupil thee was Jessica Lofthouse, who also made a name for herself writing about the hills of the Lake District. There must have been something in the air “in Blackburn’s densely packed urban jungle” where the life was “one of grime, coal dust and cotton fibres on your lungs”. It was no wonder there was an urge to escape to the clean air of the hills.
You limber up by walking the streets Wainwright walked on his way to work at the Town Hall – he started there, filling in ledgers when he was thirteen. You can stand by the bus stop where he stood and imagine something of the sense of freedom the lumbering country buses must have offered to a young man in the 1920s trapped in those dingy streets spending his days copying figures meticulously on to well-ruled pages.
Nick’s walk takes five days to get to Kendal, but they are days walking through countryside which Wainwright knew and drew. Eleven miles brings you to Whalley and its ruined abbey. After a further sixteen crossing Dinkley Footbridge and walking along the Hodder Valley and past Old Langho Church and through the country of the Bowland Sketchbook you arrive at Dunsop Bridge. The next fifteen miles offer mountain walking over Salter Fell to the village of Wray. Another two days and twenty-five miles and you find yourself in Kendal.
It took thirty-four years for Wainwright to arrive in the imposing town hall on Kendal’s busy main street. But he was in heaven: “I walked to the office through green fields and amongst trees beside a river and there were hills in the distance. Life was good.”
Wainwright’s meticulous pen traced the stones in Kendal’s old buildings and Nick’s three mile walk around the town takes us to the buildings he grew to cherish.
Wainwright would have left his lonely home of a Saturday morning to catch the 8.30 bus for Keswick in Windermere Road. The journey was a weekly resurrection: “Dare we hope there will be another Orrest Head over the threshold of the next heaven.”
He must have walked thousands of miles year in, year out across the fells, knowing every valley, every path, every rock. Nick, however, only allows us another busy forty-five miles from Troutbeck, through Patterdale, Grasmere and Rosthwaite Bridge to Buttermere Church.
“The final journey of Alfred Wainwright took place on Friday 22 March, 1991. His ashes were driven from Kendal to the old slate quarry at the top of the Honister Pass, then carried by a party of four - his widow, Betty, Percy Duff and Percy’s two sons – up to Innominate Tarn, where AW’s ashes were scattered.”
The Wainwright Walk ends in the small church of St James the Great, the patron saint of pilgrims and labourers. A memorial stone beneath a window asks the reader to “pause and remember Alfred Wainwright, Fellwalker, Guidebook Author and Illustrator who loved this valley. Lift your eyes to Haystacks, his favourite place.”
Wainwright inspired a generation of walkers. Wainwright’s Way is a deeply affectionate tribute to the man and the country he loved. The route taken should cause us to think again about the whole range of Wainwright’s work. His passionate, observant eye found beauty all around him, throughout the north of England and beyond.
Wainwright’s Walk is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.