True Grit

David Craig

  • Wainwright: The Biography by Hunter Davies
    Joseph, 356 pp, £16.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 7181 3909 7

Once there was a town hall official in Cumberland who was so enthralled by the mountains that he walked and walked them, penetrating every byway, surveying every vista. To amuse himself he drew them and wrote about them, year after year. And the more his marriage languished, the more he walked, and drew, and wrote, until the seven volumes of A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells were complete. His public grew and grew, following in his steps, his books in their hands, until the paths through the dales and up the fellsides were ground deeply into stony grooves, and the man himself was heard to wonder if he had ‘helped to spoil the place’.

A typical double-page spread from one of Wainwright’s guides consists of a densely-woven montage, half-map, half-picture. Inspect it closely and it turns into a wonderfully clear instruction on how to find, then climb a Lakeland mountain or walk through a Northern dale. A wedge of hand-lettered text, cunningly shaped to fit the spaces between the pictures, describes the terrain. It is packed with knowledge, salted with asides to the reader, spiked with warnings against falling off or getting lost. An assortment of facts and captions is pieced into any neuk that remains. The vignettes themselves depict a looming massif, instantly recognisable, garnished with one or two wee extras – a stark outcrop, a slatestone pillar like a totem, a lone barn, a rock-mouth funnelling down into the bowel of the limestone.

If you read closely between the lines of Wainwright’s treatment of the Buttermere fell called Haystacks in his Western Fells of 1966 – the seventh book of his series on the Lakeland fells – a physical and emotional identity between the man and the place begins to stare out at you:

Seen from a distance, these qualities [‘great charm’ and ‘fairyland attractiveness’] are not suspected: indeed, on the contrary, the appearance of Haystacks is almost repellent when viewed from the higher surrounding peaks: black are its bones and black is its flesh. With its thick covering of heather it is dark and sombre even when the sun sparkles the waters of its many tarns, gloomy and mysterious even under a blue sky. There are fierce crags and rough screes and outcrops that will be grittier still when the author’s ashes are scattered here.

   Yet the combination of features, of tarn and tor, of cliff and cove, the labyrinth of comers and recesses, the maze of old sheepwalks and paths, form a design, or a lack of design, of singular appeal and absorbing interest. One can forget even a raging toothache on Haystacks.

This is him – this is the man himself. He was reclusive and hard to know, surly and taciturn. He liked to walk alone and in perfect silence, even when a rare companion (such as his second wife, Betty) was allowed to go along with him. He was ashamed of his own unattractiveness, as he saw it: his inability to chat, his coarse red hair, which he ceased to hate only when it turned into a white mane. In a Scots word, he was crabbit – which shares that fricative ‘cr-’ with so many kindred words: crusty, cross-grained, crag, craggy, crozzley, crooked.

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