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.

Wainwright wrote and drew himself onto his pages with an unequalled completeness and an obstinate devotion. His prose is old-fashioned and could be mistaken in snatches for Victorian English – ‘gloomy and mysterious’, ‘of singular appeal’. Earlier in The Western Fells, Great Gable is described as ‘a harsh and desolate peak thrust high in the sky above the profound depths all around’. In the conclusion to the third book in the same series, The Central Fells, he waxes nearly Wordsworthian: ‘an inexpressible humility fills the heart ... I must hasten now to the Scafells, noblest of Lakeland’s cathedrals, while good health and appreciation of beauty and simple reverence and gratitude remain with me, for when I have lost these blessings I shall have little left.’

He likes to address his readers directly, even while he labours to instruct them. His remark about toothache being forgotten on Haystacks is characteristic. In The Central Fells he draws himself, foregrounded, in a vista of Raven Crag Thirlmere, with the pawky aside that this is meant to be ‘a special treat for readers’. In the conclusion to The Western Fells he sets up a familiarity with his readers when he assures them that although the main series is now complete, ‘I also have a good title for another book: FELLWANDERER.’ This is all the more Dickensian for being commercially long-headed as well as endearingly matey.

Wainwright’s close-grained determination to incorporate himself into the Cumberland and Westmorland that he so loved shows through poignantly in his reference to the scattering of his ashes on Haystacks. Fellwanderer (1966) ends with these sentences:

But time is running out. Every day that passes is a day less. That day will come when there is nothing left but memories. And afterwards, a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone.

Then, as this threatens to become too Little Nell, he adds: ‘And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.’ And so it might. As Hunter Davies tells us in this first, thorough biography of the man, two months after he died in January 1991 at the age of 84, his wife and an old friend, both in their 70th year, climbed up to the tarn at seven in the morning by way of Honister old quarry and consigned his dust to that hummocky moorland.

When I took on Haystacks and its cliffs for the Fell & Rock Climbers’ guidebook to Buttermere eight years ago, I tried to evoke the bristling stature of the place, drawing on my own experience of its trickling and collapsing gullies, which few people have penetrated. I wrote that it was a ‘handsome mass of mountain, deeply gullied, spurred with broken buttresses, the first of which hides a fine hard climb in its oozing innards – a route that has everything – areas that make Lego look solid, avalanches of flowers, and a traditional chimneying pitch of tremendous stature’. The Club didn’t like it at all – too literary, and too favourable to places that lacked the clean-cut glamour of Napes Needle or Gimmer Crag in Great Langdale.

I got my way, with difficulty. Wainwright’s feat was to dispense with all such mediation. He sent the Westmorland Gazette – a weekly Kendal paper founded by Lord Lowther in 1819 to propagandise against the Radicals – pages that were exactly ready for the press: the correct size, so no reduction or enlargement was needed; hand-drawn and hand-lettered in waterproof Indian ink, so no typesetter was needed; and of course no illustrator. The Gazette, as Hunter Davies recounts in detail, used no middleman, no representatives. They took no advertisements and used no promotion on radio or TV. Their author refused all interviews or appearances until late in his life – although he took that puckish delight in drawing and writing himself into his pages.

Those pages, many hundreds of them – seven guides to the Lakeland fells, five books of Cumbrian mountain drawings, six of Scotland, guides to the Pennine Way, the Yorkshire limestone country, a coast-to-coast walk and on and on – were mostly drawn and written in Wainwright’s evenings. He was Borough Treasurer of Kendal. His small house on the Green had one public room and here he worked while his wife and son, who had nowhere else to go, were made to sit in silence. No telephone, no television. Precious few friends. ‘There was never a single free evening when I didn’t apply myself to the task with the eagerness of a lover.’ When his first wife, Ruth, had some friends to tea and Wainwright came home unexpectedly from the office, she shooed them out of the house: ‘Everybody out,’ she cried, ‘he’s back!’

His son Peter shared Wainwright’s walks when he was a boy. Touching black and white snapshots show him neatly dressed, standing alone in a green trod between limestone walls, dutifully consulting a map. In his fifties he had to retire early, joints swollen with arthritis. Wainright, who died worth a quarter of a million, left him nothing. Davies thinks Peter was resented because he was ‘Ruth’s son’ – and Wainwright had been on Trappist terms with his wife for decades by the time he started secretly courting a prettier, more bourgeois woman and the faithful, selfless Ruth left home at last.

Here is Wainwright’s account of the breakup, from Ex-Fellwanderer (1986): ‘Three weeks before I left the office for good, my wife walked out of the house also for good, unable to tolerate any longer obsessions of mine that left her out in the cold, and I never saw her again. I was not greatly concerned.’ Hunter Davies quotes this and glosses it, or glosses over it, by saying that Wainwright was ‘trying not to hurt the feelings of all concerned’. The economy with the truth here matters more than that. Wainwright had been corresponding passionately with his Betty for two years. Davies has evidence that it was a letter of hers, rashly brought home and found, which drove Ruth from her home. When a separation was negotiated, she undertook to wash and bake for him once a week – he accepted, of course, but she had the spirit to revoke the promise almost at once. They had never been suited. Wainwright breaks the chief rule of decency in these cases – not to miscall your erstwhile partner: ‘I was climbing the ladder to a professional career, but my wife, a mill girl, had no wish to leave the bottom rung.’ In fact Ruth took to holidaying on the Continent, she bred dogs, she read novels (which he did not); and she might have accompanied her man on his endless stravaigs if he had made her welcome. She walked for two and a half hours every afternoon with a woman friend for 21 years, so she was at least fit. But she was a mill girl, and she had no ‘qualifications’, and he despised the Lancashire accent, although he was from Blackburn himself, the fourth child of an alcoholic stonemason and a woman who took in washing.

Wainwright’s deeply compacted and introverted character is what we would want a biography to light up. Hunter Davies at least supplies the information, while eschewing analysis except of the most obvious kind. All that silent, lonely walking, across and down every least co-ordinate of the English highlands – was it chosen or was it perforce? Davies argues for the latter and points out that Wainwright happily organised group outings when he was a young accountant’s clerk. When the couple became estranged, he argues, Wainwright accepted the necessity of being solitary and manufactured virtues from it. It seems more complex than that. I think he embraced the necessity. Assiduously he secreted the hard, thick shell inside which he could be himself. When he at last appeared on television, walking round the Lakes and the Scottish Highlands and sitting down on selected rocks to be plied with interviewers’ prompts, he was comically taciturn. He cut off with perfect readiness from his son, from his first wife, and from his most faithful associate, Henry Marshall, who ran a one-man Wainwright distribution network from his own home for ten years and then was suddenly dropped.

Wainwright was a loner. His habits were frugal in the extreme and monotonous in the extreme. If people called, he never came downstairs. He invariably finished his weekend outings with a solitary fish supper (and took pieces of fish home in his pocket for his beloved cat). He amassed – not coin but miles, paces, summits, routes, stones. This flowed straight into his style, its laboriously minute detail, its sameness from district to district and season to season. He was a master of topography all right, and you have only to compare his work with other professionals in the field, John and Anne Nuttall in their Mountains of England and Wales (1990), for example, to appreciate his mastery. Their drawing style is rectilinear whatever the subject; rocks become blocks and right-angles creep into the skylines. Wainwright does much subtler justice to the variety of rock types and land forms and to do so he had to spend that much more time, take that much more care.

‘Every page of my ledgers should be fit for framing,’ he remarks in Fellwanderer. Here is the juncture where die bookkeeper morphoses into the draughtsman-writer. Every figure in each column must be just so, and so must every stone in every wall and every boulder strewn down every slope. The Lake District is stony, to be sure, textured throughout with granular outcrops and scree-slopes like great robes of tweed. Need they have been drawn quite so speckled and hatched, so dotted and pelleted that the fell-sides begin to seem like cross-sections of some colossal haggis?

By the same token need he have specified each walk quite so minutely?

Take the rising branch-path from the Traverse into Needle Gully, and go up this to the base of the pinnacle; a scrambling track opposite climbs up to a ledge known as the Dress Circle, the traditional balcony for watching the ascent of the Needle. From this ledge a higher traverse can be made along the base of the crags, going below the Cat Rock into Little Hell Gate, but there is a tricky section initially and this is no walk for dogs, small children, well behaved women and the like.

  Midway between the two Hell Gates, Needle Gully and a branch gully, full of scree, cut across the South traverse ... If proceeding west (i.e. from Sty Head) the two rising branch-paths may be followed by mistake without realising that the traverse has been left, they being the more distinct, a circumstance that does not arise when proceeding east.

And so on and so forth, for something like two hundred fells. Should we really treat the exploration of wild country like this? Wainwright doted on the Ordnance Survey maps and used them to plan his walks. I have used them to pick out precise sites for family camps in Harris, Benbecula, Jura, Wester Ross – spotting with their help the windbreaks, the curving beaches, the freshwater sources – then gone there and found them to be so. Is this not as much help as the explorer needs? In the first review of a Wainwright book, Harry Griffin wrote in the Lancashire Evening Post in May 1955 that the author ‘ran the risk of taking all the adventure, the joy of discovery, out of the fells by the very completeness of his work’. There was no stopping him. He was expressing himself – recording his own experience of poring over his beloved uplands – and his books are best treated as a personal record, not as handholding guides to something we will enjoy most fully if we are left to come upon it for ourselves.