Alfred Wainwright

17 January 1907 – 20 January 1991

Described by his friend and fellow outdoor writer, Mark Richards, as “The proverbial ‘Mr Grumpy’” Alfred Wainwright was a quiet, publicity averse individual who nevertheless became one of the Lake District’s most famous sons. His series of “Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells” have provided thousands of fell walkers with the information they need to reach the summits of 214 peaks, now commonly referred to as “Wainwrights.”


Alfred Wainwright

Alfred Wainwright / Homer Sykes,

Alfred Wainwright was born in January 1907 in Blackburn. His father, a stonemason, was reportedly an alcoholic, resulting in the family living in relative poverty. Despite his difficult childhood, Wainwright did well at school, particularly in art. Consequently, when he left school at aged 13 he was able secure a job at the local council as an office boy, a significant achievement for a young man with his background. He continued to study during his employment, and eventually became an accountant. It was during this time that Wainwright had his first foray into publishing. He would create magazines for his colleagues, filled with jokes, stories, and drawings.

In 1913, he wed Ruth Holden, but the marriage was not a happy one. Whilst Wainwright was always a keen walker, his unhappy marriage led him to take longer and longer walks, taking him away from the family home. In 1930, he visited the Lake District and climbed Orrest Head near Windermere. He later wrote how he “gazed in disbelief at the loveliness around me.” He became so bewitched by the Cumbrian landscape that he moved to Kendal, having secured a job as an accountant assistant in the local council, despite it involving a significant pay cut. He would eventually become Borough Treasure of Kendal, and remained in this position until his retirement. During his spare time, he spent hours walking the Cumbrian fells, plotting the routes for what would later form his most famous work, “Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells”.

In 1967, with divorce no longer being considered quite so taboo, Ruth left Wainwright, suspecting him of having an affair. His second marriage to Betty McNally was far happier, and the two spent many hours walking the fells together. Whilst Wainwright continued to have moderate success with his publications, it was during the 1980s that he became a more recognisable celebrity, appearing in documentaries about walking on the BBC. Wainwright never sought fame, instead taking the television roles in order to raise money for an animal sanctuary. In 1991, Wainwright suffered a heart attack and passed away at age 84.


After moving to Kendal in 1941, Wainwright set himself the task of discovering everything he could about the Lakeland fells. He wrote guides to 214 peaks, with detailed drawings and notes about the landscapes. Initially, the guides were for his own personal use and reference, however, he later decided to publish, starting with Book One of “Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells” released in 1955.

A further five books followed. Wainwright would later go on to publish a similar guide to the Pennine Way, and plotted a new route, the Coast to Coast walk that started in St Bees in Cumbria and ended at Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire. His guides have remained popular since their initial publication and have encourage thousands of people to reach the Lakeland summits.

Links to the Lake District

Wainwright fell in love with the Lake District during a visit to Orrest Head near Windermere. His move to the area in 1941 allowed him to explore the national park in full, and he spent many hours walking in order to produce his guides. In addition to being a keen walker, Wainwright had a high regard for animals, and used much of the proceeds from his television work and publications to create a new animal sanctuary in Kendal originally called Kapellan, but now known as Animal Rescue Cumbria – The Wainwright Shelter.

Sites of Interest

Climb any peak in the Lake District and you are most certainly following in Alfred Wainwright’s footsteps. However, his most favourite fell was almost certainly Haystacks above Buttermere. His final wish was to have his ashes scattered there, writing “And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boots as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.” His wife Betty fulfilled that wish, and today in the village of Buttermere there is memorial to Alfred Wainwright in the church.