Coasting along

It’s funny how strange little facts shape your life. Alfred Wainwright wore a size 12 walking boot. My father takes a size 11. These are among the four most influential feet in my life. When I was six years old, my dad took me walking for the first time, tramping over the pampas of Derbyshire. It was also the first time I embarrassed my father in front of other walkers. He reached back to take my hand and I can imagine the flicker of worry that must have passed over his face when he discovered I wasn’t there. Instead, he looked up to see me striding along a top edge, all alone in the distance. “She’s quite independent,” he murmured to strangers as he set off after me.

Wainwright, on the other foot, is responsible for some of the most gratifying and fulfilling times in my television career. When I was first talking about filming the Wainwright Walks series my outdoor-loving dad was naturally delighted. For those who don't know him, Alfred Wainwright is to walking what David Attenborough is to wildlife, a god. His Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells are mini works of art. 

Famously, Wainwright liked to walk alone. When walking in his beloved countryside he would try to avoid eye contact so he wouldn’t get bothered by fellow walkers and fans. As I’ve followed his footsteps, travelling incognito with a camera crew in tow is a little trickier. Any dogs we meet along the way always go for sound-engineer Clare’s big, fluffy boom mike, while Jan Ostrowski, our incredible cameraman, is constantly bombarded with fans of his fabulous photography. None of us mind these encounters. 

But while I can understand Wainwright’s desire for solitude so he could lose himself in the tranquillity and beauty of the scenery, I can also see that there is something about the great British countryside that brings people together. These brief encounters while clambering over hill and dale make for wonderful memories. Take a couple we met when filming Wainwright’s Coast to Coast route. This spectacular cross-England walk was outlined by Wainwright in 1972, and stretches from St Bees on the west coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east. When we met them on our first day of filming they wished to remain anonymous, so let’s call them Freda and Hunter. 

The couple had decided to get engaged on the beach at St Bees, dipping their toes in the sea as is customary. They were to get married en route and take their honeymoon by walking the full 192 miles. How’s that for true outdoor spirit?

We later discovered that they got hitched at Whitehaven and tore up the route, covering so much ground that they traversed distances in 24 hours that would take us (and most normal people) two days at least. They must have averaged 25 or 30 miles a day, and on the few occasions that we managed to catch up with them they were still smiling and bursting with energy. I can even recall a bunch of battered wedding flowers poking out of the bride’s backpack as they scrambled up the first incline of the walk. 

There are times when we escape to the countryside to leave the madness of everyday life behind. Even when the crew and I were out in the hills, we would often separate at sandwich time – each finding their own perch, their own view to relish and get lost in. It’s what attracted Wainwright to the fells in the first place and led to his almost obsessive need to be alone with his thoughts and the views. He would have been appalled to be walking in partnership like Freda and Hunter. Even during the early days of his second, happy, marriage he was reluctant to take his wife, Betty, with him.

Eventually though, even old Wainwright couldn’t resist the lure of companionship and the unique perspective that walking with others can bring. Towards the ends of his life he agreed that Betty could tag along. The only condition was that she walked a few paces behind him and didn’t talk. Who said romance was dead?

Wainwright Walks: Coast to Coast - Northern Souls

This feature was taken from issue 20 of Countryfile Magazine on sale now. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.


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