There are many who worship the ground Wainwright walked on. Many who live by his little guide books consider him the Daddy of the Lake District fells. Grown men kneel before him, women cast themselves in front of steam trains in an act of sacrifice. Wainwright, to his devotees, is a god. A legend.
I don’t believe in pushing over statues for the sake of it, but I’ve always found this adoration a bit peculiar. When the BBC first aired Wainwright – the Man Who Loved the Lakes, I found myself presented with knowledge that justified my suspicions. Most people will admit that the man was grumpy. They’ll tell you in an affectionate way, a nod and a wink, what a miserable old sod he was.
To me he was simply odd. An obsessive. He was also incapable of looking after himself and relied on a succession of women to feed and clothe him. First his mother, then his wife Ruth Holden, followed by his second wife Betty McNally. According to Wainwright’s biographer Hunter Davies, Wainwright spent so much time on the fells because he wanted to avoid his first wife. Now, unless she was a bit handy with the rolling pin you have to feel sorry for this woman who doesn’t appear to have been invited by Wainwright to share his love of the fells. It’s easy to condemn from a distance, no one knows what went on behind closed doors during his first marriage, but a man blessed with virtually unlimited access to one of the most beautiful places on earth might have been left with a bit more compassion for the people around him.
And it’s that indifference, the single minded selfishness, blinkered egotism dressed in self-pitying humility that cooks my goose. Wainwright complained about people being on the fells, but spent most evenings of his adult life creating guidebooks to get the bastards up there in the first place. Here was a man who wanted his cake, wanted to eat it, and then wanted someone, preferably a woman, to tidy up the table after him while he set off for the top of Great Gable for the tenth time.
I can almost hear the gnashing of teeth from Wainwright’s admirers and supporters. Maybe they know the man better than me. If anyone can show me a side to Wainwright that explains his weird behaviour and contradictory attitudes towards human beings then I’m all ears, but for now I’ll continue to climb the fells using guide books by Cicerone and OS maps. If you want to adulate a mysoginistic curmudgeon that’s your choice. I prefer my heroes to have a touch of humanity about them. A big heart never cost anything.