September 1938. The Munich Crisis. Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. Europe teeters on the brink of war. In England, people are forming civil defence units and preparing for the conflict that will begin if Hitler’s demands are not met by his deadline: October 1. And Alfred Wainwright, a clerk in the Blackburn Borough Engineering Department, takes his annual holiday despite the fact that he is suffering from what he calls “a mild influenza”: a 200-mile walk from the Yorkshire town of Settle to Hadrian’s Wall and back. Published nearly 50 years after the events it recounts, A Pennine Journey is the story of Wainwright’s eleven-day journey north on the eastern side of the Pennines and then back south on the western side.
It might seem like an odd time to leave one’s wife and children and head off on a long journey on foot when the world is on the brink of war, but for Wainwright the escape seems to have been a necessity. “I was free,” Wainwright recalls of his first day of walking:
For months I had been in chains, body, mind and soul. So complete a bondage was new to me; my body is a prisoner always save for a few days each year, but my mind and soul are seldom captive. Yet latterly they too had seemed fettered; they had been in the grip of a fearsome monster we called Crisis.
Well, I was away from it all. How sweet was the realization, not until this moment fully comprehended!
I was a free man on the hills again.
And, for the 32-year-old Wainwright, the outbreak of war would surely mean one thing: he would end up in the army, another form of bondage. Perhaps his journey was intended as one last experience of freedom before he surrendered to the necessities of national service.
Wainwright is a romantic, a lover of the hills and mountains of northern England, particularly the Lake District. He is a connoisseur of landscapes, judging the dales and villages he walks through according to their beauty and often finding them lacking in some essential aspect. He is also a committed walker, covering distances of more than 20 miles through difficult terrain without carrying a bottle of water, a flask of tea, or even a sandwich. As a result, he’s typically famished when he reaches his destination. I would be, too.
I have friends who think they travel lightly, but Wainwright puts them to shame: all he carries in his small haversack is a rain cape, a razor, a few pairs of extra socks, his maps, and a toothbrush. It’s incredible that he could walk for almost two weeks without changing his shirt, but (as L.P. Hartley wrote) the past is a foreign country, and people do things differently there. Plus, when it rains he gets soaked, despite his rain cape, and perhaps that’s close enough to doing laundry. Note that Wainwright doesn’t get a bath during his journey, either, despite a few unfortunate encounters with peat bogs while crossing moors. “I was filthy,” he notes, “so filthy that I was beginning to itch.” No doubt.
Wainwright is so excited by seeing Hadrian’s Wall–the chapter where he describes his day walking along the wall is filled with rapturous prose–that his return to Settle is rather disappointing. The weather doesn’t help: while he’s walking south, a tremendous gale and rainstorm causes flooding all over England, and Wainwright has to take shelter for most of the day in an inn–luckily, one of the nicer ones he stayed in. I found myself wondering if his approach to accommodations was typical of vacationers in the 1930s. Wainwright had made no arrangements in advance, and when he arrived in a village, he would either ask to rent a room at the local pub, or else he would stop in at the village shop and/or post office and ask if anyone took in visitors. Sometimes that’s how he manages to find meals as well. I can’t imagine that approach working today, with so many more people travelling (not on foot, of course), and so many more rules and regulations about serving food to paying guests.
By the end of his life (he died in 1991), Wainwright had produced more than 40 books, all about the hills of northern England. His ambition on the walk he writes about here was to produce a book of landscape photographs, using his Brownie box camera. Some technical error on his part resulted in the photographs of his walk north being ruined, so that plan came to nothing, but on his return journey, he decided to turn his notes into a book over the winter. It would be a way to relive his journey, he suggests, long after its conclusion and his return to the office and its “bondage.” However, A Pennine Journey wasn’t published until 1986, nearly 50 years after Wainwright completed his walk.
I don’t think it would be unfair to describe Wainwright as an eccentric, and at one point he acknowledges that others find him odd:
A strange thing, but nobody ever said to me: ‘I wish I could be like you’, nor, now I come to think of it, can I recall anyone regarding me with even mild admiration. Strange, yet, for though I do not profess to have all the virtues I consider myself immeasurably superior to most men; and it seems even stranger now that I come to write of it. Next time I am on a hilltop, I must ponder the problem. But I am grossly misjudged. Not so very long ago, a gentle maiden related to me that she had told her mother I was mad. She spoke ever so quietly, yet quite bluntly; she was so convinced that it did not occur to her that I might be inclined to dispute the assertion; she was stating an obvious fact, not inviting comment. . . . But I am not mad. I like to consider myself a thwarted genius. There is comfort in the thought, and a thwarted genius need not go to the trouble of explaining his conduct to himself.
Mad or not, these days Wainwright has a number of admirers, even followers, since it’s possible to walk a route not unlike the one he took to Hadrian’s Wall and back, a route described online. Of course, since Wainwright often walked on roads–roads which have become busy highways in the 80 years since his journey–it’s not possible to walk in his exact footsteps. One could try, I suppose, but in England, highways lack shoulders, and there is no place for pedestrians (as I’ve learned from experience) except in the lane with speeding traffic. And that’s not conducive to comfortable, or safe, walking.
I’m impressed enough by A Pennine Journey that I would like to make the contemporary version of his walk. I have one of his other books, a guide to the Pennine Way (England’s first long-distance walking path), and his drawings there are quite charming. I wonder what his photographs are like; in the 1950s he published a number of books of photographs of the Lake District. True, his prose is sometimes leaden and his views of women belong back in 1938, if not earlier, but A Pennine Journey is a worthwhile read.