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Walking the 214 Lake District Wainwrights

Despite being born in Blackburn, Alfred Wainwright’s name is synonymous with the Lake District and, more importantly, its fells. A keen walker, he wrote, and illustrated, seven books, each entitled: A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, detailing 214 fells in the Lake District, later dubbed the Wainwrights. Unlike other mountain classifications, Wainwrights are not based on height or prominence, rather they are fells that Wainwright deemed important, either in the context in the landscape, or on a more personal level. The other classification of Lake District Mountains, the Birketts, is more scientific, with a Birkett being a fell over 1,000ft within the Lake District. There are 514 Birketts, with all but two of the Wainwrights, Castle Crag (too small) and Mungrisdale Common (obvious should you choose to ascend it), being Birketts. Wainwright’s classification of the fells, however, is the far more well known, and popular of the two, with a large number of people taking years of their lives (or, in the case of elite runners, under a week) completing them all. This, is a story of my completion of the 214 Wainwrights.

In 2007, my parents completed their final Wainwright, The Nab. At this time, I was not into fell walking and had yet to even hear of fell running but, despite that, I had done a number of the Wainwrights with my family. My first Wainwright, Latrigg, was completed at the age of two in the snow, and, according to my parents, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. I completed other small fells, including Nab Scar, Lingmoor Fell and Little Mell Fell, with similar enthusiasm partly due to the sense of adventure but mostly due to the mountain badges that my parents used to make for me after completing a fell. These badges were stuck to my bedroom door and I used to recite the names of each of the fells I had completed before I went to sleep (I still remember the order of them to this day). Over time, however, the charms of the Fells, and the outdoors in general, began to diminish as I slipped sullenly into my teenage years. Efforts from my parents to make going to the fells more appealing: sweets, a post walk café, piking routes I liked and letting me go on the PlayStation afterwards, had limited success, I had no desire to go to the fells

After a long break from walking, I once again went to the fells. My parents took me to do the Skiddaw Horseshoe, a route consisting of five Wainwrights: Ullock Pike, Longside, Carlside, Skiddaw and Bakerstall. I was still an unwilling fell walker at this point but, as we began, I found that the usual boredom and irritation that came from being on the fells absent. By Carlside, the weather was beginning to turn and my parents debated whether or not to turn around, to avoid doing the highest of the fells, Skiddaw, in the worsening conditions. While normally this sort of conversation would have me near giddy with excitement, I felt indifferent to what outcome would occur. I could not yet say I had any love for the fells, but I certainly did not hate them like I used to. My parents decided we would continue, and we did, completing the route. On the drive home, I began to realise just how much I had enjoyed being on those hills. Not for the views, as there had not been any that day, or for any fitness reasons, I played a number of sports to keep fit, but something I could not quite put my finger on. Perhaps at this early stage, I was beginning to feel a sense of belonging in these fells. Once home, I made the snap decision, much to my parents surprise, that like them, I would complete the Wainwrights.

My Wainwright’s journey began, like many people’s does: by acquiring a tick list. With the help of my parents, I meticulous ticked off the fells I had already completed, equating to 37 fells, leaving me 177 fells to complete. My revelation had come at a rather unfortunate time in my life, as I was preparing to leave the Lake District to move down to Wales to begin university. During the remainder of the summer holiday before university, I began working towards my goal, encouraging my parents to take me out onto the fells so as to bag more ticks for my list. Despite being keen on the walking element, I relied on my parents for navigation and planning of the routes, as I assumed that I did not have the skills necessary to do this or to go into the hills by myself. While at the beginning, this was certainly true, unbeknownst to me, as the ticks began to pile up on my list, my knowledge and ability to move on the fells safely, improved.

Walking the Wainwrights

A late snow had meant that the fells were dressed in white. My mum took me to Braithwaite and we ascended Barrow, a small hill just outside of Keswick, together. She had an appointment in Keswick later in the morning. I, did not. The plan was to split at Barrow, I would continue on the Coledale Horseshoe while my mum returned for her appointment. At the summit of Barrow we parted ways, and I began to wonder if I was up to this challenge. It seemed such a simple thing, safe and warm at home, but here, on the fells, it seemed a monumental task. I considered turning around. No doubt I could catch my mum up before she got back to the car and I could do a lower level walk in Keswick while I waited. I do not know what convinced me to continue to walk, but I did, ascending, Causey Pike, Sail and Crag Hill with little difficulty, making sound navigational decisions and keeping an eye out for changes in weather. I chose to miss out Grisedale Pike, for the time I was due to meet back in Braithwaite was growing nearer, and dropped down to the lower level path of Force Crag Mine. Despite never having been on the fells alone, and with no other hill goers in site, I felt safe, never once feeling any unease in being on the fells. In the car home, I enthused to my mum about the beauty of the fells, feeling a new sense of satisfaction. I had walked in the hills, and been self reliant and adaptable. I felt, for the first time, like a proper fell walker.

The ticks piled up on my list and, three years after I began, I only had one left: Whiteside, a moderately sized fell near Crummock water. Despite having dreamed of this moment ever since I decided to do the Wainwrights, I was unsure of how I would feel when I completed my final Wainwright. We ascended the steep side of the fell and soon I was on the summit of my 214th and final Wainwright. My mum presented me with a tube of smarties and a mountain badge (two of my old bribes), and I posed for pictures. The overwhelming feeling of triumph I had expected to feel was not there rather a burning question filled my mind as we descended: What next? In all of my dreams about finishing the Wainwrights I had never thought of what I would do afterwards, or even if I would still go to the fells after. With the triumph of completion, came a sense of loss. Loss of a goal that drove me to go to the fells. It would not be until Fell Running was brought to my attention a year later by my friend completing the legendary Bob Graham Round, that I knew the answer. I would continue to go to the fells, but this time, I would run.

I still look back in pride at my Wainwright journey. Those formative years of learning how to be in the hills, how to read terrain, identify coming changes in weather and to generally stay safe are what allows me to be in these beautiful places today. While now more of a runner than a walker, I am forever grateful for the Wainwirghts and, in particular three formative moments during the completion of them: my parents decision to take two year old me up Latrigg, my parents decision to not turn around on Carlside, and my decision to venture, alone into the snowy fells of the Coledale Horseshoe. Who knows, without these formative moments, if I would still be going to the fells.

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