A walk on the wild side

It is the end of a fine September day in Blanchland. As the light fades in the deserted village square the only movement is a strange young man wearing a sports coat, flannels and carrying a small rucksack, swaying slightly by the arch. The date is September 28, 1938, and the man is an exhausted and hungry Alfred Wainwright, who has spent the entire day walking over the moors from Westgate.

Alfred Wainwright as a young man
Alfred Wainwright as a young man

The publication of Wainwright's first Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells is still 16 years into the future, but already the 31-year-old Alfred loves to walk. And in 1938 he was in the Pennines, "truanting" as he put it from the constant fear of impending war and the unending talk of looming crisis. Intended as a personal account, A Pennine Journey was the story of his walk to Hadrian's Wall. The pages would gather dust in a drawer, unpublished for nearly 50 years, but the evening Wainwright walked into Blanchland was one that stayed with him all his life.

Wainwright begins by describing his route over the moors: "My map suggested that I should find nothing better than a rough path between Rookhope and Blanchland, but recently a motor road has been constructed over the felltop. This was not pleasant to walk on, but the hardness of its surface was more than compensated by its colour. The road wound before me like a pink ribbon, but looked at closely, it was not pink at all, but of many hues. The chippings used are neither limestone or granite, but of a substance like mica or quartz, remarkable for its transparency and delicate tints. I picked a handful at random from a pile by the roadside, and studied them. There were crystals of purple and turquoise and emerald and pink, and others that glittered like cut glass..."

What better material for a new road across the moor than crushed fluorspar, tossed as so much waste onto spoil heaps by the 19th Century lead miners? The 'spar road must have been a dazzling sight as Wainwright reached the top of the heather-clad moorland just as the sun set: "The evening was still; there was not a sound to disturb the tranquility of the peaceful scene... I alone was priviledged, and I was a man made conscious of his soul."

But while the soul was soaring, the Wainwright soles were just sore: "I must have presented a sorry spectacle as I came slowly down the hill into Hunstanworth, for I was very weary and my legs were so much out of control that they acted quite independently of my wishes."

Tired as he is, he's still able to enjoy the final leg of the journey: "I was amongst trees again, great oaks and beeches and elms, and they spread a carpet of leaves for a welcome; there were pleasant pastures around me, and the scent of hay. The mist had gone; only the haze of twilight remained over the land, a gentle coverlet for a lovely sleeper."

By the time he reaches Blanchland, a sort of delirium has taken hold of the weary Wainwright: "When you set foot in Blanchland, you step into the Middle Ages... you feel oddly out of place as you wander through the old stone arch and enter the square courtyard which is the heart of the village..."

Blanchland Square from the arch
Blanchland Square around the time Wainwright stayed. George Ellison

But instead of imagining scenes of a contemplative monastic life, Wainwright thinks Blanchland has been some sort of medieval army barracks, calling it an "old-world military camp", and saying that instead of walking in with a rucksack... "you should gallop in on a fiery steed, bending low to avoid the arch, and pull up with a flourish amid a cloud of dust."

As he wanders round Blanchland in the failing light, "...the magic moment when it is neither day nor night", Wainwright's imagination is in full flight: "A sports coat and flannels make you grotesque here; clanking armour is the men's wear. Your walking stick should be a glittering lance."

He calls in at the shop - probably Carr's which occupied the Blanchland Stores premises in those days: "It was almost odd to see the shopkeeper weighing potatoes on modern scales for a woman who waited; and I was still so much under the spell that if, when I asked for cigarettes, the man had smiled queerly and told me that Raleigh wasn't born yet..."

Wainwright is directed towards Mrs Elliott's cottage as a place to get a meal and rest his head for the night. Mrs Elliot, according to 93-year-old Hilda Everitt (who sadly died on New Year's Day 2009), was well-known in the village for her culinary skills; she used to provide the food for the Saturday night dances at The Angel.

Mrs Elliott's house

"In the morning light I could see the room better. It was not remarkable, except for the huge cavernous fireplace which was let into the wall of the house to a depth of three feet. On the fire, on the hob, hanging from hooks suspended from the interior of the chimney, were half a dozen kettles and pans, and there was room for many more. The old woman was never away from the fire; it was the centre of her little establishment; every excursion she made either started there or ended there. It was the depth of the fireplace that made me notice the thickness and strength of the house. These are built of large blocks of stone, and in vertical layers, so that a few layers could be stripped off and still the house would be intact. There are enough stones in the walls to build four cottages of the same size. The doorway itself, which leads directly into the front room, is deep enough to be called a passage."

After a satisfying supper, Wainwright has collapsed into an armchair by the fire, Mrs Elliott's "rosy-cheeked, white-haired" husband has gone out, and the lady herself settles down to peg a rug.

But even here, in the flickering firelight of a Blanchland cottage 70 years ago, there is no refuge from events gathering momentum around the world: "A youngish woman, a neighbour, came in with the news that the Prime Minister, the French premier, Mussolini and Hitler were to meet at Munich tomorrow. This was staggering, stupendous news; history was being made with a vengeance these days. Yet the only effect of the startling announcement on me was to make me feel cosier than ever."