On the Dales trail of a true pioneer

Chris Jesty, the man charged with revising Wainwright's walking guides to the Dales, didn't know the area before he began his epic mission, but quickly fell in love with Dentdale.
Chris Jesty, the man charged with revising Wainwright's walking guides to the Dales, didn't know the area before he began his epic mission, but quickly fell in love with Dentdale.
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The celebrated Lake District author Alfred Wainwright wrote just one walking guide to the Yorkshire Dales. Now, for the first time in over 40 years, it has been completely revised. Roger Ratcliffe talks to the man charged with following in his footsteps.

Yorkshire’s limestone country is a land full of surprises, wrote Alfred Wainwright. But unlike the lavishly displayed beauty around his Lakeland home the delights of the Dales have to be sought on foot. “Its charms are shyly hidden. Those who seek and find them are often enslaved. Yet few visitors come looking: the moors and the wild places remain quiet. The curlew cries and the lark sings, but there are few wanderers afoot to hear their call.”

Chris Jesty at the entrance to Lost John's Cave on Leck Fell, near Ireby.

Chris Jesty at the entrance to Lost John's Cave on Leck Fell, near Ireby.

That may have been the case when he penned those typically poetic words back in 1970, but these days visit somewhere like Malham Cove on a fine weekend and you’ll see as many people milling around as you would in Piccadilly Circus. Meanwhile Walks in Limestone Country, the book containing Wainwright’s paean to the Dales, has racked up more than 100,000 sales to become the best-selling Yorkshire walking guide of all time. Also the most-loved, on Desert Island Discs it was the comedian and folk singer Mike Harding’s choice of book to read on the fabled island. But it has long been out of date, as has the companion volume, Walks on the Howgill Fells, published in 1972 and covering adjacent hills to the north of Dentdale. Although these landscapes look as though they never change that’s not the case with footbridges and footpaths, walls and fences, gates and stiles, so much so that both books have finally been revised for a new generation of walkers.

Wainwright died in 1991 at the age of 84, and for decades he was an enigmatic – even a cult – figure because of his unique handwritten Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells which began appearing in 1955. After retiring as Borough Treasurer of Kendal he had become reclusive, but in the late 1980s he was enticed into the limelight for a brief period of TV fame. So far, his Lakeland guides have sold well over two million copies.

The person given the epic job of following in Wainwright’s footsteps was Chris Jesty, an Ordnance Survey-trained cartographer and former taxi driver. Jesty was anointed by Wainwright himself as the one to revise his books, but with the stipulation that nothing be published while he was still alive. The first of the seven-volume Lakeland guides began appearing in 2005, followed by further books on the outlying fells, the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast Walk. Computer software allowed the author’s distinctive handwriting to be digitised into a font, making Jesty’s numerous revisions barely noticeable against the original text.

As did Wainwright, Jesty lives in Kendal. However, he admits to hardly knowing the Yorkshire Dales before his revision of Walks in Limestone Country. The work has left him with a love of Dentdale, on the far western edge of the National Park, he says, and a particular liking for waterfalls. He was impressed by 40ft-high Scaleber Force, near Settle, the series of water leaps known as Cautley Spout in the Howgills, and was especially taken by the famous Ingleton waterfalls walk.

Wainwright described his Lakeland guides as “love letters to the fells”, whereas Jesty admits to being more pragmatic than romantic. “To be honest, I didn’t really think about the landscape. I just got on with the job. A lot of changes were required and I had to concentrate. Things like stiles where Wainwright said there was a gate and vice versa, and fences appearing where there had been none in Wainwright’s day. He wasn’t a respecter of rights of way in some places, so I had to go to great lengths to find out who owned the land on which he had drawn a footpath.”

Like Wainwright, Jesty preferred to do his walking alone. The presence of other walkers made it harder for him to concentrate, he says, and to avoid them he would leave home as early as 1.30am in summer in order to arrive at the start of a walk at first light. He made an exception when the TV presenter Griff Rhys Jones wanted to join him while filming his series Mountain, and when Julia Bradbury accompanied him for an episode of Wainwright Walks.

He worked with A4-sized enlargements of the original maps overlaid with Permatrace, on which he meticulously pencilled alterations to the route and inserted annotations to show features like bridges and gates. A piece of equipment Wainwright would probably have loved – a GPS navigation device using satellite technology – allowed him to obtain precise bearings and check everything against the Ordnance Survey maps.

Some walks gave him a headache. One route near Settle which passes through what Wainwright called “The Happy Valley” turned out to be badly named. The landowner was less than happy about walkers using the path and put up “Private” signs. Jesty had to circumvent this by taking the path across Open Access land to the south.

Even more problematic was the rerouting of the hugely popular Three Peaks walk since Wainwright drew his map back in 1970. Between the summits of Penyghent and Whernside there have been significant changes to the path, not least a recent diversion to avoid the notorious quagmire of Black Dub Moss, and a long loop from Ribblehead across Blea Moor to approach the top of Yorkshire’s highest mountain from the north instead of – as in the original edition – the south east.

“That was the most difficult change to accommodate in the book,” Jesty says, “because the new route went right out of the area covered by Wainwright’s maps. In the end, I had to admit defeat and add an asterisked note describing where the new route goes and explain that it wasn’t possible to include on the map.”

This was an unsatisfactory though unavoidable solution, according to Jesty, but to add a brand new section of map would have looked jarringly out of place against Wainwright’s own meticulous cartography.

It is a measure of Jesty’s achievement 
that he has managed to weave in 
hundreds of smaller changes without detracting from the charm of the books. Indeed, anyone who has used the originals for years will at first glance find it hard to spot any difference beyond one radical change – the footpaths are now shown in red.

Perhaps the biggest change of all in the 40-odd years since Wainwright walked his Limestone Country routes is the admission charge for enjoying the Ingleton Waterfalls walk. In 1970, Wainwright paid one shilling (or five pence) for the privilege. Today, according to Jesty’s new edition, the cost is £6 for adults, £3 for children, and £14 for families.

The famously frugal Wainwright may well have been horrified.

• The revised editions of Walks in Limestone Country and Walks on the Howgill Fells are published by Frances Lincoln, price £13.99 each. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.