Interview Series

Mark Richards, Author of Walking the Lakeland Fells

More words must have been written about the Lake District than any other equivalent mountain area in Britain, if not the world. The guidebook literature alone surely runs to hundreds of volumes. In terms of comprehensive coverage in pocket-friendly format, Alfred Wainwright's guides set a high bar decades ago, with their distinctive style making much use of painstaking pen-and-ink drawings. But though Wainwright continues to have his devotees, his was a project very much of its time, and everything needs updating eventually.

Mark on Place Fell  © Mark Richards
Mark on Place Fell
© Mark Richards

Enter Mark Richards. Drawing from the same wellspring as his predecessor - indeed an elderly Wainwright actively encouraged the younger man - in the late 1990s Richards set about producing his own illustrated guides to the fells, the Lakeland Fellranger series.

Now undergoing a full revamp from publisher Cicerone Press, with the new title Walking the Lake District Fells, this series of eight pocket sized guides delves into the Cumbrian hills in fine detail. The strapline, all the fells, all the routes, points to the intention.

Each covering a logical slice of the Lake District, the books deal individually with every major (and some less major) fell in Cumbria, offering a breakdown of the many routes to its summit. There's always more than one way to skin a cat, after all, and in promoting some of the less obvious and less-trodden routes Mark Richards aims to do a service both to the environment (encouraging less concentration of footfall) and to readers who may fancy a change.

To augment the map extracts, detailed-but-clear line drawings provide a more visual representation of each fell. Wainwright's influence is clear in the drawing style, but it's fair to say that Mark Richards has made the medium his own.

Producing a series this ambitious must have been quite an effort, both on the ground and at the desk, and Richards has to know the Cumbrian fells more intimately than most. When he's not beavering away on guidebooks, he presents a regular Cumbrian-flavoured podcast, Countrystride.

As lockdown eases (for better or worse) and thoughts turn back towards the fells, the time seemed right to chat with Mark about all things Lake District-related.

Spread from the Wasdale guide
© Cicerone

Wainwright encouraged me to think of my love of line illustration as part and parcel of the guidebook creation process

When did you first start walking in the Lakes?

My earliest memories of walking on the Lakeland fells stem back to the late 1960s when I joined Gloucestershire Mountaineering Club. Those were formative times for me in the hills, learning from experienced hillgoers' and climbers' genuine mountain craft. I enjoyed weekend hut meets primarily in North Wales, but one especially memorable winter weekend took me to Great Langdale, when I climbed on Raven Crag above the ODG and on the Sunday ascended Bowfell via The Band. It's hard to describe the elation of such amazing encounters. I remember just tiny snippets of the rock climb and that moment the cloud parted as I came down from Ore Gap when through a window in the ferment I saw Pike o'Stickle perfectly framed. I learnt from that split second sighting that even horrid weather has its rewards.

As hillwalking destinations go, what, for you, is particularly special about the Lake District?

The Lake District embraces everything in the human spirit – thrilling adventure and artistic beauty, utterly unique to this one corner of England. I instinctively wanted to wander over those hills and saw beauty at every turn - a sensation I only occasionally felt when in Wales.

Descending from Crag Hill  © Mark Richards
Descending from Crag Hill
© Mark Richards

Have you any favourite fells or routes?

Like many another I say it depends on the day, rather after the stamp of that view from Ore Gap! There are places that I adore unfailingly like the Hall's Fell ridge on Blencathra, Pen on the east flank of Scafell Pike or the raw natural grandeur in several of the wilder combes, such as Nethermost Cove.

How did you meet Alfred Wainwright, and what was it that inspired you to follow in his footsteps - both in terms of guidebook writing, and your common interest in pen-and-ink drawings?

I met AW as the result of a family friend sending him several of the drawings I'd given her as gifts, seeking his opinion on my work. As they show, he was a great influence on my drawing style. An exchange of letters led to me paying him a visit and that quickly spiralled into regular weekend stays with him and his then new wife, sharing his research walks. The first set of weekends were in quick succession as he stitched the middle and therefore final part of his Coast to Coast Walk together in 1971.

Each book in the series took 12 months. Frankly, it was a bonkers task

I had been drawing in pen & ink through my teens but AW gave me a practical purpose to my hobby. Inevitably he encouraged me to think of my love of line illustration as part and parcel of the guidebook creation process. So he suggested I did a guide to my local long distance path the Cotswold Way, which was opened in 1970 and still didn't have a proper guide. As it happens this is the fiftieth year since the original route was opened and I plan to go down in May and prepare a Countrystride podcast with the current trail officer, retracing the very first research walk I did… memory lane.

On Haystacks  © Mark Richards
On Haystacks
© Mark Richards

When was the original Fellranger series born, and how long did it take to research and produce?

In 1998 I felt that sufficient time had elapsed since Wainwright's passing for a refreshed series to arise to serve a new generation. His place in history was secure, his work the documentary statement of a time and that of a uniquely talented man.

Fellranger popped into my head while I was still living in the Cotswolds. I had long felt AW was quietly handing me a baton though didn't have the publishing support I really needed to expand organically the way I had wished and it was now a quarter of a century on. He had encouraged me to follow the Cotswolds Way with a series of guides to the South West Peninsula Coast Path, and while I started producing a pen & ink guide to the North Cornwall Coast Path, I found getting an appropriate publisher impossible and that guide - published by the Cheltenham-based imprint who did the Cotswold Way guide with me, with no wide connections - went out of print after three years!

Cicerone's founder Walt Unsworth saw my subsequent Offa's Dyke Path guide and invited me to do a trio of guides to the Peak District followed by Hadrian's Wall, but little else was happening so approaching my half century I made the monumental decision to propose to a national publisher a totally new series of practical guides to the fells.

I approached Harper Collins. To my surprise and considerable delight they gave the idea a green light, bolstered with an advance and a timescale to embark. From Oxfordshire it soon dawned that the schedule was too challenging and I had to convince my long-suffering family to move north. After four guides were completed Collins saw that the Wainwright guides were getting a facelift and smartly passed the publishing rights on to Cicerone for £1. I was understandably grateful to Jonathan Williams of Cicerone for his faith in my work and equal belief in the idea. He naturally required the half-complete series rejigged to match Cicerone's style, and invited me to do a one-off title in advance which I called Great Mountain Days in the Lake District. This book immediately found its feet, and continues to this day.

With renewed energy the series was kick-started. Each title consumed every second of a twelve-month period to both physically research every rush and craglet of each fell and write and meticulously graphically construct diagrams, summit panoramas and adapted Harvey maps. Quite frankly it was a bonkers task that no right-minded soul would undertake. But I did, inspired by AW's industry and focus. I knew it would be transformative on a personal level and ultimately rewarding to fellow walkers discovering the magic of the fells too.

For me each fell was virgin territory. I paid no attention to other guides, I simply ventured forth scrutinising a Harvey map and plotted routes that I felt best explored the different aspects of each fell. Many naturally were time-honoured routes/paths though often I would respond to the fell's lure and craft a line of my own invention. All very much in a spirit of discovery.

Langdale cover  © Cicerone

When did you start working on the new series?

Though the re-born series with Cicerone was completed in 2013, sales far from matched expectations. So it was inevitable that either the concept was dropped like a stone or the series was dynamically re-invented, ground-up. That process began early in 2019 and all my energies were thrown back into re-exploring the fells… what pleasures lay in store. But the timescale was even more daunting than before as Cicerone was now allowing only two years for the whole eight volume project!

Can you explain some of the thinking behind the series?

The original name 'Fellranger' derived from the way I dissected the upland area into natural fell ranges. This explains why there were eight divisions, as I broke up Wainwright's Southern Fells by splicing upon the Wrynose and Hard Knott Passes and including the upland down the Duddon to Black Combe. Hence I had a novel extra area name to invent, so I used the American term 'Mid-Western'.

The drive behind the guides was that same sense of thoroughness that Wainwright sought to project, hence they now carry the strapline "All the Fells - All the Routes". Not that any treatment can ever be truly complete, that would be a nonsense. The liberty to construct one's own spatial appreciation of the area should be the impulse of all walkers. But the new guides are an entry point for anyone new to this fabulous mountain domain to create great day walks or cross-country journeys to suit one's own aspirations and importantly best react to prevailing conditions and adapt one's route armed with the guide.

Too many people venture onto the fells armed with nothing more than their smartphone, battery-life and adverse weather making them vulnerable. Making on-the-spot decisions on the best route to suit one's circumstances needs either the companionship of a real person who knows the terrain or can use a map and compass or at the very least a physical guidebook in one's hand that tells you where to go, and this is something that these new guides try to do.

Slaters Bridge  © Mark Richards
Slaters Bridge
© Mark Richards

Can you tell us a bit more about your drawing?

The guidebook series includes drawn topos, what I call fellscapes. These bird's eye concept drawings help express various aspect of the fells and the relationship of the ascent routes - otherwise depicted on the accompanying Harvey maps.

Apart from a couple of prime summit situations all my original drawn panoramas are downloadable online from the Cicerone 'Fellranger' website.

What about the podcast?

While all my early guides were liberally full of my linescape drawings they now only see the light of day on the podcast site I share with David Felton The emerging podcast work is one I greatly enjoy, for the life of the fells and Cumbria at large is all about people and their appreciation for being in this historic and visually beautiful county. I am therefore fortunate to be able to develop this new strand of my creative energy. Once these new more practical guides are complete I will have lots of scope to delve more deeply into the riches of the fells in a far more congenial way.

What do you consider the key challenges and pressures facing the Lake District as we enter the 2020s?

The Lake District will always face challenges, commercialism and climate change at the top of the in-tray pile. Clogged-up roads with a paucity of public transport are notable matters that need addressing. But so long as people are at liberty to wander on foot and witness for themselves its restorative and inspirational value, I hope it will survive as a place worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage Site cultural landscape inscription.

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