A man for all sea­sons

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor - Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

PAS­SION for the English coun­try­side is of­ten char­ac­terised as an at­tribute of the com­fort­ably off—the easy en­thu­si­asm of the priv­i­leged. How­ever, as we marked the pass­ing of Walt Unsworth this month, we were cel­e­brat­ing the all-per­va­sive­ness of this English love af­fair. Born in Ard­wick, a run­down area of Manch­ester, evac­u­ated to the out­skirts of Wi­gan and work­ing as a teacher in de­prived sec­ondary mod­ern schools, he was a gruff north­erner who, against the odds, chose to ded­i­cate his life to the Cum­brian hills.

Noth­ing in his early up­bring­ing made this likely, yet his love for that rough-hewn land­scape be­came the driving force of his whole ex­is­tence. Unsworth moved home to be part of it, he built a pub­lish­ing house to fi­nance his pas­sion and he wrote more than 20 books in or­der to share it with oth­ers.

It was shar­ing that was so im­por­tant to him. He took pupils out of the con­fines of Wolver­hamp­ton and Manch­ester onto the hills to ex­pand their hori­zons and give them a zest for wild places. His de­ter­mi­na­tion to in­form led to the ground­break­ing En­cy­clopae­dia of Moun­taineer­ing. In ev­ery­thing he did, Unsworth was a pas­sion­ate com­mu­ni­ca­tor. He set out to guide be­gin­ners in the Lake District, Cum­bria and the York­shire Dales; he in­tro­duced his read­ers to Ever­est as well as to Hor­wich, to Patag­o­nia and the River Der­went. His pub­lish­ing house, Cicerone, produced more than 250 books and in­spired scores of au­thors to write about the great out­doors.

No won­der Unsworth was an early adopter of The Duke of Ed­in­burgh’s Award—he couldn’t re­sist an op­por­tu­nity to en­thuse and chal­lenge young peo­ple whose worlds were so con­fined. His chil­dren’s tril­ogy based in the Peak District dur­ing the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion was re­quired read­ing for the Na­tional Cur­ricu­lum and re­mains an ex­em­plar for com­mu­ni­cat­ing his­tory to the young.

The man who, af­ter his army ser­vice, was sent on a schol­ar­ship to teacher-train­ing col­lege proved to be a nat­u­ral teacher sim­ply be­cause he was so deeply au­then­tic. When writ­ing claimed him, he lived ev­ery­thing he wrote and wrote about the things he lived.

Real coun­try­men don’t just like and ad­mire; they know and they love. Unsworth re­ally knew his stuff. From his very first short guide to his last sub­stan­tial work, his knowl­edge as well as his pas­sion shine out. His Amer­i­can con­tem­po­rary Aaron Teas­dale, an­other pow­er­ful writer about the wild out­doors, makes the point best: ‘If you want to write for cy­clists, skiers, pad­dlers, climbers… you’ve got to live it… you’ve got to know it from the in­side.’

To­day, we see the dam­age that can be done by pas­sion un­in­formed by knowl­edge and we suf­fer from the danger­ous in­flu­ence of ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tors who haven’t mas­tered the facts or un­der­stood the science. Unsworth was metic­u­lous in get­ting his facts right and ex­plor­ing the science be­hind them. He changed peo­ple and at­ti­tudes be­cause of his en­thu­si­asm, but his work was founded upon science and ex­pe­ri­ence.

His magazine, The Great Out­doors, car­ried this mes­sage of the ab­so­lute pri­or­ity of truth in record­ing the nat­u­ral world. It also in­spired the Out­door Writ­ers and Pho­tog­ra­phers Guild—he was a founder mem­ber. Unsworth shaped our un­der­stand­ing of the hills and the moun­tains and taught us that pas­sion needs the back­bone of science if it’s not to de­gen­er­ate into mere sen­ti­ment.

‘He taught us that pas­sion needs the back­bone of science if it’s not to de­gen­er­ate into mere sen­ti­ment

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