A man for all seasons
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