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Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe  
© 2009

The day I ‘met’ AW

The initials AW may mean nothing to most people but to the walking fraternity they are the index of guidance to the Lakeland Fells. Alfred Wainwright produced a marvellous set of seven walking guidebooks to the area between 1955 and 1966. They were handwritten by him and published by the local newspaper – The Westmorland Gazette. They were not typeset – every ‘a’ was slightly different but instead they faithfully reproduced the notes and sketches in AW’s distinctive, meticulous hand by using a plate process. This made them less easy to edit and they are still available today in their original form. A recent overhaul by Chris Jesty plus several recent TV series has rejuvenated interest in them.

I had the privilege of meeting AW in 1978 though we exchanged no words. He was a private man with a reputation of avoiding public attention and our encounter was silent. I had just started work at an Outdoor Management Development Centre in Ambleside and moved into an estate cottage on the shore of Lake Windermere. We were recently married and this was our first house yet something was missing – it needed a cat. Several people suggested that we contact the local re-homing centre at Animal Rescue Cumbria, so one Thursday lunchtime we visited the farm where it was based near Kendal.

The coordinator met us at the front door and invited us in with the words “We’ve got a ‘visitor’ but he prefers not to be disturbed” as she led us through the kitchen and out to the back yard where the animals were housed. There, sat in an old arm chair in front of an open fire sucking on a smouldering pipe was a white haired old man with two kittens in his lap. He stroked them gently but neither he nor the cats made a move as we squeezed past – it was a picture of contentment. We went out the back door and our host explained “He likes to meet the new residents” as we walked to the pens.

We chose ‘Tigga’ – a young tabby and went into the office to sign the papers and arrange to collect her later. As we walked past the kitchen window he was still there with the youngsters – pipe still smoking lazily. Tigga soon began to enjoy woodland life and became an avid huntress – The tree rescue, the Goldfinch story and the Mink incident deserve a full telling in another essay. She moved house with us three times, once in the Lakes then living in Chapel en-le-Frith and finally Coventry. I’m sure she missed the Lakes but she adapted well to urban life until she succumbed to old age and when she died we buried her in the local woods so she would feel at home. Like AW’s books she was built to last.

It was only much later when AW died and left considerable sums to animal charities including the one for whom he was a patron – Animal Rescue Cumbria, that I realised who that ‘visitor’ was. I’m glad that I didn’t recognise him because I would have felt compelled to say hello to someone whose work I admired greatly and I fear he would not have liked that. I may have judged him to be a grumpy old man instead of the idyllic impression of a contented cat lover that I remember from our meeting.

© Keith Ratcliffe

September 2009

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