Walt Unsworth, Father of Outdoor Writing

Posted on: June 9th, 2017 by OWPG Secretary 7 Comments

Walt Unsworth, who has died after a short illness at the age of 88, could justly be regarded as the father figure of British outdoor writing. He founded the respected Cicerone Press with his climbing friend Brian Evans exactly 50 years ago this year. Frustrated at the lack of practical climbing guides to the Lake District, they got together to produce their first independent guide in 1967. Together they made an ideal team, with Walt as the writer and Brian as the artist, designer and printer. The guide sold well, and the proceeds of each new book went into the production of the subsequent one.

 

Walt was born at Ardwick, Manchester and educated at Abram, near Wigan, where he first met his wife, Dorothy. He began fellwalking in the Lake District as a youth during the Second World War. Rock climbing was a natural progression, and during the 1950s, he was one of many other young tigers, such as Joe Brown and Don Whillans, for whom the “bob-a-night” (5p) Wall End Barn in Langdale became almost their second home. After conscription and service in the Army, Walt was offered an assisted place at Chester Teacher Training College and his first teaching job took him to as a science teacher to Wolverhampton. Later he became Head of Physics at Birch Road Secondary Modern School at Walkden, Manchester.

 

But his first and abiding interest was always climbing and the outdoors, and he introduced many of his pupils to the hills. While at Birch Road he also introduced one of the first Duke of Edinburgh Schemes, a fact recognised by a visit from the Duke himself. He eventually achieved his ambition of becoming a full-time writer, specialising in walking, climbing and travel. He wrote several climbing guides himself, notably to Anglezarke Quarry, near Horwich, where he made many first ascents. His English Outcrops (Gollancz, 1964) was described as “one of the seminal books of post-war climbing.” He eventually became editor of Climber (later Climber and Rambler) magazine on the recommendation of Chris Brasher in 1962. As editorial adviser to the publisher, Holmes McDougall, he also named and helped launch the revamped magazine as The Great Outdoors (now TGO).

 

He was also a founder member of the Outdoor Writers’ Guild – now the Outdoor Writers’ and Photographers’ Guild – in 1980, and later became its first president. Cicerone Press produced over 250 well-respected guides “for walkers and climbers, written and produced by walkers and climbers” under his leadership. Walt gave many Guild members their first opportunity to be published, and he was always fiercely supportive of them.

 

Tom Waghorn, outdoor journalist and a friend for over 40 years, said of Walt: “He had a tremendous ability to discover talent, and as a canny businessman, he knew how to spot a gap in the market.” Kev Reynolds, who wrote more than 20 guides for Cicerone, commented: “Walt was both my mentor and my friend. When I did my first book for him – Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees in 1978 – I had no idea that I would be able to make a living at it, but Walt encouraged me at every step.” Mark Richards, another of Walt’s protégées, said: “He was my guiding light – the man who gave me a start and encouraged my creativity. I’ll always be grateful to him.”

 

Among Walt’s many publications were Portrait of the River Derwent (Robert Hale, 1971); Encyclopaedia of Mountaineering (Robert Hale, 1975), and his definitive history of Everest, first published by Allen Lane in 1981. As a former teacher, he was justly proud of the fact that his trilogy of children’s books based in the Peak District during the Industrial Revolution – The Devil’s Mill, Whistling Clough and Grimsdyke (Gollancz, 1968-70) – became recommended reading as part of the National Curriculum. Walt’s Everest won the ITAS Prize for Mountain Literature at the Trento Festival in 1992, and he was awarded the OWPG’s Golden Eagle Award in 1996.

 

As a travel writer, Walt and his wife Dot visited many countries around the world, either privately or as a guest of tourist boards or travel companies, and he wrote up his trips for many national newspapers. The couple married in 1952 and had two children; Gail, a retired radiologist and now garden plant specialist, and Duncan, a former BBC cameraman and photographer. Walt had five grandchildren and one great granddaughter. In later years, he delighted in running the annual Milnthorpe Art Festival from Harmony Hall, his elegant Georgian home, raising thousands of pounds for local artists and charities.

 

Walt’s quietly-spoken Lancashire burr always communicated good, no-nonsense, northern common sense, and he was immensely supportive of me when I became chairman of the Guild in 1990. He was the mentor and guiding light to many prospective outdoor writers, and will be sadly missed by the entire outdoor community.

 

Roly Smith

 

pen portrait by Mark Richards

 

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7 Responses

  1. Al Churcher writes on Facebook: I owe my second career as a writer-photographer to Walt. He published my first climbing articles, then when I started writing about Italy offered me a translation of a German Selected Climbs in the Dolomites, which led on to him commissioning my own Italian Rock guide.
    Spoke to him many times on the phone – always positive & encouraging – but sadly we never actually met in person.

  2. Stephen Neale writes: Really sorry to hear about Walt. I never met him, but Kev would tell me a few stories on our walks. I phoned Walt a few months ago, really to pick his brain and to steal some tips and knowledge. Very generous with his time. I thought he was so interesting I asked him to stop and insisted on going to get a recorder: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m721Ay7B7J4&feature=youtu.be

  3. John Manning writes: he was a wonderful, generous and stately gent to whom many of us owe our outdoor careers, either indirectly or directly. I knew him reasonably well in my first OWG (as-was) incarnation and have very good memories of his warmth and strength of character.

  4. Mark Richards writes: I owe Walt so much. As editor of Climber & Rambler magazine he reviewed a hand-drawn guide I had created to Offa’s Dyke Path back in 1974 (which remarkably is still sold at Offa’s Dyke Heritage Centre to this day!). At the time Walt’s editorial office was his garage in suburban Worsley. He invited me to pay him a visit as he saw potential in my work for his newly founded Cicerone Press. He commissioned me to prepare a trio of hand-drawn walking guides to the Peak District. Amazingly the first title, High Peak Walks, has only recently been replaced by Cicerone, with a totally new guide as I handed on the baton to an aspiring author. Later in 1991 he commisioned me to create The Wall Walk as a coast to coast trail accompanying Hadrian’s Wall – a dozen years before the opening of the National Trail. Walt appreciated creatively and fostered high standards in outdoor writing literature, and perhaps most significantly of all he valued his authors. He loved art, hence I felt it appropriate to mark his passing with this pen portrait. Thank you Walt for your support and encouragement; you were an inspiration and guiding light for us all.

  5. Tony Howard writes: Sad news indeed. Walt asked me to do a Romsdal guide back in 1968. One of Cicerone’s first, I think. A nice man, encouraged and advised me and others, always welcoming and friendly.

  6. Paddy Dillon says:

    I signed my first contract with Walt in 1990. In those days the contracts also needed a witness signature. He just pulled someone in from the office to sign, then declared, “Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of a new vacuum cleaner!”

    I hand-delivered my first manuscript, and my mind went totally blank when he just pushed it to one side and said, “So, what are you doing for us next?” I’ve had Cicerone contracts in hand ever since.

    On one early visit, he pushed a membership form towards me that was headed “Outdoor Writers Guild”. He said he wasn’t trying to sell me anything, but I completed it on the spot. In those days you had to be proposed and seconded. Walt wrote his name as proposer, and simply scored a line straight through the space for a seconder. I guess no-one would argue with that!

    I’m ever grateful for his time and encouragement.

  7. It was a proud moment for me getting a book commissioned by Walt way back around 1996. I suspect for many other owpg members from that era as well.

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