Everybody has heard the quote: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing.”
Whilst some people will tell you that the phrase derives from Billy Connolly or Ranulph Feinnes – and indeed they both have said it at some point – it wasn’t either of them who originally coined it. It was Alfred Wainwright – he of the many walking books – and his original wording, slightly different, was “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” His comment appeared in his 1973 book Coast to Coast, so is now 50 years old.
Back in Wainwright’s time (most of his walking was done from about 1950 – 1975) outdoor clothing was, needless to say, not what it is today. Although Gore-tex, for instance, was invented in 1969, patents were not taken out until the mid-1970s. Fell walkers of Wainwright’s era invariably wore tweed in all weathers; he swore by his Harris tweed jacket which was warm, tough, breathable and shower-proof. A cotton mac was sometimes carried in case of wind and rain, and in colder weather a woollen jumper could additionally be worn.
Today we are able to buy coats, leggings and boots, all with waterproof qualities, but let’s be honest, do they keep us dry after hours in the rain? I don’t actually know anybody who would say that their gear is totally waterproof, and anyway, some of the dampness on the inside comes from sweating, which just can’t escape very efficiently when it’s raining hard.
Gore-tex (other brands are available, of course) has come a long way since its inception, with multi-layered fabric and the likes of Gore-tex Pro, but there’ll still come a point where you’re going to get wet wearing it.
So did Wainwright really believe what he wrote? I’d suggest that he wasn’t being totally honest with us.
Having discovered the joys of walking in the Lake District in his twenties, in 1941, at the age of 34, he took a pay cut to move to Kendal, where he worked at the Borough Treasurer’s office, where he worked until his retirement in 1967. By this time he was aged 60, and had just completed his magnum opus – his seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, published between 1955 and 1966.
This detail is pertinent, because were he retired he would have had a lot more opportunity to pick good weather for his walking. As it was, he was clearly limited to weekends and holidays and had to take what weather there was. And in the Lakes it rains a fair bit.
So did he stay dry because he avoided “unsuitable clothing”? Definitely not. He would have got home soaked through on many an occasion. He did, however, have a very positive outlook on life and walking, and he clearly chose to focus on the positives throughout his fair share of wet walks.
He confessed to always singing (quietly) as he walked, and he once wrote, “One can forget even a raging toothache on Haystacks.” (i.e. no matter how wet or miserable it is, or how wet I am, if I’m in a lovely place I’ll overlook it all).
When he wrote his classic phrase, he did so with his usual rose-tinted glasses on. Although he’d got wet plenty of times, it wasn’t something that bothered him or that he was even prepared to admit to.
But whatever his reasoning, we need more people like Wainwright.
Wainwright sketched himself on Lanthwaite Hill, wearing his (labelled) trusty Harris tweed jacket.