As a schoolgirl, Liz Wakelin wasn’t allowed to study art. They said she was “too academic” and must take French instead. She also hated PE. “I was always last in the cross country races. And at hockey I wanted to be left back, in the dressing room.”
Now, this mountaineer, cyclist, runner, all-round adventurer and talented artist has launched a book which is already proving to be a big hit in her adopted Lake District.
Sketching a Year in Lakeland is an exquisite journey in handwritten prose and beautiful watercolour sketches of 52 weeks in and around the fells. It’s an intensely personal account, and all the more riveting for that. Here you’ll find Wakelin setting off on an ultra race, cycling with husband Barry, and eating cake in one of her favourite cafés.
Here, too, is so much more than images of lofty peaks, though they are in abundance – check out the panorama of Fairfield and the Helvellyn range from Place Fell. But look also for the jars of marmalade and honey on a stall at Keswick market, teapots and tea-cosies, stiles and gate latches, the fronts of familiar shops in her Ambleside home town, sheep and lambs, and, above all, flowers: wood anemone, primrose, celandine and, of course, oceans of daffodils.
The result is a treasury of colour and memory which says more, to my mind, about the nature and character of the Lake District than any other single volume. Dorothy Wordsworth pioneered the notion of a journal from her home at Rydal, and this is a tradition into which Wakelin has tapped, even running a course in journal sketching at William Wordsworth’s former home, Rydal Mount.
But Wakelin came late to art, after many years teaching English – and outdoor education – in secondary schools. It was only after the birth of her daughter Katie that the change of direction materialised. She graduated with a degree in visual art from the Winchester School of Art when she was 50.
“I thought I could make a living as an artist,” she says. “I used to draw portraits in pencil, and pen and ink, for commissions.” When that proved difficult, Wakelin returned to teaching English until, in her own words, she “burned out”. She says: “I loved teaching youngsters to be creative, but increasingly that was no longer part of the curriculum.”
So her next career was teaching pilates, a move suggested by her tutor who needed help running classes. Wakelin trained with Body Control in London and taught near Winchester until the Covid pandemic and lockdown took hold, She retained some private clients, teaching online, but started to spend more time sketching. Her craft, she says, is influenced by the Australian artist Liz Steel whose motto is “sketching my life and sharing the experience”. There’s also a movement known as urban sketching of which Wakelin says hers is the countryside version.
A a young woman, Wakelin climbed all over the UK and in the Alps, ticking off ascents such as the Mont Blanc de Tacul and the south west face of the Aiguille du Midi. She’s also a competent runner, though she maintains that she runs to keep fit for other activities. That said, she’s completed the London Marathon, twice won first place in the 36-mile Calderdale Hike, and recently took part in the gruelling Montane Lakeland 50 ultra race. Until recently, she was also a Duke of Edinburgh gold award assessor, and she and Barry have been cycle touring throughout the UK and in France and Greece.
Looking back, Wakelin’s school experience propelled her to action.
“If I’m told I can’t do something, it’s like a red rag to a bull. When I wasn’t allowed to study art, I started to teach myself, at first just copying others’ work. It took a long time before I could be original. I needed to believe in myself, and learn to like what I was doing.”
Wakelin has always kept a journal, and increasingly made sketches while out walking or took photos from which she could create sketches later on. After lockdown, with time on her hands, she shared some of her work on social media, finding a kindred spirit in West Cumbrian artist and writer Alan Cleaver. He showed her work to his friend, the publisher Dave Felton.
And so, as well as the popular podcast called Countrystride, Felton created Inspired by Lakeland which, alongside marketing locally-designed gifts, publishes books which have become bestsellers and award-winners. Among recent titles are Amy Bateman’s Forty Farms, Jim Watson’s My Lakeland, and The Lake District in 101 Maps and Infographics. But when an email arrived from Felton, suggesting that Wakelin might be interested in doing a Lakeland sketchbook, she thought it was spam.
“I nearly binned it. Then I thought, I haven’t got this in me. It took me more than a week to get back to him.”
Eventually they met in a café and Wakelin took along some of her sketches. Felton said they were exactly what he wanted.
“He was confident and brave enough to commission an unknown artist,” she says. “He said he liked my work because it was mundane, it’s accessible, it tells everyday stories.” Her work does indeed reflect daily life, which might include a mountain hike but also a visit to the shops and a weight-training session, lunch at the pub and, of course, all those tea shops. “It’s a social documentary, it captures moments in time.”
She’s never looked back. The year spent sketching, from January to December in 2022, was a joy and an absolute privilege, Wakelin says, even though it was a full-time commitment.
“I couldn’t even go away on holiday. But now it’s done, I miss it. There were technical issues to be resolved, such as finding the right paper for the book’s unusual format, including some fold-out pages, and I was glad to have stockpiled enough from an American company who subsequently stopped exporting to the UK.”
But Wakelin’s meticulous search for the right materials – there’s a list of equipment used on location and in the studio – and the printing of the book on woodland-friendly, Forest Stewardship Council paper – added to the creation of a book that’s a work of art in itself. It’s a volume to be treasured, and pored over time and again.
By Eileen Jones
All images courtesy of Liz Wakelin