A diary is usually a very personal and private document. But the journal that Liz Wakelin kept for all 52 weeks of last year is set to become a best seller among all who love the Lake District. Sketching a Year in Lakeland is an exquisite diary in handwritten words and glorious watercolour sketches, revealing everyday life in the towns and villages, on the hills, and beside the water in this loveliest of national parks.
It’s a personal journal that Liz – mountaineer, cyclist, runner, adventurer and immensely talented artist – is very happy to share. The book tells the tale of her life during those 12 months: her walks around the fells, the cycle rides with husband Barry, visits to the local bookshop and ironmonger and, above all, tea and cakes in many pictorially perfect cafes.
We were talking about her book in one such cafe, on a terrace with views across to the Coniston fells, when a member of staff, Phoebe, came over to our table. “I love your book,” she told Liz, spontaneously. “I’ve lived in the Lake District for some time, and it feels like my diary. That’s how I feel about the place.”
High mountains and marmalade
It’s a book that people will fall in love with, for the delicacy of the colours, the detail of leaf and petal, the humour on the faces of people walking and sitting and chatting. There are images of high mountains, of course, including a spectacular panorama of Fairfield and the Helvellyn range from Place Fell. But also among the sketches are jars of marmalade and honey on a stall at Keswick market, teapots and tea-cosies, stiles and gate-latches, 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, perhaps, about the nature and character of the Lake District than any other single volume. Dorothy Wordsworth pioneered the notion of nature writing in the journal form from her home at Rydal, and this is a tradition into which Liz has tapped, even running a course in journal sketching at William Wordsworth’s former home at Rydal Mount.
But she 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 came, and she graduated with a degree in visual art from Winchester School of Art when she was 50: “I thought I could make a living as an artist. I used to draw portraits in pencil, and pen and ink, for commissions.” When that proved difficult, she returned to teaching English “until I burned out. I loved teaching youngsters to be creative, but increasingly that was no longer part of the curriculum.”
Change of career
So, her next career was teaching Pilates, a move suggested by her own tutor who needed some help running classes. Liz trained with Body Control in London and taught near Winchester until the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. 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 [her] life and sharing the experience”. Liz also counts the movement known as urban sketching as an influence and says hers is the countryside version.
As a young woman, Liz climbed all over the UK and in the Alps, ticking off ascents such as the Mont Blanc du Tacul and the south west face of the Aiguille du Midi. She’s also a more than competent runner, though she maintains that she just runs to keep fit for other activities. That said, she’s run the London Marathon, twice took first place in the 36-mile Calderdale Hike, and recently took part in the gruelling Montane Lakeland 50 ultra race.
Until recently Liz was also a Duke of Edinburgh gold award assessor, and she and Barry have been touring by bicycle throughout the UK and in France and Greece. Her experiences have taken her into the natural world and, with an eye for fine detail, have helped develop the direction of her artistic talent.
At school Liz was told she was no good at art and should study French instead. “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.” Her French, she adds, is poor.
She has, however, always kept a journal, and increasingly made sketches while out walking, or took photos from which she could later create sketches. And it was during lockdown, with time on her hands, that she would share some of her work on social media, finding a kindred spirit in West Cumbrian artist and writer Alan Cleaver. And it was he who drew the attention of Liz’s work to his friend, the publisher Dave Felton.
As well as hosting a popular podcast, Countrystride, Dave is the creator of the online store Inspired by Lakeland which, alongside marketing locally-designed gifts, publishes a range of best-selling and award-winning books. Among recent titles are Amy Bateman’s Forty Farms, Jim Watson’s My Lakeland, and The Lake District in 101 Maps and Infographics. When an email arrived from Dave, asking if Liz 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.”
But they eventually met up in a cafe, to which Liz took along some of her sketches. Dave said they were exactly what he wanted. “He was confident and brave enough to commission an unknown artist. 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 as much as 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, Liz 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. Liz was glad to have stockpiled enough from an American company that subsequently stopped exporting to the UK.
But Liz’s meticulous search for the right materials – there’s a list of her equipment used on location and in her studio – and the printing of the book on woodland-friendly Forest Stewardship Council paper – have added to the creation of a book that’s a work of art in itself. It’s a volume to be treasured, and poured over time and again.
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