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28 October 2017

Where the Wild Winds Are: Nick Hunt weathers the storms of Europe

Aided by meterologists, the author embarked on a series of “wind-walks”.

By Kathleen Jamie

Irma, the storm that recently caused such damage in the Caribbean, was the ninth named tropical storm of the 2017 season, hence the initial I. You can while away a fascinating time on Wikipedia, learning how storms area named, when and why and by whom. There is, of course, a committee: the hurricane committee of the World Meteorological Organization. A list of names chosen by them operates on a six-year cycle. Since feminist protests in the 1970s, male names are also included. Later this year the tropical Atlantic region may be threatened by a storm called Sean. As in Connery. And as the season closes, Whitney. Quite a party. Next year we might meet Patty, which sounds more like the touch of an annoying breeze. Non-meteorologists have also taken to naming storms. In 2011 the great gale that hit Scotland was dubbed Hurricane Bawbag, not a name that features on any officially sanctioned list.

All of this is a digression, although one that exposes how the skew of our times and media means we in the UK now know more about seasonal tropical hurricanes than we do about the named winds of old Europe, which have shaped our cultures, architecture, and even our personalities and mental health. Perhaps we are too confined to cars to be wholly wind-aware. Indeed, until I opened Nick Hunt’s book, I hadn’t known there is a named wind in England: the Helm of Cumbria.

It is this invisible European culture of the winds that Hunt sought to discover, largely on foot. Over 18 months, aided across the continent by meteorologists and weather-enthusiasts, he embarked on a series of “wind-walks”, carrying camping gear, an anemometer and a length of wool, seeking – and sometimes finding himself caught in – the various winds in their known flyways: the Helm, the Bora, the Foehn, the Mistral.

He began in the relatively benign Pennines, slogging up to a bothy to sit and wait for the Helm to arrive. A particular cloud formation occurred, the Helm Bar, which predicts the rush of this wind westward over the tops. He was without a fire, and the thought of a fire-less lonely night was too much; he walked the seven miles to the nearest shop to buy some logs, having decided it would be immoral to harm the few trees that manage to grow on this exposed slope. But the shop had none. He was rewarded by a chance meeting with an artist, who gave him a hoard of old picture frames to burn. The encounter is typical; the book’s charm is in its characters and incidents. In the Pennines he met fog, amiable loners  and, inevitably, tweedy toffs, because so many of the upland farms have been cleared for grouse-shooting.

There is also wind, and Hunt is deft at finding the vocabulary to convey the different sounds and voices of the winds. In his bothy he was spooked by a “mischievous chattering accompanied by a hissing that suggested branches and spirals… and under it all a low moan, like an animal in distress”.

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Amid the mountains of the Adriatic coast, Hunt encounters the Bora, a dry and frigid katabatic (down slope) wind, “dragged, with enormous violence, through a handful of passes and cols”. In Trieste, a city defined by the Bora, it blows strong enough to topple trucks and blow fish from the sea. From Trieste, Hunt walks south, following mountain ways across the Karst plateau, high enough to encounter snow and ice, then through the Dinaric Alps and to another mountain bothy, this one snow-bound and full of carousing Croats “singing nostalgic anthems from the former Yugoslavia, enthusing about how things were better under Communism”. At one point, Hunt loses his way in snow and trees and wind, and his confrontation with the dreaded Bora becomes one of whirling spindrift, “less a sound than a sensation… I understood sound as a physical force”.

In the Alps blows the Foehn, warm and dry and with a hollow roar – “the snow-eater”, “the Oldest Man of the Rhine”. It’s a geographically complex wind, which fans through valleys, sometimes with catastrophic results, and is associated with ill health; there is a recognised “Foehn-sickness” and many a wooden village has burned to the ground during the Foehn, just because of a single spark.

Is one wind very different to another? Certainly. Germans call a hairdryer a foehn, while the French use the name Mistral to describe a state-of-the-art warship. Of Hunt’s four wind-walks the most satisfying is that which follows the direct southward route of the Mistral, a hundred miles down the Rhône valley. In this case the wind was literally at his back, so precise he could navigate by its chill on his neck. The Mistral is an attacking wind, hence the warship, but it is also the “idiot wind”, reputed to reduce people to madness and excuse their crimes.

On this walk Hunt followed a pilgrims’ way, camping en route, encountering local people, all of whom had opinions about the wind. In a village pub a man said that the Mistral “makes people crazy… angry, stressed, irrational”. The super-sensitive Van Gogh mentioned it often: “a nagging malice”, “wicked”, “evil-minded”, “the devil”. He had to tie down his easel, secured with iron pegs. The local mas houses, traditional farmsteads, are built with streamlined roofs and windowless northern walls, so it was possible to navigate by those too, and keep moving south. Even Paleolithic hearths have been discovered protected against the Mistral as it blew 40,000 years ago.

In the deep south of France, east of the Camargue, lies the mysterious, empty area called the Crau. It is a treeless, light-struck stony expanse unchanged in 2,000 years, enlivened by the Mistral, and populated only by sheep. Here Hunt has his final encounter, with a lone shepherd, a Romanian. “French people do not want this work. Maybe they have forgotten how to do it.” The shepherd in his hut says he knows only three words of French: mouton, bonjour and Mistral.

Where the Winds Are is an original book. Seeing the wind is a matter of being attentive to trees and weathervanes, skittish horses, hair-dos, Met Office data, and the so-called “little doves”, the Balkan term for the stones that weigh down pantiles on roofs. In the way of much modern travel writing, there are occasional lurching digressions into history and politics, but simply by asking Hunt finds people all over Europe passionate and knowledgeable about “their” wind: how it dries the palms of their hands or fans their flames. Sometimes they hate it, but they live with it.

Hunt’s “wind-walks” are impressive but, happily for the reader’s self esteem, the writer admits that his feet and spine ache and that he is sometimes frightened. When he runs out of water or loses his way he is often aided by the kindness of strangers. It is good to be reminded that such human generosity still exists, along with the natural forces of the world.

In the end, what is a wind? “Molecules of air rushing from high pressure to low pressure, with their cargo of charged ions, righting an atmospheric balance knocked off kilter. What felt like violent, tearing force was really the restoration of peace.” And what is a walk? Hunt makes the analogy himself: “What felt like furious motion was really an attempt to reach a stillness.” 

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

Where the Wild Winds Are
Nick Hunt
Nicholas Brealey, 272pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia