Dear Readers, like many of us I have been working my way through my reading pile during lockdown, and this book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’ by Nick Hunt, has been such a pleasure. Partly it’s been the joy of reading about travel at a time when the furthest I’ve been is Hampstead Heath, but it’s also because Hunt has introduced me to all sorts of things that I’d never thought about.
Firstly, why is it that in the rest of Europe there are so many named winds? In the UK there is only one, the Helm, which is an extremely local phenomenon . If we go onto mainland Europe we find the Foehn of the Alps, the Mistral of southern France, the Bora of the Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic Sea, and the Halny of Slovakia and Poland.
Hunt decides to go and find four of these, starting with the Helm which blows from the east over the top of Cross Fell in the northern Pennines. It was described by the Reverend William Walton as producing
‘ ..a loud noise like the roaring of distant thunder; and it is carefully avoided by travellers in that district ….as being fraught with considerable danger‘.
A sign of an approaching Helm wind is the Helm Bar, an unusual cloud formation ‘polished smooth on the underside, that wallows above the top of the range in an otherwise empty sky‘.
Hunt is full of hope on his first trip, but is soon to be disappointed:
‘Twice I thought I heard a roar that might be the wind picking up, but in this I was disappointed too: the first turned out to be an HGV on the A66, and the second a black bull bellowing in a field’.
Hunt turns out to be an entertaining and enlightening guide to the winds of Europe: in previous theologies the winds were gods, and they each have their own characters. The Bora, for example, is a clean, clarifying wind, and the author has many adventures en route to finding it. He starts his journey in Trieste, which is one of the ‘mouths’ of the wind, where the cold air bottled up from the north east erupts over the Karst plateau and through gaps in the mountains. The city is immensely proud of the wind, which seems to be in contrast to its otherwise rather prim, melancholy nature:
‘Every guidebook I’d read, every article, every internet travel forum, mentioned the Bora as a kind of local celebrity, invariably listed alongside the city’s other famous visitors – Casanova, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, Stendhal, James Joyce – but far more wild, melodramatic and frequently returning. Much is made of the ropes and chains slung along pavements at intersections for people to cling on to on Bora days – many have been removed as people kept stealing them for souvenirs- and shops sell postcards of flying hats, uplifted skirts and pedestrians bent at forty-five degree angles. The Bora is, as Morris says, ‘fundamental to Trieste’s self-image’.
Sadly, hats remain firmly on heads and skirts remain demure during Hunt’s time in Trieste, so he heads south, through Slovenia, to another ‘mouth of the wind’, Senj.
The Bora, named for Boreas, god of the north wind, is largely seen as a cleansing wind,
‘Burja (Bora) is a healthy wind. People who live on the Kras (Karst) are strong. In the wind, they grow thick skins’.
This is in strong contrast to the Foehn, the wind of the Alps that Hunt looks for next. It has a reputation as a wind that makes people sick with depression, and there is even a name for the disorder; Föhnkrankenheit. . In Liechtenstein, a lady in the tourist office describes how the wind makes her feel:
‘I get very bad headaches’, said the buxom lady behind the desk in flawless English. ‘They start a day before each Foehn. You can feel the pressure in the air. Oh God, I cannot stand it’.
Hunt feels the full effect of this himself:
‘ A nameless apprehension gnawed at me, a feeling that somehow, something had gone extremely wrong. I thought of the journey still to come, and felt only exhaustion. The rucksack-pain in my shoulders, and the boot-pain in my feet: I simply wanted them to stop. I was sick of this restless travelling, of endlessly meeting and parting from people. I was sick of the mountains, the valleys, the light: I was sick of wind. But mostly I was sick of myself. What the hell was wrong with me? I had come all this way to meet the Foehn, and now that I had found what I wanted – or it had found me – I felt completely wretched.
And then a lightbulb went on in my head. This was how I was meant to feel. ‘
Maybe the effect is because, unlike the Bora, the Foehn is a hot wind, known in Alpine regions as ‘the snow-eater’ because it can melt snow in a matter of hours. It is also a terrible spreader of fire, and Hunt mentions several instances of whole villages being reduced to ashes because the Foehn carried the sparks from one building to another.
And finally, Hunt goes in search of the Mistral, following the Rhône river south from Valence to the Crau country, on the east of the river. The Mistral is associated both with mystery and with madness, and one particular kind of madness seems to crop up on every walk that Hunt does: a deep fear of the other. On every walk, he has a discussion of some kind about immigrants, but on the Mistral walk he stays overnight with a French- Algerian man who is living in Avignon:
‘He had lived in England for a year , ‘by the sea in a house which was called Mistral.This is the French word for the wind…..’ I nodded and said nothing. ‘In that house I felt at home. I felt so free in England. You can go to a nightclub wearing what you like, you can even go in your pyjamas and no one will stare at you. In France it’s different. Especially in the Midi, they will not let me into a nightclub even if I put on a suit, because of my skin. They see my clothes, they say ‘come in’, they see my face, they say ‘no thanks’. People in Provence are very small in the mind’.
I’d have to say that there are plenty of people in England who are also very ‘small in the mind’, but the theme is one that continues to appear wherever Hunt goes, much to his discomfiture. However, not all his encounters are so difficult: he talks to some extremely interesting people, such as the man in Trieste who runs a ‘Museum of the Bora’, and has a collection of jars of other samples of the wind from all over the world. Then there are the people who descend on a mountain hut in the Dinaric Alps with brandy, cheese, bread and meat and throw an impromptu all-night party in the midst of the Bora. The walks manage to thread together science, history, the natural world, geology, and the intensely personal. His final few pages on the Mistral reach a kind of catharsis that is rare in writing of this kind, and I found myself intensely moved. He is camped on the bare plain of the Crau country, and night, and the Mistral, have come.
‘Deprived of sight, I could only feel. The world was simplified even more. It was just the Mistral and me.
The dry tide ebbed towards the sea, and I was just another rock caught within its current. For the first time on these walks I understood – for a second at least – what was actually going on around my body, under my skin; the 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 actually the restoration of peace; what felt like furious motion an attempt to reach stillness’.
What a wonderful book this was – I cannot recommend it highly enough. And I would love to know if you have a local wind where you live, and if they seem to have an effect on the culture, or on the mood, of the people who experience it. I am positively wind-powered at the moment!
Incidentally, Nick Hunt also co-wrote one of my favourite recent books, ‘The Parakeeting of London‘, which explores the history of our feral parakeets and discovers that the attitudes towards them are nearly as diverse as the humans who observe them.
Photo One by By Angusprain – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15269321
Photo Two by By Roberta F., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18336862′
Photo Three by By Depunity – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58262284
Photo Five by By Nick Stahlkocher – Stahlkochers collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=909719
Photo Six By SiefkinDR – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3443498