Weather fascinates me, and therefore when I spotted Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence in Fopp, I did not hesitate before picking up a copy. This non-fiction work was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in 2018, and chosen as a book of the year by The Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator respectively. Amy Liptrot observes that the book is ‘packed with wonder’, and Jan Morris concurs, writing that it is ‘full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction. It is travel writing in excelsis.’
In Where the Wild Winds Are, Hunt sets out to follow four of Europe’s prevalent named winds. He begins in Cumbria with the Helm, the only named wind in Britain, before travelling to Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy to find the Bora which blows through all three countries, causing havoc for residents. Hunt then searches for the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn in Switzerland’s alpine valleys, and the Mistral in the South of France, which ‘animated and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.’ Soon, Hunt ‘finds himself borne along by the very forces he is pursuing, through rain, blizzards, howling gales, and back through time itself, for where the wild winds are, there are also myths and legends, history and hearsay, sacrifice and superstition…’.
In his prologue, which is entitled ‘Blown Away’, Hunt reflects on his experience of the Great Storm which hit Britain in 1987. Just a child at the time, he remembers how he was almost swept away by a gust of wind. At this point, his obsession with one of our most unpredictable types of weather began. Although he goes on to say that he did not take up a career in meteorology, or anything of the sort, what he did become ‘was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you. But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one. All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something: whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps.’
Hunt then recollects the moment at which he came across a map of Europe’s winds, which linked regions in a way he had not previously considered. He writes: ‘The fact that these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality. They sounded like characters I could meet. These swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before. As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.’ Thus, his quest to follow four winds – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so – ensued.
Hunt chose to locate four winds as ‘a nod to the proverbial four winds and the four points of the compass.’ The book has consequently been split into four corresponding sections, each of which contains a map of his route. He also lets us, the readers, know about the daunting elements of the task which he set himself: ‘It was clear that to follow the wind meant following uncertainty, allowing myself to be carried along by the unknown and the informed, the guessed-at and the half-imagined. Chasing the invisible was in many ways a quixotic quest, which appealed to my romantic side…’.
Hunt’s writing oscillates between matter-of-fact and descriptive. When in Croatia, he writes, for instance: ‘After climbing for an hour I reached a layer of dense cloud, which brought about the sensation of entering a different realm. I waded upward through submarine light, condensation slapping on the wet forest floor like rain, with the muscular trunks of beech trees looming through saturated air. Deciduous trees gave way to pines. Here and there blobs of snow lay like stranded jellyfish.’ Of one of the winds which he does locate, he comments: ‘It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind. It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force. It was in my lungs, under my skin.’
Before picking up Where the Wild Winds Are, I had not encountered a travel book like it. Although it took a little while to really get into, I found myself fascinated by the mixture of elements which Hunt has woven in, from the history of forecasting the weather and the tools which the process entailed, to the quirky and eccentric characters whom he met along the way. There is a definite human perspective which has been considered, strengthened because Hunt is always keen to ask those he meets how they feel about the wind, and how it affects their day to day lives.
Where the Wild Winds Are is not as focused upon the weather as I expected it would be. Whilst Hunt’s aim is to follow the four named winds, he does so in a manner which is largely unscientific. He discusses many things as he goes about his travels, from the fall of Yugoslavia and historic battles in Britain, to immigration, and its perceptions. The title, too, is sometimes a little misleading. Whilst Hunt does make some of his journeys on foot, he often relies on public transport to get him quickly from one place to another if rumours of the wind in question being in a particular location have reached him.
Where the Wild Winds Are is both an interesting read and a gentle one. I enjoyed Hunt’s prose, which is often quite evocative. The author does go off on tangents from time to time, which I did not find overly compelling, but on the whole, the book is accessible and relatively easy to get into. I would recommend it if you enjoy travel writing and are looking for something a little different to sample.