Caught by the River

Where the Wild Winds Are

16th October 2017

An extract from Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence, introduced by the author:

Where the Wild Winds Are tells the story of walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s local winds – the Helm, the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral – to discover the effects they have on landscapes, people and cultures.

The book begins in the Northern Pennines, where I went in search of the Helm – Britain’s only named wind – which howls from the top of Cross Fell with enough force to destroy stone buildings in the Eden Valley below. The wind is announced by a long white cloud named the Helm Bar, which hangs above the top of the fells in an otherwise empty sky…

I was looking at the sky as I stepped out the next morning. Cloud was smeared haphazardly across the lower atmosphere, as if abstractly painted on the air, in no particular pattern that I could see. There was nothing resembling the Bar, and certainly no distant roar. But the wind was nipping from the east, and its taste was cold.

The lady who had trustingly left me her home had also left a note on the kitchen table, advising that if I was walking alone I should give my route to her neighbours in case of accident. Anne and Peter Brown lived across the road from the pub, in a house surrounded by trees. The stove had just been lit, and coffee was brewing. They were both ex-police officers, and knew the area inside out; Peter had lived all his life in the region, and his dad had been a country bobby too. ‘Also a fellwalker,’ he said, passing me a steaming mug. ‘He could never be bothered to take his hands out of his pockets to get out the map. But he could tell the way he was going from the angle of the wind.’ I asked what it had been like, growing up in the path of the Helm. ‘As a teenager I thought it raged for two months without stopping. Of course it didn’t – that’s just how you remember things, like thinking it was always sunny in the summer. But it did seem fiercer then – the weather is milder these days. I haven’t had to scrape the frost off the windscreen for a long time, or sweep the snow off the drive. There is a change.’

Both of them agreed, however, that the sky today looked promising. They were going walking themselves, and were happy to give me a lift to Dufton a couple of miles down the road, where I would join the Pennine Way to climb into the fells. Dufton was another red sandstone village, built to house the families of miners working for the London Lead Company; two centuries ago the sloped moorland above, empty now but for sheep and birds, was in the booming, belching throes of the Industrial Revolution.

‘I remember an open-air service here,’ said Anne as we passed through the village. ‘It was in the middle of summer and the temperature dropped ten degrees, the tables and chairs got hurled across the lawn. The trees were bending all over the place. It can come when you least expect it.’

‘Once I was sitting on Knock Fell,’ said Peter. ‘The atmosphere suddenly changed. I’m not a man who normally gets frightened, but I just threw myself on the ground. The pressure was unbelievable. I thought I was going to get sucked up into the sky.’
‘After three days of it you go mad, don’t you?’

‘Something like that.’

They showed me the squat Methodist chapel, built to preach temperance to the workers – ‘You can tell which side of the chapel is east, because the gutters and tiles are all stove in’ – and then Peter pointed out another, much older church, not situated in the village itself but seemingly cowering out of sight behind a stand of trees. ‘You know why they built that there, don’t you? To be out of view when the reivers came. They’d hide all their women and cattle in there.’

‘No,’ corrected Anne, ‘they’d hide their cattle in there, and if there was room they’d hide the women.’

They walked me as far as the Pennine Way, threading unobtrusively past the outlying cottages into wider, wilder terrain. There we said goodbye and I continued down an avenue of twisted hazel trees, on a carpet of butter-yellow leaves, past dilapidated farmhouses and fields in which docile cows sprawled lazily, like seals.

My mind was on the reivers Peter had mentioned: border raiders who terrorised this part of the country for hundreds of years. For much of its history Cumbria was the disputed frontier between the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and thought of itself as belonging to neither; with an identity all of its own, and even a separate language, Cumbric – deriving from the Celtic tongue of the Britons who lived here in pre-Roman times – this region bore the marvellous name of ‘the Debatable Lands’. In the absence of centralised government powerful clans such as the Eliots, Armstrongs, Grahams and Musgraves carved out private fiefdoms here, and lived by raiding – or ‘reiving’ – livestock, often pursuing bloody vendettas that lasted for generations. Centuries of pillaging, cattle-rustling, raping and murdering left their architectural legacy in the construction of sturdy pele towers, fortified against invasion much as stone barns were built to defend against the wind; the village of Milburn nearby is said to have been constructed on similar defensive principles, with alleyways that could be barricaded against both perils. The reivers grew to be such a problem that in 1525 Archbishop Gavin Dunbar of Glasgow issued his vengeful Monition of Cursing, circulated and read from pulpits throughout the blighted borderlands:

I CURSE their head and all the hairs of their head; I CURSE their face, their eyes, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their skull, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the sole of their feet, before and behind, within and without. I CURSE them going, and I CURSE them riding; I CURSE them standing, and I CURSE them sitting; I CURSE them eating, I CURSE them drinking; I CURSE them walking, I CURSE them sleeping; I CURSE them rising, I CURSE them lying; I CURSE them at home, I CURSE them from home; I CURSE them within the house, I CURSE them without the house . . .

This most unchristian of rants runs to over 1,000 words, ending with the raiders’ souls condemned to the deepest pit of hell, and their bodies to be hanged, ‘then torn apart with dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world’. The bloody malediction, however, only seemed to lend them greater power; the reign of terror continued for almost another century. It took the Union of the Crowns to finally break the reivers’ strength; when James Stuart ascended the throne of England in 1603 he issued a proclamation against ‘all rebels and disorderly persons’ and poured troops into the region. The brutality of the campaign surpassed even that of the reivers themselves; hundreds of clansmen were executed, their fortified houses destroyed, and prominent families such as the Grahams banished to Ireland. The Borders were renamed the ‘Middle Shires’, regarded as frontier lands no longer, but a newly pacified province between two united kingdoms.

The folk memory, however, has never gone away. Raiding season traditionally started around this time of year – when the animals were still plump from summer and the nights were growing long – and it was easy to imagine the inhabitants of these villages anxiously straining their ears for a warning of the destructive forces rushing down upon them. The thought of these fearsome horsemen sweeping from the high places to devastate the farmlands of the Eden Valley – smashing down buildings, throwing men from their horses, scattering sheep and cows – sounded much like the Helm itself, manifested in human form. This was my first intimation of what would become a strong theme on these walks: highlands have always been the home of wild winds and wild people.


Where the Wild Winds Are, published by Nicholas Brealey, is out now, and is available to buy here in the Caught by the River shop for the specially discounted price of £13.99.

Nick Hunt is a writer living in Bristol. His first book, Walking the Woods and the Water (Nicholas Brealey, 2014), was a finalist for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. He works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.