How the wind has shaped Britain

Antony Woodward feels the force of the whispering, moaning, howling and screaming wind – the most boisterous, intangible and elusive of the elements that whistles around the British Isles.

No-one can tell me/Nobody knows/Where the wind comes from/Where the wind goes’ begins an
A. A. Milne poem in Now We Are Six. And the fact is, until well into the 19th century, a six year old’s understanding of wind is about all we had. Obviously, we knew that the prevailing wind across the British Isles is from the south-west sailings from south-coast ports were often delayed for weeks waiting for the wind to change. Visible evidence of this south-westerly emphasis remains everywhere: in windsculpted trees on bleak escarpments, in clumps of sycamores protecting upland farms, in the way ancient villages seem to snuggle into the landscape, exploiting every fold and hollow for shelter.

That these south-westerly winds, from their passage across the Atlantic, also brought wet weather was similarly clear, which is why south-western walls of buildings in exposed western parts Cornwall, Wales, the Pennines, the Lakes and Scotland tend to be slate-hung, lime-washed or harled in the (usually vain) attempt to exclude the rain hurled so determinedly against them. It is also why, in due course, the fisherman’s favourite foul-weather headgear would be named for the wind that made it necessary the sou’wester.

We were likewise aware that winds from the east, sweeping in across the Russian steppes, were dry winds and that those from the north were icy. In 1665, Robert Boyle had made the link between air pressure, wind and weather. But we had no idea how to measure or predict wind considerable drawbacks for a maritime, trading nation, especially as we attempted to build and administrate an expanding global empire.

By the 18th century, the Royal Navy had become increasingly skilled tacticians under sail, with admirals adept at ‘holding the weather gauge’ (keeping upwind or to the windward). Even so, accounts of the ferocious storms that periodically savaged us tended to sound lamely similar. Most were seen as Divine Retribution or Judgement Day.

In 1703, the worst storm in British history struck. The damage was so extreme cows hurled into trees, windmills set ablaze by the friction of their whirling sails, 53 ships wrecked on the Goodwin Sands and 8,000 deaths that the writer Daniel Defoe advertised for eyewitness accounts, which he assembled into a bestselling book, The Storm. In it, he bemoaned our inability to accurately rate and compare such events, a theme he returned to in his subsequent bestseller, Robinson Crusoe. It would be another century, however, before Admiral Francis Beaufort in 1805 compiled his eponymous, empirical Wind Force Scale one of the most important developments in maritime history. By then, we had already invented the life jacket (1765) and the lifeboat (1789).

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Thereafter, there was barely a wind-linked idea, invention, institution or application that wasn’t British, every fresh storm tragedy prompting new discoveries and developments: the RNLI (1824), the ‘Birkenhead Drill’ of women and children first (1845), the cup anemometer (1846), the self-righting lifeboat (1849), the storm warning (1860), the anticyclone (1860s), the weather forecast (1861). The Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 exposed our cluelessness about wind-loading in engineering, prompting the almost possessed over-strengthening of the Forth Rail Bridge a decade later.

Local wind effects took a little longer to crack. Britain’s only official named wind is The Helm, in Cumbria, which blows down off Cross Fell onto the villages of the Eden Valley. ‘When the Helm is on,’ wrote the Rev John Watson in 1847, ‘in a few minutes the wind is blowing so violently as to break down trees, overthrow stacks… blow a person from his horse, or overturn a horse and cart… its sound is peculiar… it has been compared to the noise made by the sea in a violent storm.’

This ‘plague wind’ as John Ruskin called it, was only explained in the 1930s: the gentle ramp-shape up the east side of the Pennine ridge to Cross Fell causes, when the wind is in the east, air to be forced up to the ridge crest (the helm), from where it falls down the steep, long, smooth western descent gathering tremendous speed and force.

Less easily accounted for, even today, is the ‘Roger’ or ‘Sir Roger’s Blast’ reported by boaters on the Norfolk Broads: a sudden, violent whirlwind lasting up to 30 seconds that sweeps unexpectedly off the marsh. ‘When the freshwaterman sees the waving of the reeds and sedges, he knows a “Roger’s Blast” may hurl himself and his craft to the bottom,’ records Forby in his Vocabulary of East Anglia, 1825, although a ‘Rodjon’ is documented as early as 1440.

Arthur Ransome, in Coot Club, mentions the ‘loud hissing noise’ it makes. Probably, it is one of the numerous mini-tornadoes that strike East Anglia annually. The UK, bizarrely, has more reported tornadoes for its land area than any other country.

Yet, for all the woes brought by being Europe’s windiest country, for all our wind-blown history (see box) and windfarm furores, we’re actually pretty pleased about our wind. Aged 67, in 1842, Turner lashed himself to the mast of a steamer leaving Harwich to experience a full sea storm, before painting the most famous depiction of that subject in the history of art. Joseph Conrad, likewise, having survived a bad storm off the Cornish coast as a 24-year-old Second Mate aboard a coal ship in 1881, recounts the experience in Youth with a joy bordering on euphoria (‘There was somewhere in me the thought: By Jove! This is the deuce of an adventure… I would not have given up the experience for worlds’).

The canon of English literature rustles, flaps, whistles and howls with moving air, employed for plot, character, tone, metaphor or all four, from The Wind in the Willows to Wuthering Heights. We pull on ‘windcheaters’ (we invented them in the 1960s), go yachting (Charles II, 1661) and windsurfing (1958). We talk heartily of ‘blowing away the cobwebs’ and, apparently, once found genuine allure in the promise: ‘Skegness is SO bracing!’ We huddle contentedly behind stripy wind-breaks at the seaside and arrange picnics on wind-strafed hilltops.

As for Britain’s favourite lullaby, guaranteed to help us drift gently off to sleep, safe and warm in our beds? No, not Rock-a-bye Baby, silly it’s The Shipping Forecast.