The walk between Clifton and Westbury-on-Trym in north Bristol is a satisfying one. Satisfying because once you have stalked up Pembroke Road and along Upper Belgrave Road, the route becomes one unfurling straight line, a slavish follow of the A4078 as it licks at the edge of the Downs. Turn left on to it from that horrible roundabout at the top of Whiteladies and the exposure of the land can, on certain days, wallop you in the face. For despite being right next to the slow, stress-filled pulse of The Commute, the feeling of quickly being out of the city and into a stretch of countryside envelopes the walker.
In recent weeks my Wednesday pilgrimage across this route has been less an exercise in English jollity and hearty striding and more a cold-faced battle against wind and rain. The strip of land at the end of Downs, culminating in Badminton School, is particularly without pity for the lonely dog walker or, worse, the lonely dog-less walker. The wind, especially on the journey back to Clifton, tries its best to push your body into the lines of moving traffic; it mocks the hat I wore as battle armour, unless I squash it to my head until I look like Farmer Giles’s disintegrating scarecrow.
To the uninitiated this behaviour seems perverse. Why not get the number 1 or 2 bus? Why not arrive at your destination not looking like the word ‘bedraggled’ slapped you hard in the face? Because, you see, if I can make it each week through the wind and the exposure of a piece of land which ends only when torn through with the chasm of the Avon Gorge, then I can make it through anything. If the worst of the wind cannot stop me then the idiotic mumblings of humans certainly cannot either.
So there was hail, and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very severe, such as had not been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. Exodus 9:24
The image of the storm appears throughout the Bible, both as metaphor and a more literal fear and test of those living at a time when jumping on the tube to avoid the drizzle was not an option. In the Old Testament, the terror of destructive weather roars up repeatedly, perhaps most memorably with Noah and the land-eclipsing flood. Similarly, the storm is a test of faith in the New Testament when Jesus’ disciples find themselves on a storm-clattered boat. It is also used as a famous metaphor at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in the lines:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock.
And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:25 – 27.
But while it is a suitable metaphor for faith, the reality is that many over the years have been forced to make like the foolish man and build their houses on land that – if not literally sand – is liable to aide in the destruction of their abodes. The Somerset Levels, for instance. Perhaps we thought, in modern times, that we had the technology and power to build on land shunned by those before us – but eroding cliff faces carry on eroding regardless, and houses drop off into the sea.
And weather, no matter how many apps we have for it, still preoccupies people. This includes the idea of The Great Storm which is, we hear, always about to take place. According to some, The Great Storm originally took place in 1987 when Michael Fish reacted condescendingly to one woman and her barometer, but perhaps the original G.S. was at the very beginning of everything: a ‘Big Bang’ doesn’t sound like something which took place on a sunny afternoon. We fear and obsess about the idea of the Great Storm for two reasons. Firstly, because storms still have the ability to turn all our structures – all of our civilisation – to dust or to mud. In this respect they remind us of our inevitable inability to transcend being tiny people and to completely master the living environment of the world. Think, which are you more scared of: Silicon Valley or the San Andreas Fault? Secondly, and because of this, the employment of the storm as a metaphor has sustained in mythology, religion, literature and the more general ‘popular imagination’ for thousands of years.
So this is why I walk. If I can make it from one end of the Downs to the other without disappearing off the edge; if I can stay physically upright against all the wind the gods or whoever can push against me, then I can make it through anything. The literal walk through the storm becomes proof that the metaphorical could be true too. I turn right down Belgrave and Pembroke and arrive home like a cat with its fur in peaks, my skin frozen white and pinched pink. I remain friends with the wind because each time it lets me survive it and each time I come away with my head emptied, cleansed of stress and worry. Sometimes the storm is not what we need comfort from but the exact thing that provides it.
And when the ship was caught in it and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and let ourselves be driven along. Acts 27:15