Friday, 27 June 2014

And they call the wind Roger

The Broads area of Norfolk is prey to occasional whirlwinds known as 'Roger'. They strike without warning - wrecking buildings and trees; ripping sails off wherries and windmills; battering small boats into the water - and a few moments later they are gone.

My introduction to the diabolical 'Roger' is a recent one. I have been reading 'The Land of the Broads' by Ernest Suffling (1892), lent me by my friend Jenny [Gladstone]. It's one of those attractive, late Victorian books with nice engravings and floridly printed covers. It belongs to the days when the Broads were undisturbed by pollution and motorised traffic, and were teeming with wildlife; when wherries silently plied the rivers and there were so many eels at Rockland Broad that they 'swarmed among the reeds'. It is a tourist guide to the rivers Bure, Yare and Waveney, with particular advice for people on sailing holidays.

"I would council amateur yachtsmen against an unseen danger, which appears to be peculiar to Norfolk, and that is 'Roger' - beware of 'Roger'!.... [It] is the name given to a whirlwind which occasionally strikes yachts before the crew are aware of its approach. ... At Wroxham Regatta in 1881, no less than three competing yachts were overturned and sunk by a 'Roger', whilst a tent on shore was taken up in the air and carried a distance of 80 yards." [1]

Other writers have described this disturbing phenomenon.

"The cutter Zoe, with all sail set, was moored by a strong rope to a tree. It was a dead hot calm, when without any warning, a whirling puff of wind came upon us. The Zoe was thrown over almost on her beam-ends. She snapped the mooring-rope like a piece of thread... " [2]

"Sudden strong gusts of wind.... are known locally as 'Rogers'. They strike usually without any warning, and for twenty or thirty seconds blow with almost hurricane force... they have torn down windmill sails, stripped off thatched roofs, capsised haystacks and taken a wherry's (sailing barge) canvas out of the bolt-ropes....on one occasion five wherries were crossing Breydon Water together in a gentle breeze when a Roger struck them. They heeled over at a terrifying angle sending quants, boathooks, buckets, brooms and all other loose gear over the side...." [3]

From The Land of the Broads by E Suffling, 1892.

CR Davies says that the 'rodges-blast' [sic] is a 'frequently recurring' phenomenon in the area, that it is most likely to occur with a south-west wind, and is essentially unpredictable. "Even if you see one coming over the marsh, convulsing the grasses of lifting the reed-stacks high in air, you cannot tell whether it will strike you or not, its course is so erratic. It may wreck a windmill fifty yards away, and leave the water around you unruffled"[4]

Use of the term goes back to the early 19th century, or earlier. Forby (1830) relates it to dust devils. He says a 'Roger's-blast' is "a sudden and local motion of the air, not otherwise perceptible but by its whirling up the dust on a dry road in perfectly calm weather, somewhat in the manner of a waterspout.".[5]

Today, any sudden, powerful wind in the Broads may be called Roger, ranging from 'strong gusts' of very localised wind and 'unexpected squalls' [6], through 'mini-twisters' [7], 'small whirlwinds' and 'rotary wind-squalls' [8], to 'proper whirlwinds' and maybe even tornadoes.

"There on the other side of the dyke was a mini tornado! It was well over 60 ft high, about 15 ft wide, made entirely of water picked up from the dyke. The wind went from about 15 mph to about 35 mph and it was headed directly for us!  Well it hit us and we got soaked in fine spray and then it was gone." [9]

Artist's impression of a Roger at Barton Broad, August 2009.
Image used courtesy jillwix @ Norfolk Broads Forum

A very powerful Roger struck the Thurne valley in 2001. "A tornado lasting for 15 seconds created a column of debris half a mile high as it swept across the Norfolk Broads in Potter Heigham; holiday homes were badly damaged, and electricity poles and telephone lines were brought down". [10]

An eye witness has supplied more graphic detail: "Over towards Repps all hell had broken loose. A menacingly dark coloured spout of branches, roof tiles, straw, tarpaulins - and that was just the recogniseable debris. There must have been tons of the stuff up there defying gravity. There wasn't a breath of wind on the staithe, but what sounded like a freight train was approaching fast..."

This particular blast is even reputed to have lifted cattle off the ground. Another eye witness reported: "... they said the cows stampeded when the wind started and it picked them up - someone mentioned about them being in the air." [11]

Tornado alley? A summer view of the Thurne valley from Potter Heigham Bridge.

A 15th century devil. 
From The Travels of
Sir John Mandeville 
Rogers may develop in Broadland due to the combination of flat, open fields, warm water surfaces and abundant sunshine. While we can explain the phenomenon as the result of spiralling updrafts of unstable air, to our unscientific ancestors the sudden arrival of a Roger must have represented something uncanny: the irruption of a capricious, invisible, hostile power in a summer's day. According to Charles PG Scott (1895) 'Old Roger' is a nickname for the Devil.[12]  Personally, I suspect our rude forbears explained 'Roger's blast' as the fart of the Devil, who is 'prince of the power of the air'. [13]  However, we may perhaps find traces of older, more complex peasant beliefs in its diabolical status, for example the mythology that whirlwinds are caused by fairies or demons, invisible travelling sorcerers or damned souls passing in flight, or that they have special power to impregnate women [14]. The uncanny and inexplicable is named and personified, then gets mythologised. Stories are told about it.

I saw a very minor Oxfordshire example of a Roger when I was at school in the 1970s. It took the form of a dust devil crossing the cricket pitches during a First Eleven game. It came whirling along as a mini tornado of dust and grass clippings which ploughed through the square, blowing off the bails and the striped caps of the players. They were too absorbed in their game to see it coming. As they ran after their caps and wiped the dust from their eyes, I enjoyed the spectacle much more than the cricket match. A little bit of Nature's chaos had come whirling through the preposterous world of boarding school.

Old Roger is a reminder of the physical laws which frame our planetary existence. Evidently he may have entertainment value as well as disruptive energy. If anyone has first hand experience of him in the Broads I would be interested to hear from them.


[1] - Suffling, Ernest R. [1892]: The Land of the Broads; Benjamin Perry, Stratford; pp.137-8.
[2] - Davies, C (1884): Norfolk broads and rivers; William Blackwood & Sons, London. p.54.
[3] - Amsted, M (2005): Not so jolly Rogers; New Scientist no.253, 11th June; quoting: Clark, R (1961): Black-sailed Traders - The keels and wherries of Norfolk and Suffolk; Putnam & Co Ltd, London.
[4] - Davies, C (1884), ibid.
[5] - Forby, R (1830): The Vocabulary of East Anglia; JB Nichols & Son, London; vol. 2, p.280.
[6] - Tozier, J (1904): Among English Inns; LC Page & Co, USA; chap.10.
[7] - billmaxted (2006): online in: Topic: Tornadoes?; The Norfolk Broads Forum, Feb-27-2006 @ 7:22 am; online at: [accessed June 2014]
[8] - Davies, C (1884), ibid, p.265.
[9] - jillywix (2006): online in: Topic: Tornado on Barton!; The Norfolk Broads Forum, Aug-24-2009 @ 4:00 pm; online at: [accessed June 2014]
[10] - Monthly Climatological Summary for Oct. 2001. Online at: [accessed June 2014]
[11] - Graeme Coles, quoted in: Tornado shakes holiday homes; BBC News, Sunday, 7 October 2001, 14:51 GMT; online at: [accessed June 2014]
[12] - Scott, CPG (1895): The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition; Transactions of the American Philological Association; vol.26, p.135.
[13] - The Bible; Ephesians chap.2, v.2.
[14] - Giraudon, D (2007): Supernatural Whirlwinds in the Folklore of Celtic Countries; Béaloideas, 75.

Roger on Mars

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Jackdaws at Midsummer

June 21st, 2014

It was a fine day last Thursday. Wisps of cirrus and dispersing vapour trails drew a light veil over the blue sky. The business of jackdaws in the trees behind my house reached a climax that afternoon.

Blue-skies flocking

I call this land behind the Bungalow the Wilderness: a domain of brambles, nettles, elders and elm suckers, which may once have been a field. Muntjac and rabbits skulk there, and the blackcap sends out jets of pure lyric beauty in summer. Its eastward boundary is a long, thin rectangular pond of mediaeval date shrouded by tall oak and ash trees. The pond brims up in winter, but soon shrinks away leaving a blackened pit of detrital mud. For some reason the local jackdaws have made this belt of trees their focus for the last fortnight.

Ask Konrad Lorenz what jackdaws have to say. His years of study at Altenberg  identified a range of calls such as kia, kiaw, zick and yip, also rattles and churrs. Kia means 'let's fly abroad' and kiaw means 'let's fly home' [1]. Karrr means 'threat'; the main flight call is a cheerful, 'metallic and squeaky' chyak.
For the past two weeks a chorus of kia and chyak has been ringing from the belt of trees and swirling round the neighbourhood. When it started I assumed that a nest of jackdaws had fledged from a hole in one of the trees, perhaps the largest oak, with much joyous 'let's fly abroad' communication. They were then joined by other local families, perhaps from the grounds of Ivy House three hundred yards away, where several mature oaks contain nest holes.

Lately, all the families have joined together in a rabble of playful exploration. They fly around the estate in loose, shifting flocks, calling to each to each continually, circulating among leafy ash summits and stag-horned oaks. Some drop to the sheep field and forage for insects in the close-cropped turf. Others scramble about among the branches hoping to be fed. They seem to be living a swirl of impulses, like children crying out "let's do [such & such]", then waiting to see how the collective will picks up the idea and runs with it. 

 From Wood's 'Natural History. Birds' (London, 1864)
'Fly with me' call-notes, says Lorenz, are "purely indicative of the mood of the bird in question and are in no way a conscious command. These completely unintentional expressions of individual feeling are as of highly infectious a nature as yawning in human beings. It is this mutual mood-infection which ensures that all the jackdaws finally act concertedly[3]So the swirl of activity among the jackdaws here seems to be flickering of moods and social conjugations, testing out ideas and linkages, coming to decisions then abandoning them - in fact, classic teenager activity. I think my jackdaws are learning and testing out their life skills. I have watched a begging fledgling being instructed by a parent how to get food from sheep droppings.

On Thursday afternoon the mood was extremely expansive: the jackdaws wanted to be up and flying high. Loose flocks were forming and reforming aloft, riding the thermals - splitting and diving, rising and swapping, overlapping. I took my binoculars and watched them, enchanted. The sky was alive with kia and chyak, pealing from lofty distances. Black specks approaching from the south resolved into four individuals drawn from further afield, the parish of Eye. They passed overhead, ignoring the largest cluster of their fellows, before breaking down and entering a group. This commotion was attracting attention, and a few rooks had come to investigate as well as me.

There are 72 jackdaws in this photo. Many more are out of view to the left.

Lorenz spent years fostering and studying a jackdaw colony at Altenberg. Here in the parish of Brome and Oakley, I suspect several families have lately been raised in this attractive, wooded corner of Suffolk. For some reason they have now made the land round the Bungalow their flocking place; in previous years the wooded belt has only yielded carrion crows. This year it has hosted jackdaws. I am worried that my neighbours will classify them as a nuisance, and try to drive them away by shooting a few. I can't see the point, as they are very companionable birds, 'of infinite wit and humour, and one that has an extraordinary attachment for man and his habitations' [4]. Studies have shown that each mates for life [5].

High on the stag-headed oak in the Bungalow garden today, a few jackdaws are busy socialising. One catches sight of me looking up from far below and gives a karrr alarm call; they take flight. Ten seconds later the bare branches of the tree are occupied by more individuals. I am part of their perceptual universe, as they are of mine. I doubtless signify 'non-jackdaw' and 'predator' to them, but for me they signify 'companion' and 'friend'. They are part of my community, and the fact that they have chosen the Bungalow area as 'significant place' pleases me. I like to think that they see it as a secure place for bringing up young, a 'magical environment' as Jacob Von Uexküll might have put it [6], though I am afraid a few gunshots from my neighbour could change all that.


[1] - Lorenz, K (1952): King Solomon's Ring. New light on animal ways; Methuen & Co, Ltd, London; p.169.

[2] - Western Jackdaw; Wikipedia - [accessed June 2014]
[3] - Lorenz, ibid; p.170.
[4] - Wood, JG (1864): The Illustrated Natural History. Birds; Routledge, Warne & Routledge, London; p.398.
[5] - Western Jackdaw; ibid.
[6] - Uexküll, Jacob Von (2010): A Foray into the Worlds of Humans and Animals; University of Minnesota Press; p.119 ff.