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; BĂ©aloideas, 75.

Roger on Mars


Jenny said...

I love this Roger piece. A friend of mine says that Arthur Ransom called his small boy character Roger after the Norfolk wind. Mischievous.

Tim Holt-Wilson said...

For your entertainment, Jenny, in the wide open spaces of the Wild East: