I Heard A Woodpecker In Cambridge

I posted this on my wp dot com photography blog on 23rd April when this happened.

It’s sunny today. We live just a few hundred yards from the middle of town and yet there’s a Green – a large area of grass and trees in front of the houses in the Square – which is lovely. 

Given Corona lockdown, I went out to stand in the Green and look at the trees. It’s funny how isolation makes one see things anew, so I spent a bit of time looking at the trees and the houses, noticing things. Then I heard a repeated drumming sound. A woodpecker. In the middle of town. So I went walking towards the sound, and when I got near the trees where I thought it was, I saw a woman with a bicycle and she was looking into one particular tree.

I asked (from a social distance of several metres) whether she could see the bird. Yes, she said, and pointed out where it was. Then it flew to another tree and we agreed it was a spotted woodpecker. It was quite high up but we thought it was a lesser spotted woodpecker.

I said that I wondered whether it was in town because it was quiet or that we heard it because it was quiet. She said she thought the same. I said I had heard it from way over there (pointing from where I had come) and she said she had heard it from way over there, in the footpath that leads into town. We were smiling like crazy, happy at this truly lovely thing that was drumming in the tree.

I have the Golf Sight app on my phone. I use it to calculate distances. It knows where you are standing and you point it wherever and then tap. It said I was 162 yards from where I was standing when I first heard the woodpecker. 

When I walked back I heard the woodpecker over to my right. I could have gone looking, but that was so good that it was enough.

Harehills: What’s In A Name

I started school when I was about five years old. The school was Harehills Junior School on Roundhay Road in Leeds. I used to catch a bus to school down Easterly Road to get there.

Roundhay Road was the main road and if you walked up the hill you came to Harehills Road and then Harehills Lane.

It was not until I was well into adulthood that I thought about the meaning of Harehills. Oh me oh my – it means hills where there are hares.

I had always just wrapped the two parts into one bundle of a word, like everyone did. I never unwrapped it to look at what it meant. I put the stress on the first syllable, just like everyone did. Until I unpacked the parts, it didn’t mean anything at all: It was just a name, Harehills.

And Roundhay Road, a road that went where hay was gathered. And Easterly road – a road to the east!

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Which leads me on to something I read today.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs more or less north-south for thousands of kilometres along the seabed in the middle of The Atlantic Ocean.

The ridge is formed by the Earth’s mantle throwing up material as the tectonic plates move apart. At the same time, the land between the plates sinks.

In effect, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge has a deep score line running along the top of it along its whole length. When I say ‘score line’, I am talking on a geologically large scale. From close up it is a long valley running along the top of the ridge.

An analogy would be a cake that has risen and collapsed in the middle as it is baking.

For most of the length the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is under water. However, it goes right through Iceland and there it is visible on land.

I was just now looking at photographs of the Thingvellir Rift Valley in Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart.

They are not moving very fast. The Universities Space Research Station says the gap between the plates has widened 230 feet (70 m) and sunk by 131 feet (40 m) in the last 10,000 years.

When I read about the ‘Thingvellir Rift Valley’, I thought of the other rift valley that I know – the Great Rift Valley.

It too is caused by the splitting apart of tectonic plates and it runs from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon down through the Dead Sea in Israel, on through Ethiopia and Kenya and down to Mozambique.

The thing is that I have known about the Great Rift Valley for years, but for whatever reason, I thought the word ‘Rift’ was something from the language of the region.

It wasn’t until today when I thought of the word ‘rift’ associated with Iceland that I realised that the word is effectively an adjective, a description. It is a rift – a crack, a split, a division, a break.

How could my brain have not woken up to realise that?

Maybe I was led astray by the word Rif – a mountainous region in the north of Morocco? (Nice try, David)

Do you do that kind of thing – not see the meaning because you are so ‘close’ to the word?

St Anthony’s Fire

I’ll tell you a story about ergot. In my spare time at university I read a book (The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire by John Grant Fuller Jr) about the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit ergot poisoning.

Ergot contains a mass of compounds, some of which act like LSD and some of which have other effects on the body.

There have been reports throughout history of mass poisoning with ergot.

A 2016 article in the Smithsonian refers to an incidence of St John’s dance (another name for St. Anthony’s Fire) that affected a village in Aachen in 1374 where the villagers danced endlessly and uncontrollably.

Breugel painted the annual procession of people affected by St John’s Dance on their pilgrimage to be cured at the church at Molenbeek.

St John’s Dance, or St. Anthony’s Fire, are thought to be incidences of ergotism. 

Hundreds of people were affected in the 1951 outbreak at Pont-Saint-Esprit in France. Some died, some had gangrenous limbs, some went crazy, and some survived intact.

I remember a sentence near the end of the book where one of the outsiders who came to the village after the outbreak described the villagers as moving together like a flock of geese.

That’s got a science fiction sound to it – that the villagers were somehow telepathically tied to one another.  Or perhaps they were simply shocked and came together as survivors of a mutual tragedy.

You may wonder how an incident like this could go on for days and weeks in the 20th century without the outside world quickly arriving to intervene and help people.

This was an isolated village in rural France in 1951, not long after the Second World War. It happened. 


A friend and I used to cycle from the university to a nature reserve.

One summer’s day we stopped on a small country road and sat back on the grass by a field. I started to tell her about The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire, the book I was reading, and while I was telling her I saw that there was rye growing around the edges of the field.

It may have been the previous year’s crop that had hung on and sprouted again. Or it may have been there for years, stubbornly refusing to disappear.

I reached back behind my head to take an ear of rye to explain how ergot – Claviceps purpurea fungus – grew inside and over the ear of rye.

I looked at what I had picked and one of the ears was a large, dark purple, curved mass of ergot.

We looked for other ears similarly infected with the fungus. Nothing. Never found another one.

I kept the ear in a small quill box. I had bought in a junk shop because it was similar to the one my parents had at home which I liked.

My dad brought that box back from Japan after he was invalided out during the Korean War.

The box was hand made, black wood with porcupine quill inlays.

I don’t know what happened to the ear of ergot or the box I bought. After my parents died, I kept their quill box, which I still have.

On a visit to the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest

Our guide, Yoel, pointed out the extent of the ghetto from 1944 after the Government tried to surrender to the Allies. The Government was overthrown by Arrow Cross and the Germans marched in.

In front of us in the grounds of the synagogue are buried 2,281 people in mass graves.

The graves look like raised flower beds in a small area by the wall of the synagogue, marked by some plaques. We stare at the space.

How do you cry when the crying is too big,

When the thing about which you want to cry is so big that your cry is swallowed in your mouth,

When the history is many times more than you,

When many others suffered so much, much more,

When your voice is small,

When the pressure of what is inside you and what is outside you tighten in your chest, in your mouth?

That feeling is the feeling you feel.