Thursday, 21 March 2013

Snakes

The common and surrounding areas were and, I suspect still are, the home to a healthy snake population. Grass snakes were common around the edges of the pond and river and could often be seen swimming in the waters, they are good swimmers. For the most part, when seen, snakes were attacked by both men and boys. Often I have heard men speaking of a snake which had been killed in their garden and my grandfather would often talk of snakes which his gang of railway workers had killed along the track as they cut the banks. I suppose the general view was that the only good snake was a dead one. This was not at all unusual within country communities in the days well before reptiles were considered worthy of protection. There was a lot of ignorance regarding these animals as was evidenced by the fact that tales of slain adders would almost always be accompanied by the assertion that the snake had been at least four feet long. Adders don’t actually get to be very long therefore if a dead snake was indeed four feet long it was probably a grass snake and harmless. Equally the legless lizard, the slowworm, would often be claimed as an adder and killed. Only a few days ago in my present village, my neighbour advised me that he had encountered a couple of adders whilst cutting his grass. We do not live in adder country and these creatures would almost certainly have been slowworms as we do have a healthy population in these parts. I often find them in the garden especially when moving logs and such like. I record this merely to demonstrate that much of the old ignorance still goes on today. Happily my neighbour did not kill his "adders".
 
However back to Kingsley, as boys, as soon as a grass snake appeared in the pond we would blitz it with any missile we could get our hands on, stones, tufts of grass, lumps of wood and even balls of mud made from the edges of the water. The hapless beast would endure this onslaught until it could no longer swim and finally gave up the ghost. Not very nice. It was probably the frogs which attracted the grass snakes to the pond and it was quite pitiful to hear the screams of a frog confronted by a snake and or being swallowed by it. A newly eaten frog could be seen as a large bulge along the body of the snake for quite some time whilst the digestive process took place.
 
It was claimed that the smooth snake also existed on the commons at Kingsley, Shortheath and around the Frensham ponds. Although I spent much time in all of those areas I never saw one but others did and there is no doubt that they existed in those places.
 
Adders were common on the common at Kingsley and all around the heathland in the region. Incredibly, given the time spent and activities that I undertook upon the common, I only ever saw an alive one once. How do I know they were so common or plentiful? Well apart from reports from people claiming to have seen them, it was common to find their slothed skins in the heather and grass around the edges of the pond and all over the common. Indeed, for school boys these skins were considerable trophies, particularly so if they were complete and contained the eye covers. When found the skins would be inside out which meant that their colour was somewhat duller than would have been the case if seen upon the animal before shedding takes place. The shedding or slothing begins at the head of the snake and the skin is rubbed back along itself all the way to the tip off the tail until it finally leaves the body completely inside out. The shedding takes place as the snake grows and each skin become too tight, as one skin goes another takes its place and so on. Many of these skins would be found during the summer months and would be displayed at school as a part of our nature studies. For the most part they would be around a foot in length but very occasionally a skin would be found up to about eighteen inches long. So from that one can deduce that the average Kingsley adder is not a very big creature.
 
During my boyhood in the village it was common place for the army to engage in manoeuvres upon the common some of which would last for a week at a time. During these exercises flares would be fired, shots from blank rounds would be common place and generally there was a lot of noise. Tented camps were erected together with radio masts and all manner of interesting bits and pieces. Best of all there were large numbers of trenches dug and these dug outs provided great playing areas. After an exercise had taken place we would scour the area for the bits and pieces which the soldiers left behind. These prizes included tin openers, packets of hard biscuits, boiled sweets and, sometimes, the powdered orange and lemon drinks which had been included in the military ration packs. There were dozens of brass cases from the blank bullets that been fired and these were considered a particular treasure. Apart from being able to polish them brightly they could also be used as a reasonable whistle if one blew at an angle across the open end. What, you might wonder,has all this got to do with snakes, well, when the army had gone we took over the trenches, we would cover them with sheets of old tin, if we could find some, then cover that with sand and combinations of heather, gorse and grass in order to make an underground and secret camp. Into these we would creep and spend lots of time. It always amazed me that we did not encounter snakes in these little dungeons, it seemed to me that they would provide an ideal hibernating place for the reptiles but never once, thankfully, did I encounter one. We crawled in the heather, crept through the gullies created by years of rainfall in the sandy banks to the left of the Lindford road above Sleaford, and wandered for days on end through the gorse and sandy areas building camps with anything we could unearth but never once were we bitten or indeed even encountered an adder. I can only conclude that adders are the shy creatures that they are claimed to be and that the general noise and disturbance consistent with a group of small boys at play scared them off well in advance of us. The other activity that we engaged in, (and still brings me out in a sweat when I think of it ), was crawling beneath the Cadet Hut. This was located on the left hand side of the track just past Ockham Hall and opposite the row of cottages that were at right angles to the track on the right hand side. The Cadet Hut was constructed of wooden slats and was built upon four walls of brick. These walls were about three feet high and ran the length of the building which was probably about fifty feet in length. Set about four feet apart, the floor of the hut rested across the width of the walls. At the front of the hut were steps up to floor level as you entered the front door.These steps blocked of the front of the center channel. Beneath the hut and between the walls there were three such channel s. The two outer channels could be seen through but the middle one, as a result of the steps, was blocked off. This, of course, meant that small boys crawling into the tunnel or channel were doing so into darkness. The floor of each of the tunnels was sandy but dirty, we always re-emerged from those expeditions covered in dirty dust and in need of a good wash. Once again I often thought,as I crawled within the middle tunnel,that it would have provided a great place for a resting snake or two and expected at any moment to put my hand upon one. I never did.
 
During our time in Woodfield at Kingsley we had for most of the period a dog called Nikky. It was a cross between a Chow and Collie, he looked rather like a Border Collie but had retained the Chow purple mouth. However, one summers day, having been out on the common with the dog over and upon an area which we called White Hill, the dog came back and collapsed. White Hill was roughly in the middle of the common between the end of Goldhill and Coldharbour and was indeed a hill,getting its name from the white sand upon it. Carrying the dog and arriving at the roadside by the church gates and opposite the school, the boys with the dog encountered Mr. Lucas, the village policeman. He, of course, enquired as to why the dog was being carried and having had a bit of a look quickly discovered two telltale pink prick marks in the dogs nose. Correctly,Mr. Lucas gave the boys the news, the dog had been bitten by an adder. The vet was called, administered an injection and expressed the view that the dog should be ok. His chief worry was that the swelling associated with the bite might cause the dogs throat to expand to a point where it might choke him. Fortunately this did not happen. The dog did lose a tremendous amount of weight becoming almost skeletal for several weeks before quickly regaining his former vigour. This represented the only snake bite that I ever knew to happen in Kingsley during the whole of the time I lived there.
 
My only other adder encounter was on the Kingsley road just above the river bridge where the New Inn Pub used to be. I was cycling back from Bordon and having crossed the bridge I noticed the snake in the road before me. I did what we always did in those days, I got off my bike and proceeded to batter it with the gravel from the side of the road. Needless to say, the snake didn’t like that very much, having tried to get away from my onslaught and failed, it decided to fight. It was hissing like mad and in its attempts to strike me it actually lifted itself off the road by a few inches each time it struck. We reached a sort of stalemate, I had nothing heavy enough with which to administer the coup de grace and the snake didn’t want to hang around; it therefore slithered into the grass and made good its escape albeit seriously fed up with its human encounter.
 
So there you have it, a brief account of the snake life in Kingsley as I knew it.

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