Heritage: Hiss-tory of snake bites and sightings in summers past

An adder soaking up the sun. Photo: Jo Clarke via iwitness

An adder soaking up the sun. Photo: Jo Clarke via iwitness - Credit: Jo Clarke

As the weather heats up, local historian Prof Ged Martin discovers Essex has two reptile legends

In August 2016, a Harold Hill resident was bitten in her back garden. She thought she glimpsed something slithering into long grass.

Two days later, her foot swelled up. Only then did doctors realise she’d been attacked by a poisonous snake.

Picnicking with her family in Upminster Park in June 2017, a woman felt a sharp pain in her leg. She assumed she’d been stung by an insect. In fact, it was a snake bite.

Essex has two snakes. The culprit in these attacks was the adder (or viper), identified by a zig-zag mark down its back. Its poison is nasty, but rarely fatal.

But an eleven year-old South Benfleet boy was killed in 1809 “by the bite of a Serpent”.

The shy grass snake is harmless to humans.

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A third creepy, the slow worm, is a legless lizard, not a snake. A 1990 survey found it was fairly common in south Essex, but under threat.

A 2012 atlas of Greater London reptiles noted five sites within Havering.

Snakes are rarely mentioned in historical documents, because they didn’t pay tax, and nobody wanted to eat them.

Essex has two reptile legends. A “Dragon of marvellous bigness” terrorised the coastal village of St Osyth around 1170-1.

It was probably a stranded whale, but the tale grew in the telling, giving it fiery breath that burned down houses.

A 1669 pamphlet, Strange News out of Essex, reported a flying serpent at Henham, near Stansted Airport. (Luckily, there was no airport then: a flying serpent would have caused air traffic problems.)

The monster (nine feet long, with sharp teeth) has been dismissed as a hoax.

But it might have been a migrating bird, blown off course – maybe a rare goose (it had small wings and hissed when approached).

Few 17th century people wore spectacles. Most peasants probably lived in a short-sighted haze, and were easily persuaded that they’d seen a serpent.

An illustration shows locals trying to kill it with pitchforks. Everybody seems very cheerful.

In 1903, the Victoria County History of Essex briefly commented on snakes. Numbers had declined since 1850.

Traditionally, Essex fields were bounded by wide hedge banks. Victorian farmers cut them back to clear more land, destroying reptile habitats.

Adders are becoming rare in Epping Forest, but colonies survive on the Essex marshes. Site clearance on Canvey Island in 2006 disturbed 400 of them!

Grass snakes swim in ditches on Rainham Marshes. You can see one on YouTube.

Occasionally exotic snakes turn up, like the deadly saw-scaled Indian viper on a container ship at Tilbury in 2012, or the python, probably an escaped pet, found under a toilet seat in Southend in 2017.

Holidaymakers fled a Canvey beach when a four-foot long venomous krait swam ashore one summer day in 1925.

One of India’s deadliest snakes, it was thought to have been thrown overboard from a passing ship.

The krait grips victims with its fangs to pump in its deadly venom.

“A boy on beach, in a spirit of bravado, seized the reptile.”

He was saved by a man who’d lived in India and recognised the danger. Grabbing a child’s toy spade, the unknown hero flicked the snake from the boy’s hands, and chopped off its head.

Used to India’s tropical climate, the cold-blooded krait was probably inert in the chill waters of the Thames. That’s why it didn’t retaliate.

Snakes Lane at Woodford Green was named after John Sake, who lived there in 1404. In time, he was forgotten, and people assumed the road was haunted by adders. There’s no black mamba in Woodford, only a red herring.

When reptile expert Stephen Mitchell caught the Tilbury viper in 2012, a colleague explained that his secret was “to grab the snake before it has a chance to realise what’s happening”.

Sounds right to me, but don’t try it at home.