Black Adders from the Black Fens

Holme Fen

On Saturday we went to Holme Fen, a remaining fragment of peaty forested fen, not what you would expect from fenland really.


Shimmering silver birches at Holme Fen on Saturday 8th March

It has a fascinating history and was once a part of Whittlesea Mere, the largest lake in lowland England which was 3 miles across and a venue for ice skating in the winter, fishing and sailing. It was drained at last by the Victorians in 1851 with John Appold’s, Steam Pump brought up from the Great Exhibition.

“The wind, which of autumn of 1851 was curling the blue water of the lake, in the autumn of 1853 was blowing the same place over fields of yellow corn.” Skertchy (1877

But one small piece of the reclamation, which is now the Nature Reserve was considered too wet to cultivate and gradually returned to birch forest.
My information from Natural England’s trail leaflet PDF here.

The Peat

Walkng through these elegant birch woods was easy going, the ground under your feet is springy, so unlike the yellow sticky mud that we have been trudging through here for the past few months. The peat here escaped exploitation and despite astonishing shrinkage, (as you can see by the Fen Post), they think the peat still extends 3 meters down over most of the site.


Chris standing by the post. His head is by the 1870 marker. The peat was level with the top of the post in 1851. The peat had shrunk to this mark in only 19 years.

Fenland Adders

Black, beautiful peat, back-breakingly dug for years mostly for fuel, also creates good adder habitat; black adders in particular if you read old accounts of peat cutting from the Fens. They were said to rise up suddenly, unseen against the black fen soil and frightening the land workers.

Other grim Fenland adder stories in Witches and Black Adders from Yaxley History which make me feel even more sorry for these lovely snakes. In 1963 Sybil Marshall published the Fenland Chronicle, her parents memories written in their Fenland dialect and detailing life on the Cambridgeshire Fens. It is a fascinating read and tells some good adder stories. More of those another time but she does say:

Needless to say we had a healthy respect for adders-nobody only a born fool would want to be too familiar with them. They abounded in the fen and were a common sight to the turf diggers who couldn’t be said to be frightened of them, even if they didn’t make pet on ‘em”

It would seem logical for adders to be black as camouflage against the black fenland soil but they consider adder colouration is more genetic than in response to habitat.

black adder Paul Smith

Paul Smith’s photo from the ARC website again see more here

Adder Sketches

I am still thinking about how to develop the adder image. More sketches today. I wonder if I can redress the balance a bit with my portrayal and have an adder loving fen man with adders fondly clustering round, or perhaps 2 dancing adders ( the mating dance) with the peat diggers in the distance.


Rough ideas  A4 sketchbook


2 thumbnail ideas for a possible print.

I am also rather interested in their eyes. They are a beautiful orange red with a slit pupil unlike the grass snake and slow worm whose eyes have round pupils.


Watercolour sketches of the eyes; adder,grass snake, slowworm ( which is really a legless lizard, hence the eyelid)

Adders and Grass Snakes have no eyelids but a transparent scale called a brille which covers the eye and is part of their skin. Just before shedding this brille  turns blueish, clouding the eye.  After the old skin has peeled away, the adders eye is returned to its glowing brilliance. Amazing. For more adder love see artist Ben Waddam’s short film on a peat bog adder here.

PS: If you were wondering about the name Blackadder it doesn’t have much to do with snakes!

Shoreline Things at Grafham: Spiders, Snakes, Swans and Shelly Fauna.

The  reservoir shoreline is being exposed a little more every day as the warm windy weather continues. Rocks are left high and dry and thistles are edging relentlessly into fish territory.

The crusty edge of the land is developing the flaky cracks and deep fissures of a high baked loaf. Big sandy rocks interspersed with pebbles and shingly sand are splitting and crumbling.

The graceful weeping willows barely brush the retreating surface of the water.

crust      DSC02855

On the land side the bleached white world of shoreline stones and pebbles is patrolled by many tiny black spiders .. what they eat I cannot imagine?

They are skittish and shy and scamper about their mountain ranges casting spidery little shadows and stopping to bask in the sun from time to time.

spider 2


There are occasional well disguised little jumping zebra spiders too.

zebra spider

They, of course, pay scant regard to their ancient landscape but some of the intermittent shingle beaches seem to be almost entirely made up of lumpy fossil gryphaea, bivalve shell relics of another unimaginable age.

I read that the shore line of Grafham water exposes Oxford Clay which is comprised of :

…mainly brownish-grey, fissile, organic-rich (bituminous) mudstones with shelly fauna dominated by crushed aragonitic ammonites and bivalves, including nuculoid and meleagrinella shell-beds”


shelly shingle

It was in one of these shell beds I found a fossilised twiggy thing of some kind. It is curiously beautiful. The pith inside whatever it was is clearly visible and there is a leaf scar of some sort.  I know nothing about fossils at all but I do find it incredible that I can hold something in my hand that may date back some 154 to 159.4 million Years.


A rock had split to expose this beautiful frondy pattern.. How long has it been hidden?

split rock

Off shore there are lots of these:

swan 1

Sometimes regal and graceful and sometimes not.


And one day last week we saw a distant swimming snake.

It’s a startling sight, seeing this curious creature, one minute gliding through the water, the next slithering along the ground. It makes you catch you breath.
It was just a pretty banded grass snake equally at home zigzaging silently through water, as coiling around the rocks and pebbles on the beach. It was quite difficult to see, with just its head above the water. Sometimes it swam completely submerged.




I was even more surprised to see it later that day but much further round the reservoir. Both of us were startled.  I was photographing a bee which was investigating an old tree stump by the water when the snake suddenly appeared, winding itself round the base of the roots.


grass snake

I wish I had been quicker and been able to take a better photograph. I have not see it since.  Shore lines are so fascinating and, yes, there are bees as well. Taking advantage of the sandy banks for a nest site, an Andrena of some kind disappears down a hole, stalked by a ubiquitous, opportunist and sinister Nomada bee.

andrena bee      nomada sm

And we are still lulled to sleep by the humming house, the Mason bees are still busy.

Leaf of the Day: Sky Flower and Snakes

As if little pieces of a deep blue summer sky had fallen to earth, that is how the beautiful Sky Flower gets its name. The blues range from deep violet to the pale blue of a spring morning sky, its throat a pale creamy yellow. This lovely twining vine is also known as the ‘Bengal clock flower’ from its habit of twisting clockwise around any available support.

This is the thunbergia grandiflora, one of the acanthus family. It was named by the great Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linneaus for Carl Peter Thunberg who was one of Linneaus’ last pupils. These 18th Century scientists made extraordinary journeys, travelling round the world in search of new and exotic plant species usually connected with medical studies. Thunberg trained as a medical doctor and part of the training, naturally, was botany as plants would be the main raw materials of his medicines. In August 1775 he travelled as a ship’s doctor to Japan where he lived and worked as a surgeon on at a Dutch trading post on a tiny island in the Bay of Nagasaki. He was seldom allowed to leave the island but through exchanging ideas and knowledge with Japanese doctors he eventually managed to get permission to make a trip to Edo ( Tokyo) which resulted in the first recorded survey of Japanese flora. Reading about any of the lives of these great explorers is humbling.

This is my second attempt to draw this flower. It is so delicate that it is easily crushed and dies very quickly when picked. It grows in a hedge by Leu Gardens and I had taken a little piece yesterday but, consigned to my back pack and a 40 minute bike ride in 87 degrees, the flower on the stem had completely shrivelled up by the time I arrived home. Luckily there was also a bud, which today unfolded obligingly but just a quickly withered.

It is a problem, trying to get delicate specimens back to the house in good condition. When I was young, my sister and I would go out collecting flowers to be lovingly pressed and named. I remember advice, (no doubt from “Girl” magazine or one of my favourite books “Rambles with Uncle Nat “), to paint a cocoa tin black which would provide a cool and rigid container. This we duly did, and attached string for easy transportation. I somehow think that serious botanists may have moved on.

I have tried to save one or two of the leaves I have drawn by drying them. I am not generally a fan of dried flowers ..they conjure up visions of cheap and dismal bed and breakfast establishments which always seemed to have a grey dusty dried flower arrangement in the lobby, usually artfully and visibly glued to a log or bedecked with a faded ribbon …but I love to find a single little pressed flower in an old book, some treasured keepsake. My leaves are now tucked away in the few books I have here.

I have now seen two snakes at Leu Gardens.

A little green snake, I think the Rough Green Snake, yesterday and my first snake sighting was the beautiful big Southern Black Racer which, true to its name, zipped across the path in front of me. Neither of these snakes are venomous but they do still stop you in your tracks.
Luckily Orlando has a snake removal service should you find one cosying up in the bathroom.

Sky Flower