Country Life: Snake tales

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My theme this week is exotic animals. I know this is not necessarily what you might expect from a column called Country Life, but then it doesn't specify which country. So let me return to Nigel the corn snake, whose forebears hail from the south-eastern seaboard of the United States.

My theme this week is exotic animals. I know this is not necessarily what you might expect from a column called Country Life, but then it doesn't specify which country. So let me return to Nigel the corn snake, whose forebears hail from the south-eastern seaboard of the United States.

Regular readers, of whom I understand there are several, will recall that a few weeks back our household was bracing itself for the arrival of a pet snake. Our neighbour Will, a wildlife consultant, has a friend called Nigel, who lives in Ledbury and breeds reptiles, and who promised our son Joseph a baby corn snake, which Joseph naturally decided should be called Nigel.

Nigel Junior will eventually grow to 3ft but at the moment he is not much longer or thicker than a boot lace, and we all think he's terribly sweet - even Joseph's older sister, Eleanor, who was extremely dubious about sharing a roof with anything quite as slithery as a snake. Which is somewhat paradoxical, because there is nothing round here more slithery than our roof tiles.

Anyway, I am grateful to a reader, the Reverend Alex Martin, from Crediton in Devon, for writing to tell me that my Nigel story reminded him of a boa constrictor called Barnabas, which belonged in the early 20th century to the chaplain of Trent College, in Derbyshire, an eccentric but plainly rather wonderful cove nicknamed "Daddy" Warner.

When the Rev Martin became a chemistry master at the college, after the Second World War, Daddy Warner was still chaplain, and liked to tell the tale of how he had once been in bed with flu, and feeling the need for company had sent for Barnabas to share his bed. When the school doctor arrived to treat the chaplain, he drew back the sheet and was confronted by Barnabas rising towards him. Not unreasonably, he fled.

Daddy Warner also used to take Barnabas on long summer treks with the pupils. One year, in the New Forest, Barnabas disappeared from the camp and could not be found. Happily, a day or so later someone saw a headline on the front page of a newspaper: "Dangerous tropical snake discovered in the New Forest." Barnabas was duly reunited with Daddy.

Whether Joseph will grow as attached to Nigel as Daddy Warner was to Barnabas, I don't know. I rather hope not. On the other hand, it is pleasing that a boy whose grasp of personal hygiene is iffy, to say the least, has so far looked after Nigel in exemplary fashion. If mucking out Nigel's tank encourages Joseph to muck out his own bedroom from time to time, we will be delighted. However, we were slightly disconcerted to learn that Nigel Senior was nine years old, precisely the age Joseph is now, when he was given his first snake. His interest became a passion and in due course a livelihood. He now has a sizeable number of snakes - which makes us wonder whether, by allowing Joseph to have Nigel, we might be storing up problems for him when he reaches courting age. "Come upstairs and see my python" is really not a great chat-up line on any level.

* The entirely true story I told a couple of weeks ago - about the circus bear in China that escaped and was next seen 100 miles away by some bear-hunters, when it entered the sights of their rifles wearing a bowler hat and riding a monocycle - has prompted another nice letter from another reader. He is an occasional correspondent of mine called David Gorvett, of Leominster, who says it reminded him of a booklet he wrote in 1987 about the Herefordshire village of Eardisley.

In late Victorian times, apparently, the Eardisley May Fair was a hugely popular event, with a circus as its centrepiece. Those were less sensitive times than our own, of course. Circuses had dancing bears, and sad old elephants which were sometimes compelled to walk dozens of miles from one showground to the next. Anyway, Mr Gorvett found that on one occasion in Eardisley a dancing bear slipped its shackles and climbed to the top of a nearby poplar tree, where it stayed all day and well into the evening, resisting all blandishments for it to come down.

"Circumspectly gathered near the open doors of the two pubs," wrote Mr Gorvett, "many onlookers offered their advice, ranging from a swift use of Sir John Coke's elephant gun to the more hazardous employment of a two-handed saw from Powell's Spade Yard." Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately given the wretched existence it was returning to, the bear eventually made the descent of its own accord.

Mr Gorvett certainly did his research thoroughly. He also discovered details of a May Fair in the 1890s when the circus elephant caused a sensation by inconveniently dying on arrival in Eardisley. In warm weather a dead elephant was only going to be an attraction for so long; after a while it would start to keep folk away. So negotiations quickly opened with a local farmer, John Edwards, who agreed that a grave could be dug on his land and the exceedingly large corpse buried within.

Apparently, there is still a mound - or was in 1987 - showing where this interment took place. I wonder whether future archaeologists will get excited over what they think is the skeleton of a young woolly mammoth?

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