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The Thing Is with Steve Canavan

Male adder on the Eastern Moors
Male adder on the Eastern Moors
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Anyone who knows off the top of their head that the last fatal adder bite in the UK was in 1975 when a five-year-old was killed would have to be a bit of a weirdo right?

Well, hi, let me introduce myself, I’m a weirdo.

The fact I know this is totally the fault of my mother. She is so scared of snakes she has to leave the room if one so much as appears on the tele (as a result she’s the only person in Britain who detests David Attenborough). As a primary school teacher, she once climbed headfirst out of a classroom window when a child wandered in holding a grass snake.

Anyway, whenever on a family walk we went near some bracken, my mother told us that adders - the UK’s only venomous snake and therefore something she was petrified of - were lurking close by and she would begin violently stamping the ground with her feet. “They’ll hear the vibrations and scarper,” she’d assure us, as if saving our lives.

“Deadly they are,” she’d add. “One bite and you’ll be paralysed within the hour.” Those walks were such fun…

As a result of my mother’s hysteria, I too have been left with a lifelong fear of adders.

Well, fear is perhaps too strong a word. I mean I don’t walk around on a daily basis thinking an adder will slither out of the geraniums in the back garden and pounce.

But I am always very wary when we are in adder territory, such as wading through deep bracken in some remote location … which is exactly the situation I found myself in the other weekend.

Myself and a friend decided to walk a section of the Wales Coastal Path. It is beautiful and I’d recommend it. What I wouldn’t recommend is doing it with an imbecile who can’t read a map.

Now in fairness I’ve not much room to talk as I can’t read a map either. I just make sure that I always walk with people who can.

However, turns out the mate I went with to Wales is as useless as me, the only difference being that he pretends he knows what he’s doing.

Thus it was that when we reached a slightly tricky part of the walk, my friend consulted our Ordnance Survey guide, pointed at some tiny black marking that required ultra-strength reading glasses to see and confidently announced, ‘we follow the path to the left here - should come out near the church by Damp Trouser Tarn’.

I nodded sagely, as if I had carefully examined the map myself and agreed, and we began marching along the path my friend had selected.

Five minutes later, and seemingly without warning, we found ourselves on the edge of a sheer cliff-face, with an incredibly dense section of bracken directly in front of us and no real trace of any path. ‘You sure this is right?’ I shouted to my companion, a few paces behind.

“Yep, it’s just round this corner, I think,” he replied. Looking back now, the ‘I think’ part of his reply was perhaps telling.

A few paces further in and the bracken was around my midriff. Prior to setting out, a guidebook had warned of adders in the area. I now had a dilemma: do I do something highly unmanly and admit that I’m scared of adders, or do I continue in brave and stoic manner? Naturally I chose the former.

“Erm, this is perfect territory for adders - I’m not that keen on carrying on,” I said, weakly.

My friend looked at me as if slightly ashamed to be an acquaintance and said, ‘you’re joking right?’

I assured him I wasn’t and told him my fatal adder bite fact. ‘1975?’ he scoffed, and pointed out that if no one had died from an adder bite in the last 42 years then that might suggest they actually aren’t that dangerous.

Insulted, I whipped out my mobile phone and Googled ‘adders’.

Several pictures of trainers and tracksuits appeared on the screen, which momentarily confused me until I realised my search had been auto-corrected to ‘adidas’.

I tried again and was directed to the Forestry UK website which began, encouragingly, ‘adders have the most highly developed venom injecting mechanism of all snakes’.

It cheerfully added that ‘adders strike swiftly at prey, injecting a lethal dose of venom’ and the number of bites ‘peak during July’.

Gulp.

Over on the NHS website, things weren’t any better. An adder bite, it said, “can in severe cases, cause kidney failure, massive blood loss, and death”. Of those three, the third would appear to be the least appealing option.

Apparently there are more than 100 adder bites in the UK each year and in one of the most recent cases, a 27-year-old man spent two days in intensive care and required blood thinners to keep his heart going after being bitten by an adder which had slithered under his son’s buggy during a family picnic in a park in south-west London.

That happened in a public park. In London.

Here I was up to my neck in bracken on a remote part of the Welsh coast. Basically I was about to die, which would be a real shame because I’m halfway through a good book.

My friend reluctantly conceded we’d gone slightly off-path but claimed if we continued just a short distance further, we’d make it back to the right point.

I made him go first - if one of us was going to be bitten by an adder and killed, I’d much rather it be him; he’s just finished his book - while I, recalling my mum’s advice, stamped my feet and made as much noise as I could, the theory being that any adder within three miles would think ‘what the bloody hell’s that racket?’ and go and lie somewhere else.

Eventually, after wading a further half-mile or so, and almost falling off the cliff four times (with hindsight, walking along a path with a 200-foot sheer drop to the rocks and crashing sea was rather more dangerous that the threat of a snake bite), we finally made it back to the path.

I was relieved to be alive and, not one to hold a grudge or sulk, didn’t speak to my friend for the next 17 miles.

Next time, I’ll go with someone who can read a map - and is a fellow adder-fearer.