"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Monday, 10 March 2014

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.

Holme-Fen-Sat-8th-March

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-in-1872

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.

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Rough ideas  A4 sketchbook

adders-2-bg

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.

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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!

4 comments:

Caroline Gill said...

A fascinating post. We saw an Adder at Minsmere last summer, but have rarely sen these snakes and didn't know they liked the peat fen habitat.

Chris D said...

Blackadder made me giggle and think of Rowan Atkinson.

I love the studies of the eyes and your sketchpad ideas.

Happy Creativity!

Diana Studer said...

intrigued how you achieve the effect of both shiny and rounded in those eyes. The catchlight helps, but the rest I can't decipher only enjoy.

sharp green pencil said...

Thanks all.
Caroline: I am really hoping to see an Adder for real this coming year. Hopefully at Holme Fen, talking to the warden here at the reservoir they seem to like acid habitats.. so I am unlikely to see one here.

Chris: Many thanks.. I had to mention Blackadder ..I knew what people might be thinking! :)

Diana: Hi and thank you. With an eye you treat the thing as a sphere, so put a cast shadow on the whole eye as well as the highlight for the shine.