‘Swallowing a spider gently bruised and wrapped up in a raisin or spread on bread and butter.’
~ Dr Watson’s remedy for fevers
Most of my life I have had an extreme phobia of spiders. As I grew up my mum would love to torture me by buying me spider-related presents. Books about the different varieties and little creepy-crawly gifts would invariably end up in my christmas stocking.
When I became a single mother in 2006, one of my worries was how I was going to deal with the multiple eight-legged fiends that find their way into our home. I tried hard not to pass on my phobia to my children, but they were not too keen about having to catch them either. But you know, when you have no alternative, you have to be a big girl and deal with things yourself. Consequently, over time, I have learnt to catch and put outside all but the largest and most scary looking (for those I am sorry to say, I resort to the vacuum).
I have actually become quite a fan of these fascinating creatures. Now, if I see a spidery book in a shop, I usually add it to my collection.
This 1947 penguin one was on my Pinterest board for years, and when I saw it in the local Oxfam shop, I could not resist. It is by the English naturalist and arachnologist W. S. Bristowe. The cover is exquisite, designed by Mary W. Duncan. And inside are beautiful plates of some British spiders painted by A. T. Hollick in 1867-70.
There is also a written section in homage to the spider. Little anecdotes, stories, and medicinal cures such as Dr Watson’s remedy for fevers at the top of this post. According to the book there are over 500 varieties of British spiders. These creatures are an essential link in the food chain, consuming billions of insects. They are ingenious in their design, methods of camouflage, and web-weaving.
Not least of all the forty different kinds of Aranae – or garden spider – that is so visible in hedgerows and gardens at this time of year:
‘When starting to build a web the Aranae stands on tiptoe, raises her body, squeezes out some silk and allows the air currents to waft the silk whither the spider knows not. On the thread getting attached to a neighbouring object, she pulls it tight, walks across her bridge, and strengthens it. Next she makes the rest of the frame and then lays down her spokes or radii. After the radii the spider builds three distinct sets of spiral threads. First, a few very close together in order to strengthen the hub. Then a widely spaced spiral to the outside margin. And third, starting from the outside, the evenly measured spirals which give the web its characteristic appearance. The second set, the widely spaced spirals, were used merely as temporary bridges and the spider destroys them as she lays down the last set. The last spirals to be spun are the only threads in the web which are sticky. The thin film of gum with which each thread is coated is broken up by surface tension into evenly spaced globules and the appearance under a microscope is of a lovely bead necklace. The feet of the Aranea are slightly oily and in that way she avoids getting trapped in her own web.
Daily in summer, these superb craftswomen destroy their old webs, except for the frame, and then build a new one in the space of about half an hour.’