If you consider the amount written about adders or ‘long cripples’ as they are called on Dartmoor it would be possible to imagine that the place is literally crawling with them, that is not the case anymore. There are many walkers that despite years of tramping the moors have never seen one. Occasionally someone will relate some horror story of have been bitten but even then “t’was no more’n bee sting.” It is fairly common to find dog owners who have had their animals bitten, fatally in some cases and that probably is the worst. Imagine walking five miles into the moor with a dog the size of a Labrador and then having to carry it back because it had been ‘stung’ by an adder, incidentally, on Dartmoor adders sting not bite.
One of the Dartmoor beliefs regarding adders is that if anything has been bitten by one it cannot recover until the snake is dead. Which if this occurred early in the morning could be a problem because another tradition is that an adder can’t die until the sun goes down. Even if an arctic lorry flattened one in the road, that serpent is not deemed dead until the sun sets. It was also believed that once an adder had been killed the carcass must be hung up by its tail because if ever the head and the tail touched the snake would ‘come alive again’.
If a dog is bitten there are two cures, the first is to make a ring from a hazel wand and place it around the animals neck. It is also said that a cross made of hazel twigs will cure a bite if laid upon the wound. The second is to get some ash buds or tips and boil them down into a concoction and give that as a medicine. In similar vane, for any animal bitten by an adder, a collar of ash twigs should be made and placed around the victims neck. If no ash or hazel was readily available then a radish pulled on a night when the moon is nine days old will suffice, indeed if the hands are rubbed with the juice of such a radish then no viper will ever bite.
Many believed that rubbing the bite wound with a dead snake will effect a cure as will the foot of a dead owl or the straw from a swallows nest. There was also the belief that honeysuckle could act as a treatment for adder bite, anybody being bitten by such a creature should first suck the juice or nectar from the flowers and then rub the bite with its leaves.
An ancient cure that was used by the old wisewomen was to apply a toad skin to the bitten area, this would then presumably draw out the poison. The toad was always regarded as being immune to adder bites and able to effect such cures. There was also the following charm that would be recited: “Adder, Adder, Adder, Lay under a stone or hole he hath done this beast wrong. I fold, two fold, three fold, in the Name of the Father and the Son. So let this sting pass away from this wretched vermint if the Lord please, Amen.“
Other herbal possibilities for a cure were to wash the bite with a concoction made from ground rosemary and betony. Or alternatively mix the juice of couch grass with some wine and drink copious amounts, if nothing else the effects of the alcohol would tend to take one’s mind of the bite, Beer, p.12.
Another cure was to hold your head over a cauldron full of elderflowers and boiling water and deeply inhale the vapours. Occasionally, the leaves from the ‘shepherds dial‘ better known as the ‘scarlet pimpernel’ were rubbed over the bite to draw out the venom. It was thought that if one carried the root of Herb Bennet then this had the power to protect it’s carrier from adders as they would come nowhere near the herb.
A certain way to spot and adder is to find a dragonfly, because if you see one hovering there will be an adder basking below it. Many believed that the dragonfly was put on the moor to warn mankind of presence of the poisonous snake. It was also said that if a circle was drawn around the adder with an ash stick then the snake would be unable to break out of it.
The plant commonly called the Cuckoo Pint is also known on Dartmoor as the Adder’s Tongue. This name came around in order to keep children away from its poisonous berries, parents would tell their youngsters that the adder got his ‘sting’ from eating the plant. Therefore it was always best to keep away from it just in case their was a snake lurking in the nearby undergrowth.
There is the tradition that Wistman’s Wood was literally crawling with adders of all shapes and sizes as described by Page: “But there is no doubt that the serpents do hiss there, for it is an abiding place for adders, whose writhing forms the twisted trees bear no far-fetched resemblance.”, p.162.
Baring Gould, 1983, p.182, says how the dry walls of the old Dartmoor farmhouses were ideal places for adders to hibernate. He recalls having been told by an old moorman how when the peat fire was lit and the room warmed he often saw the ‘longcripples’ shoot out from the wall crevices and ‘sway’ in front of the fire. Baring Gould also recorded a rather repulsive cure for adder ‘sting’; simply make a hole in the wall of your cottage and place in it an addled goose or duck egg. Then if ever you fell foul of the long cripple and got ‘stung’ simply swallow the putrid contents of the egg. Personally I would rather sufferer the effect of the venom that swallow a rotten egg, maybe the idea was to make you vomit?
An old saying said “tez signs ov fine weather when tha longcripples scralee ( scrall – loiter) out,” Hewett, 1892, p.98.
Another tradition on Dartmoor is the ‘Adder Stone,’ which is a priceless stone, they have been described as a smooth, bluish stones with a yellow tinge in them. They are formed when a large amount of adders congregate together purposefully with the intent of making such a stone. In 1602 Carew mentioned such as stone: “The country people retaine a conceite that snakes breathing about a hazel wand, doe make a stone ring of blue colour, in which there appeareth the yellow figure of a snake, and that beasts that are stung, being given to drink of the water wherein this stone hath been soaked, will there through recover.”
Today I came across the following piece in Eden Phillpotts’ book, A west Country Sketch Book, pp 98 – 99. which may well point to possible causes of the adder’s demise. To set the scene, Phillpotts is walking out amongst some Dartmoor turf (peat) ties (cuttings) when he meets up with two old ‘bouys’:
“Through this bog-foundered valley men were working and I came presently upon two veterans in a state of mild excitement. They had just wounded to death a snake and now stood watching the unlucky reptile writhe and twist.
“There’s a hugeous hadder for ‘e, mister” said one of them The old man was bald and had little white bunches of hair over his ears that tried to meet behind, but failed. His eyes were blue, his face red and wrinkled. He panted with excitement.
“I’ve seed hundreds of dozens of hadders,” he said; “and I’ve slayed hundreds of dozens; but never saw such a whacker afore.”
“It’s not an adder,” I told him. “Only a grass snake and quite harmless.” He laughed and did not believe me.
“Good thing you didn’t meet un then if you thought that! Hundreds of Dozens I’ve slayed – all hadders and all just bags o’ poison. And I’ve seed their young uns come out of their mouths as I slayed ’em!” The other man gazed at the wriggling snake.
“A long-cripple can’t die afore night. ‘Tis the nature in ’em. No creature have got so much nature to it as a sarpent. If you cut ’em in half the halves go on living just the same till sundown.”
The speaker had a long black beard, grizzled silver; his face was long and his expression inane. His little furrowed forehead was very narrow and his eyebrows were set so high that there seemed scarcely an inch between them and his hair. His rabbit mouth fell open save when he spoke.
“They have their uses,” he continued. “There was a time when they made charms out of ’em. And all varmints was thought to have vartue one way and another. But a frog have got most by all accounts.”
“Only when ’tis dead,” said the elder. “They’m all unlucky living, The Dowl (Devil) hisself took the shape of a snake and the cuss be on ’em for ever.”
“They be a charm of might in proper hands, however,” added the grizzled man doubtfully.
How things have changed, since 1981 adders have become a ‘protected species’ and therefore it’s illegal to kill one. I wonder what those two old Dartmoor men would have to say about that? Probably; “’tis alright vur ee, you’m dun ‘ave to scrat about in the turves an’ risk gittin stung by they long cripples.” In the Western Morning News of the 2nd of September 1925 the Reverend Hugh Breton wrote the following; “I always kill them if I can, as they are dangerous to man and beast… One warm March morning, in 1908, on my way to Deancombe from Sheepstor, I saw three within half a mile. The first two I killed, the third was far too quick and got away by a series of leaps and bounds into the air, the likes of which I have never seen before or since.” Quite often when working out on the moor the men used to tie straw ropes around their legs in order to, as Mrs Bray put it; “to save themselves from the bite of these venomous reptiles, p.3.
On a more positive note it was also a Dartmoor belief that the skin of a ‘Long Cripple’ would provide protection against being ‘Piskie Led‘, this little gem comes from the pen of Richard Polwhele, p.75. Should one wear the skin of a Long Cripple inside a hat then the wearer would be sure never to get a headache. Similarly if worn around the leg then any symptoms of rheumatism would sure to abate. Should one be in need of some good luck then a skin hung over the fireplace would attract good fortune, oh and also protect then house from fire, Beer, p.12.
Every now and again you come across a reference to a snake-stone which if found and carried will protect the bearer from snake bite and bring good luck. Whilst researching a project on St. Hilda’s Abbey at Whitby I came across the same legend only these stones were called St. Hilda’s Snakestones. These are in fact ammonite fossils that have had a snakes head carved onto them. Shortly after this I found one for sale on e-bay and purchased it, but the puzzling thing is why should this tradition be held on Dartmoor because the chances of finding an ammonite fossil on the moor are virtually nil.
On Dartmoor there are several place names that could be linked to the adder such as Snakey Lane (Ashburton), Snakey Pool and Snakey Island (Dunnabridge).
At one time there used to be a notice at the now long gone King Tor Halt railway station warning passengers of the dangers of Adders it said: “IN THE INTERESTS OF GAME PRESERVATION AND FOR THEIR PROTECTION AGAINST SNAKES, ETC. DOGS SHOULD BE KEPT ON A LEAD. BY ORDER.”
There was a pastime on Dartmoor called ‘Snake Snacking’ and it is a shame it has passed into oblivion. This was where you would catch an adder by the tail and ‘cracked’ it as if it where a bull whip, this would eventually break the serpents back. If however the ‘snacker’ was not quite quick enough they would end up with a bite which was cured by making a cross-shaped cut over the wound and applying hot tobacco ash or moist tobacco to it.
Clearly there are adders on Dartmoor and you may see one or none. They tend to occur on the upland heathlands and the many woodlands. I have seen them on Black Hill, Huntingdon Warren, Fox tor mire, Scorhill circle, and the O Brook. There is also a good variation in the colourings which vary from a very dark brown through to a sandy yellow and then an orangey red. The adder’s year starts around May and goes onto October when thankfully they hibernate. The Forestry Commission have produced an excellent online ‘adder fact sheet’ which can be found – HERE.
People occasionally get bitten and in general it is no worse than a bee sting. The thing to remember is that they are really quite small and in an adult the only thing it could probably get its mouth over are the lower parts and extremities of a limb. The NHS report that on average there are around 100 adder bites to humans each year in the United Kingdom. The official advice from the NHS for treating and avoiding snake bites can be found by following the link opposite’
A personal theory regarding people who see adders and folks that don’t, is that if you hate the things, like me, then in summer you tend to watch every footstep and lo and behold – there they are. Where as if they don’t worry you then possibly little attention is paid to the ground and none are spotted. I remember on one morning I was desperately looking for a certain letterbox and finally found the rock it was under, on approaching I saw a big adder laying across it. After much consideration, well 2 seconds worth, I decided to leave well alone, I knew where the letterbox was, so it would be possible to return later in the day when the serpent had gone. By the evening I was heading back and met another walker and so we returned together. Approaching the fated rock I saw that the adder was still sprawled across it. My companion casually strolled across and with the end of his stick gently lifted the creature up. The adder hung as limp as a string of sausages, it seems that someone must have killed it and then left the thing draped over the rock for idiots like me to come along and suppose the snake was alive. It was a good job I did not sit and wait for it to slither off because, depending on the decomposition rate of an adder, I could have been there for weeks.
On another occasion I came across two male adders entwined in their ‘Dance of Death’ as they wrestled for dominance. This sighting resulted in a letterbox sited nearby to their arena, long after they had departed I might add.
Just to show the tenacity of the Dartmoor adders there is one report of a farmer from near Postbridge who in the late 1990’s lost three successive bulls to adder bites. All the bulls were put in the same field and all had to be put down.
This extraordinary hot summer (2014) has resulted in several cases where people and dogs have been ‘stung‘ by adders on Dartmoor. In May a German Shepherd dog received a ‘sting’ on its tongue whilst being walked on Roborough Down. In the same month a woman also received an adder ‘sting’ whilst walking around the Avon Dam area. This was a particularly severe case as she collapsed and had to be air-lifted to Hospital. In June another dog had an unfortunate encounter with an adder, this time in the Postbridge area.
Baring Gould, S. 1983, Devon, Anthony Mott Ltd, London.
Beer, T. 2006. Trevor Beer’s Country Folklore and Legend. Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing
Bray, E. 1854. A Peep at the Pixies. London: Grant and Griffiths.
Hewett, S. 1892, The Peasant Speech of Devon, Elliot & Stock, London.
Page, J. Ll. W. 1895. Dartmoor and Its Antiquities. London: Seeley & Co. Ltd.
Phillpotts, E. 1928. A West Country Sketch Book. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd.
Polwhele, R. 1836. Reminiscences in Prose and Verse. London: J. B. Nichols and Son.