Tavistock has had its fair share of weird and wonderful events over the centuries all of which have contributed to a large collection of folklore tales. Whilst perusing one of Mrs Bray’s books I came across the story of the ‘Tavistock Boa’. This is how she nonchalantly introduces the tale; “In speaking of the wonders of this neighbourhood I quite forgot to mention one, which was here so exaggerated by rumour, that some of the good people at last came to the conclusion that the cause of alarm, a very large snake was nothing less formidable in bulk than the great boa itself.”
Sometime around the summer of 1823 an application to a local magistrate was made in order to ‘look after‘ a large snake that was threatening the safety of the local population. This serpent had been spotted in the vicinity of Pixey Lane (possibly the Pixon Lane of today?) and indeed in Mrs Bray’s own orchard. As the reports of the snake passed from person to person so did the size of the snake until it had reached mythical proportions. As one can imagine the townsfolk began to fear for their lives when venturing anywhere near the area of the alleged sightings.
One young boy swore on the bible that whilst walking along Pixie Lane with a friend he stopped to pick something up from a nearby hedgerow. As he stooped down a great snake leapt out of the hedge, flew across his shoulder and rapidly slithered across the road. An old man standing across the road witnessed the alarming event and reported that the snake’s body was as thick as his thigh and was so long that he could not fathom its length. This certainly would have placed the serpent in the Boa category for large snakes if not surely that of an anaconda.
To further add fear to the story a local ‘wise woman’ declared that the serpent was just like, if not the very same snake, who had tempted Eve in the garden of Eden. So not only was there a gigantic serpent at large it was also the embodiment of evil that introduced sin to the world. Now the townsfolk were not only afeared for their life and limb but also the wellbeing of their mortal souls. Presumably if an application was made to the magistrate he would have ordered the constables to seek out the dreaded serpent thus once again restoring peace and tranquillity to the area?
Sadly Mrs Bray does not say how the story ended apart from reporting that sightings of the snake slowly died away and that the creature was never actually ‘looked after‘. On the brighter side of things she does mention the fact that the Brays had a splendid crop of fruit from their orchard that particular year. The reason being that the sighting of the monstrous serpent in their orchard had effectively deterred the local boys from their annual scrumping sorties, pp. 163 -164.
Today we can often read of horrendous stories of folk lifting their toilet seat lids to find monstrous snakes curled up in the pan. There are reports of cherished pets being swallowed whole by equally as large serpents who have taken up residence in their gardens. These are not mythical creatures but simply pet (if that’s what you could call them) snakes that have escaped from their owners. In other cases the serpents are pets who had outgrown both their home and welcome and had been releases into the wild. Either way when these events occur today they certainly cause alarm but there in never any fear of evil doing, one simply calls the RSPCA or police.
Therefore could there have been some truth in the story insomuch as there was somebody living in the area whose ‘pet’ snake had escaped? Possibly one could argue that in the early 1820s such exotic pets would never have been kept in captivity. On the other had around that time wealthy people did keep menageries of all kinds.
Or was it simply a case of a larger than normal native snake being seen and as the reports were passed on its proportions grew to mythical proportions. As the size of the serpent grew so did people’s imagination as to what they saw or maybe even what they wanted to see?
Bray, E. 1844. Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire. London: J. Murray.