Oulton Broad welcomed me with a perfect Spring morning, lush with cherry blossom and scented with soapy hawthorn flowers, wildfowl shooting low across the sparkling water and skidding to a halt as a few little yachts meandered their way down to the Waveney river. Reeds sighed in the breeze; cattle grazed in the water meadows and the sun shone high in the sky. I felt like I’d woken up in The Darling Buds of May. Better yet, as an honorary Larkin, I had nothing to do but enjoy it.
As I walked back from the Broad to the caravan, something rustled in the undergrowth beside the path. I turned my head, expecting to see a squirrel or a bird. It was long, and it glided. I stopped, waited. It moved again. About half a metre of elegant olive-green snake eased its way through dry leaves and grass, dappled by the sun shining through the trees.
Now, snakes have been a life-long phobia for me, since before I can remember. Blame it on the Bible, Rudyard Kipling, some deep-seated Freudian hang-up, but they fill me with horror. I’d always thought I would scream or faint with fear if I came across one in the wild. Instead, I was fascinated.
I’d only seen glimpses of the vividly-coloured scaly nasties coiled in the corners of zoo enclosures. This was different. The snake was no threat, its slim body and tiny head looking rather vulnerable in the undergrowth. It moved so smoothly, emitting a tiny flickering tongue when it paused or hesitated. The back of the snake was olive, the sides patterned with neat black flecks. A quick search suggests it was a grass snake.
I walked alongside it for a while. It didn’t seem to mind me, if indeed it knew I was there. We were both out enjoying the sunshine. There were no people in sight. It was rather special, just me and the snake, reminding me of DH Lawrence’s poem. Like Lawrence, I felt honoured to have his company. I didn’t have my camera, of course, but I’m rather glad I didn’t. Taking a photo would have changed it, felt perhaps as Lawrence felt when his ‘accursed human education’ urged him to throw a log at his snake.
So has this cured my phobia? Weirdly, I felt that old revulsion as soon as I saw photographs of snakes online, while trying to identify my grass snake. I’m sure I would be pretty terrified in a close encounter with a venomous cobra or rattlesnake, or a python with a body as thick as my arm. Maybe it was the beauty of the day, or the serenity of the setting that drew the fear from me.
But how very comforting; that when the thing I feared most actually materialised in front of me, it was nothing to fear at all.