A Month in The Countryside

Spiders, spiders, everywhere, and Helen Walmsley-Johnson needs a drink. Will a “spider safari” at the local bird fair help quell our columnist’s terror?


I know “they’re more frightened of you than you are of them” but have you seen the size of a Camel Spider? Have you??

Last month Mr Pushkin Cat and I celebrated a full year in residence in the Rutland cottage. It’s taken a while to settle in (does it get harder as I grow older?) but then I did have my hands full to start with, what with having practically no money and a book to write.

I made my deadline by the skin of my teeth and since then I’ve spent a lot of time bonding with my new home. Or should that be re-bonding, given that I look out across the valley to the house I used to live in 20 years ago.

Whatever and either way, I – we – are tremendously and toe-wrigglingly content. The Cat has his own routine and on sunny days has transferred his bird-watching activities to the path under the climbing rose, where he lurks as a darker patch among the shadows but apparently with no ill intent whatsoever. In many ways he is a most uncatlike cat, apart from inevitably finding himself on the wrong side of any closed door. The doors in the cottage are thus nearly always open.

Speaking of bird-watching, and by way of getting me out and about locally, I volunteered to help on a neighbour’s antiquarian bookstand at the Rutland Bird Fair (“the birdwatchers’ Glastonbury”). Unexpectedly this provided me with a fair few revelations and the awakening of a surprising empathy with a longstanding enemy – the spider.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to describe my anti-spider feelings as a phobia, or I wouldn’t be living where I do, but on the other hand and for as long as I can remember I’ve been bloody terrified of them. I think this is largely because they tend to pop up in surprising places and then come at you with a 0–60 Lewis Hamilton can only dream of.

Over the past year they’ve turned up inside a loo roll and a walking boot; they’ve dangled from the Cat’s ear and nestled inside the handle of my Bic razor. At one point the garden hedge was decorated by a dense web at least two feet across with a tunnel in the middle for the eight-legged builder. The Cat, the Tattooed Daughter and I imagined it must be massive and gave it a wide berth.

Like most people I don’t mind the smaller spiders but anything over the size of a 5p piece gives me pause for thought. Yes, I know “they’re more frightened of you than you are of them” but have you seen the size of a Camel Spider? Have you?? Learning about the Camel Spider nearly stopped me going to the Atlas Mountains, especially when someone told me that they “like to snuggle”. Fuck that.

Anyway, spiders and me have a long history of (one-sided) animosity so I was surprised to find myself cautiously wandering into the British Arachnological Society stand at the Bird Fair. For a while I stood well back while the nice lady in a floral tea dress explained about what lovely interesting and misunderstood creatures they are, all the time calmly holding a large jar containing some wire netting and an enormous house spider. This spider warranted its own postcode. This was the size of spider I would consider calling the police for… in normal circumstances.

“Over the past year spiders have turned up inside a loo roll and a walking boot; they’ve dangled from the Cat’s ear and nestled inside the handle of my Bic razor.”

Now, you really can’t live in a cottage surrounded by trees and open fields if you’re going to have hysterics every time you see a spider, or any other creepy-crawly for that matter. When your home is rural it’s very much a case of mi casa es su casa with the local wildlife. Twenty years ago my kitchen was variously visited by a pheasant, assorted rabbits, several bats, a couple of moles, a hedgehog, a woodcock, a tawny owl, the inevitable mice and, of course, spiders, and this was despite (or perhaps because of) the resident cats.

With this in mind and with sweaty palms I managed to bring myself to hold the spider jar for, ooh… a whole 30 seconds before nervously handing it back. But let’s not belittle this achievement because what I discovered was that with something substantial between me and it, I felt reasonably secure about the spider-handling, even though I could see it very clearly.

This has in turn done wonders for my nerves when the Cat and I are sat watching the telly at this time of year when the nights draw in and get chillier and handsome gentleman spiders go looking for love in dark corners of country cottages. I haven’t the heart to tell them it ends badly and that the object of their lust will cannibalise them immediately after they’ve done the deed. I don’t suppose they’d listen if I did.

Next I asked the spider lady about the giant hedge web and she told me it was mostly likely to be a Labyrinth spider, which will have constructed a funnel into the centre of the hedge where she will lay eggs and tuck up for winter (after casually bumping off her lover). She also told me it’s actually not a very big spider so I bravely tapped the web when I got home and she was right.

Then she identified a spider I see a lot of in the cottage but don’t mind much at all. This spider I nicknamed the ‘glass spider’ because of its slender elegance, but it is in fact the daddy-longlegs spider and their definition of fine dining is the traditional beefy house spider. So they can stay. And so can the Cat and I – we’ve taken the cottage for another year, spiders and all. Hurrah!


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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear