On our lunchtime walk the other day we came across a snake. Coiled up at the base of a tree, two of us walked straight past it before its sheen caught my eye. We all turned to watch it slowly establish its full length, then amble off to a pile of deadwood a few metres away. It was a grass snake — the largest of all, er, three of the UK’s species of snake — and it was HUGE, I tell you. At least 80 centimetres long.
The snake encounter occurred in a chalkpit only a five-minute walk from home. A bowl of ragged undergrowth dotted with a pond and trees, it is surrounded by steep chalk cliffs. The footpath that circumvents this space of no more than two acres has become a popular walk for those trying to escape lockdown.
Crucially, it’s not in the middle of a Highland glen or halfway up a Welsh Hillside. Our snakepit, as it shall now be known, is only two minutes from the A4 and a ten-minute drive to junction 8/9 of the M4. Yet it appears to be home to goldfinches, jays, damselflies, rabbits, stoats and foxes. And a serpent over a metre in length.
“Nature is returning!”, shout those news headlines that accompany pictures of goats feasting in flowerbeds on town roundabouts. And everything I see suggests this is true.
Were there really this many birds in our skies before lockdown? Is COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown not in fact a massive conspiracy put about by those house sparrows that, having nearly disappeared from our towns, now seem to be growing in number every day? Maybe all those 5G masts that have popped up overnight make perfect nesting sites.
Just like the two-metre anaconda we stumbled upon, nature is not only everywhere but seems to have been emboldened by humankind’s return to its caves. There are bees in every bush, the hedgerows are embarrassing in their bounty and I can hear owls at night over the usual road traffic. There’s a flock of delinquent parakeets nearby so dismissive of the concept of lockdown they are not so much ‘birds’ as ‘Cummings’ winged monkeys’.
It seems strange that nature would so quickly reestablish itself over the course of only two months. As strange as the poisonous, three-metre-long black mamba we found one lunchtime. Strange, and probably as unlikely.
Maybe there’s not more nature about us. Perhaps, during lockdown, we have simply found more time to discover it.
I’m fully aware that those lucky enough to have kept their jobs are working longer and harder than ever before. Clearly, some have had more time on their hands as a result of furlough. Regardless, I wonder whether lockdown has invited us to see things we hadn’t noticed before. For some, that could be newfound details in an old boxset. For others, it might be the pair of nesting robins outside their kitchen window. For me, it was a snake prone to exaggeration.
Walking to the snakepit this morning I was struck by the number of cars that were on the road. It’s harder to hear the bird song over the noise of roadworks on the High Street. I didn’t see the snake.
As we leave lockdown we are gaining new freedoms, and they taste good. But I also wonder what we will lose as we go back out into the world.