By Margaret Waddingham

Articles published in the Caundler Magazine

A fascination with the macabre and morbid side of wild life

Last article for the year – even though I haven’t fulfilled the usual quota.

It’s October as I write this; season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

Unseasonably warm, rain that we should have had in the summer coming down in torrents to make up for the lack of it and borders dripping with Michaelmas daisies and sedums gaudily tempting bees and butterflies with sounds and sights of summer. Janey told me of a humming bird hawk moth that had arrived unseasonably late in the season and next day Nikki told me there was one at the front of my garden, sipping on the fuchsias. Dragonflies still patrol, emerging from neighbouring ponds looking for tardy mates.

A bag of cobwebs

One morning I looked out of the window and saw what seemed to be the bizarre sight of a bag of cobwebs.
On closer inspection, I discovered that an industrious spider had indeed formed a bag by joining its web up and down and across between horizontal and vertical bars of the ramp and attaching it round and round to an empty bird feeder half way down, thus forming a perfect bag shaped web.
I wish I’d seen the spinner at work and I rather hoped to see the fruits (sorry, flies) of its labour.
This is the sort of thing that began to fascinate me when I was 11 or 12 and on into my early teens – a fascination with the macabre and morbid side of wild life.

It all started with my father, when, at the outbreak of the last war, he decided to keep bees.

He worked in London, we lived in North Harrow, and he brought home his first brood of bees, protected only by newspaper and string, on the luggage rack of the steam train from Marylebone.
That first brood developed into four when we moved nearer to Pinner where there was a larger garden.
It was here that we were all introduced to Mr Dennis, an apiarist quite well known in apiarist circles and he invited me to see his observation hive which was half in the garden and half in the house. It was in this room that he also kept cages containing white rats, ferrets, aquariums and a vivarium.
My mother had a great deal of sympathy for Mrs Dennis as this was the room where they also ate.
However, mother put her foot down at the thought of me accepting the proffered gift of a splendid white rat, but reluctantly agreed, with encouragement from my father, to a vivarium.
It duly arrived and with it 4 American green tree frogs and a young snake, which was just a bit too young to make a meal of its house mates but would, I was assured, soon finish them off and I could have replacements whenever I needed them.
Again my mother put her foot down.
Frogs (reluctantly) but definitely no snakes. In the end we compromised and settled on two small slow worms who wouldn’t be in the least interested in a menu of frogs. They would appreciate, however, slugs, worms, snails and the odd spider or two. My darling mother braced herself and agreed.

The Aquarium

By now my father was also getting interested in certain other items of Mr Dennis’s dining room, apart from the bees. I had already expressed an ardent desire for some brightly coloured tropical fish and so, one day he arrived home with a huge metal frame. I haven’t a clue how he got that one on the train from Marylebone. A few days later, it was transformed into a very large aquarium. There constructed a large piece of furniture with all sorts of compartments in it, and, behold!, a very large aquarium on top.
He and I then went to Pinner to buy some spectacular tropical fish and all that fish need to make them happy. The family were impressed.
Not for long though.

We were all woken up early one morning soon after it was installed by a tremendous bang.

He, being the only man in a house of 5 women, rushed downstairs to find that one of the panes of glass had sort of burst out of its frame, water was pouring all over the carpet and the poor fish were floundering helplessly.
At a yell from him, we hurried down and surveyed the wreckage, me crying in desperation for the lives of my precious pets. Still dressed in night attire, curlers in hair, faces grim with the effort of transporting fish into warm water in the kitchen sink and then following it up with mops, buckets and towels from the bathroom, my mother, two older sisters, grandmother (without teeth) and father directing operations, we finally got things more or less under control.
I can’t remember what happened next but a few days later the tank was repaired and fish returned to their home.
What my mother had to say on the subject I really don’t know but she was a remarkably patient and loving person, and before long my father had enclosed our open sided veranda to make a proper fish house. Thereafter, whenever the fish from the main tank produced babies, they were installed in the overflow tanks in the fish house along with the vivarium, now expelled from my bedroom to a more suitable place.
From then on I had the task of feeding the menagerie on all sorts of things, like breeding little worms on cold porridge or wet bread or grinding up their much larger and land-locked cousins with two metal plates which had two very sharp and concentric rings in them, oh, and not forgetting slugs and snails and spiders for my little slow worms.

I’m pleased to say that I have now lost most of my macabre tendencies but am still fascinated by the cleverness of tiny creatures, like my bag weaving spider, and the way they catch their next meal.

And after that, I can only say that I shall try not to be so revolting in my next article, that it will be much more about what is going on around me in the garden and the local lanes, and, of course,

About Margaret

Margaret WaddinghamI was born in Middlesex in 1935 and educated at a convent in Rickmansworth. In 1954 I moved with my family to Cranleigh in Surrey where I met and married Brian. We have two daughters and five grandchildren.
For 21 happy years we lived on the outskirts of Guildford, moving to Hatherleigh in North Devon when our children had fled the nest to get on with their own lives.

My love of writing goes back many years but it was not until I retired from RHS Rosemoor Gardens in 1995 that I was able to devote more time to this and my other favourite pursuits, gardening and the countryside.

For many years I was a regular contributor of short stories, poetry, nature and other articles to three women’s national weeklies, periodical regional magazines and local newspapers. I also had a book of the history of a neighbouring village and a couple of books of poetry published.

One day our daughters phoned to suggest, very gently, that they couldn’t get to us quickly in an emergency and that’s how we ended up in Stourton Caundle.

We couldn’t have chosen a better place and although Brian sadly passed away in 2018, I have come to appreciate the village more and more.

Genevieve (my mobility scooter for those who haven’t met us) and I wander the local lanes, drinking in all that is around me and when I can no longer do this I will still have a small, peaceful garden to sit in where nature comes to visit me.