By Michael Blencowe
Senior Learning and Engagement Officer
(originally posted autumn 2019)
This month ends with Halloween. Outside, the undead patrol the streets. My advice is to lock your doors, close your curtains and turn off the lights. But what if the very thing that you're most terrified of is locked in the house with you?
For me, and thousands of other people across Sussex, autumn is the scariest time of year. It's when our biggest fear brazenly invades our very homes, it's spider season!
To someone who hasn't been cursed by arachnophobia this all must appear rather silly. It is, after all, a completely irrational fear of a small, harmless creature. I have no explanation why I love two, four and six-legged creatures but cower in terror at those with eight-legs. Oddly anything above eight is perfectly acceptable too - prawns, woodlice, centipedes are all welcome.
Cruelly, some of the biggest (and therefore the scariest) British spiders are the ones that you're most likely to find indoors. The House Spiders - the Tegenaria - are those huge monsters, the size of a small dog, that lurk in the corner behind the TV, tap-dance across the kitchen lino or sinisterly sit in our baths.
The Tegenaria are most active in the autumn when the mature males are on the prowl for the bigger (even scarier) females. After mating he dies and then she eats him. A simple relationship but suitably horrific.
This autumn my arachnophobia has really been put to the test.
Round One: An encounter on along the Ouse with a female Wasp Spider while I was leading a Sussex Wildlife Trust walk. I kept my cool as, for some reason, I don't find these spiders scary at all. In fact with her hand-painted porcelain abdomen she looks, dare I say it? Beautiful.
Round Two. While building a butterfly bank in Lewes with the Sussex Wildlife Trust's Youth Rangers, we discovered a spider. But not just any old spider. The Purse Web spider is the closest thing we have in the UK to a Tarantula. The mere thought of a Tarantula's cousin should have had me on the next train out of here but, when I saw her, fascination replaced fear. She was an amazing looking beast and it was a real privilege to see this normally subterranean species. She seemed more scared of me than I was of her. And that's saying something.
After these brave encounters I was getting ready to cancel my membership to Arachnophobes Anonymous. I started to appreciate the subtle beauty of the garden spiders and their incredible orb webs which festooned the rose bushes. I even ventured into my shed and did some clearing out.
However it was here, in the shadows, that I disturbed something. For lurking in the dark was one of the biggest Tegenaria spiders I have ever seen. Except I didn't see her. Not until she had crawled up my back and appeared on my shoulder. Suddenly I was eye to eight eyes with my worst nightmare.
The doctors say that I'm making a good, if rather slow, recovery. I should be able to sleep with the lights off by Christmas. If I just avoid dark corners, sitting on tuffets and watching the third Lord of the Rings movie then I'll be fine. Until next Halloween that is.