Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Snake Catcher of Brockenhurst

A very pleasant and short drive from the beautiful and ancient town of Winchester in Hampshire, lies Brockenhurst, the largest of the New Forest villages. It is a place of immense charm; surrounded by forest, where ponies walk in the middle of its roads, where the driver passes through a ford and where a famous citizen once caught snakes and was reputed to be immune to their venom.
The name Brockenhurst is traditionally said to mean 'badger wood'. However it is more likely that the name means 'broken wooded hill' - broken in the sense of divided by the valleys and streams of the New Forest. The village is ancient. It was first recorded in the Domesday Book. In the twelfth century the Manor was held by Peter Spilman. In return, he had to provide litter for the King's bed and hay for his horse - when the King would visit on his frequent hunting trips to the Forest. The New Forest was cultivated as a Royal hunting ground since Norman times.
Many minor roads in the New Forest pass through a ford - most being dry for most of the year. The most famous of the fords is in Brockenhurst 'watersplash' at the western end of the main street, called Brookley Road. At the other end of Brookley Road, near the main-line station, you will find the New Forest Cycle Experience - a great way to explore the Forest. The village has two car parks. It is highly recommended that you park up and explore the village by foot or bicycle. At one of the car parks stands a brick plinth. Attached to it is a 'wheel plate', a great disc of cast iron which was used until 1915 by the local forge when fixing metal rims to wooden wagon wheels.
Heading south out of Brockenhurst you will find St Nicholas's Church. It is the oldest church in the Forest and is adorned by a beautiful Norman doorway. In the church yard you can wander about the many ancient headstones. If you do so, you'll come across a very surprising and yet poignant war cemetery for New Zealand soldiers. The neat rows of tombstones commemorate over one hundred soldiers who died in the nearby field hospital during World War I.
Also, to be found in the graveyard is the tomb of Harry Mills, better known as 'Brusher' Mills. His nickname came from his occupation of brushing Brockenhurst cricket pitch before a match to remove twigs and leaves and, no doubt, the droppings of the ponies and cattle who wandered about the roads. But his main claim to fame was that he made his living from catching snakes in the Forest. Apparently, it was said he was immune from the venom of the Adder - Britain's only poisonous snake. He prepared a primitive anti-snakebite serum from the snakes themselves, sending any spare specimens to London Zoo as food for secretary birds and other creatures that enjoyed dining on snakes. He also made a small income from 'rescuing' visitors from snakes that suddenly appeared amongst them. Whether visitors paid him in thanks for their rescue or for being entertained, we can only imagine.

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