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GOOD SCORPION WITH YELLOW TAIL

  photo: Kallerna Wikicommons

A few years ago, a passenger getting off a train at Victoria Station found a scorpion on the side of his bag. The passenger screamed, someone from London Underground staff came to the rescue, and the creature was put in a plastic lunchbox for safe keeping. The scorpion sat in its box on a shelf in the station manager’s office until one of British Transport Police’s specialist wildlife officers came to deal with it. It was identified as a Centruroides, a Bark Scorpion, and a home was found for it at London Zoo where, scorpions living to a ripe old age, it presumably is still to be found.

‘There is a surprisingly wide range of wildlife on and around the railway network,’ PC Mike Charnick of the British Transport Police told the BBC,’ but this is the first time I’ve come across a scorpion’.

Nothing is known about the passenger on whose bag the scorpion was found, or where he was travelling from. But trains from Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey off the Kent coast, go into Victoria, and Sheerness is home to the only recognised colony of scorpions in Britain. At night, and with the aid of an ultra-violet light they can be found in the crevices of the walls of the old dockyard. No one knows how or when they came there. The identification by the Transport Police Officer may not have been exact, certainly if the scorpion came from Sheerness, for the scorpions known to live in the docks are not Bark but Yellow-Tailed Scorpions.

The port of Sheerness today is a modern place, bringing in containers from around the world and importing more cars to the UK than anywhere else in the country. But the modern port hides behind the ancient walls of the original 18th Century Georgian docks  where ships were built, navies set off to and returned from war, and wonders were brought to the English coast from far overseas. The thick, high, stone built walls, more than two humans high when they were built and hundreds of yards in length, keep everything hidden from outside eyes, while providing a perfect home for a thriving colony of between perhaps ten and fifteen thousand European Yellow-Tailed scorpions. The walls face south and bathe in the warm sun that is such a feature of the island. The stones soak up the heat, and the cracks and crevices are an ideal environment for scorpions to live and breed - and to hide from curious eyes.  Behind the wall is the port, in front of it Blue Town where once the dock workers lived.

I wandered along the wall in early New Year. There was nothing living to be seen, even as the brickwork warmed in the sun. But the crumbling masonry was full of signs of dormant habitation. Between the bricks were cobweb funnels and tunnels of leaves, signs of spiders and solitary bees ready to hatch as the days got longer and the weather warmer. The scorpions were alive no doubt, lying in dormant wait, like little Herods, ready to slaughter the new born spiders as they emerged.

Records of scorpions in the docks date back at least 150 years and they have been found not just in the long dock wall but elsewhere in rocks, railway sleepers and old buildings. Yet it is the undisturbed wall that has provided a protected home for the exotic creatures, possibly since soon after it was built. Many living things, humans included, have made their way to these shores through the port at Sheerness. Rats, of course, have travelled the seas as long as men have given them unsuspecting berths, but scorpions no doubt have found homes in ships too, travelling up from the Mediterranean, as one theory has it, in cargoes of Italian masonry, transported in the very stone in which they were living when it was cut from the mountains. However they came, the scorpions are now well established, if rarely seen.

The Yellow-Tailed Scorpion, Euscorpus flavicaudis  (good scorpion with yellow legs) is two inches long, the colour of chocolate, with large pincers at its front and with a yellow tip to its tail that warns of its poisonous sting. It is an elusive creature, hiding from the light until in a rare moment of hunger it jumps out to capture and kill a passing spider. Then it will retreat again and consume its prey and remain hidden for weeks, months even, until it comes out once more in search of food. Captured with the scorpion's giant pincers the hapless prey is transferred to the creature’s jaws where it is chewed and reduced to a pulp, to be then sucked down into the stomach. Like the spiders it feeds on, the scorpion is a vespertine creature, out in the warm shadows of dusk when the spiders are catching the flies. And like a spider it has eight legs and so is also an arachnid. It is a long-lived creature, doing little in its life save hiding in stillness for days on end while it slowly digests its most recent meal. That can take weeks, till hungry again it will keep it eyes peeled and its pinchers ready for another victim. Sex will also lure a scorpion out, as no doubt it once lured sailors out from behind the walls to the brothels of Blue Town beyond. Once mated the female gestates for a year or more. Everything is slow in the life of a scorpion save for the sudden capture of prey with grasp from pinchers and sting from tail.

Night is when it is best to going looking for them, with an ultra-violet torch to make them glow a bright turquoise green in their crevice homes. It is a chemical (beta-carboline) in the animal’s exo-skeleton that reacts to the UV light and makes them glow, though what evolutionary use that could have to the scorpion is not known. Perhaps, like factor fifty sunblock on humans, it is a protection from the strong Mediterranean sun of the scorpion’s natural geographic habitat. The scorpion sheds its exo-skeleton as it grows, making a new one for itself every time, which only hardens once exposed to the air, so leaving the creature unprotected for a time between the shedding of one skeleton and the hardening of the new.  You would need to be a very tasty spider to lure one out between from the bricks of Blue Town between one hard armouring and the next.

Blue Town once really was blue. It is the oldest part of the port of Sheerness, nailed together from the flotsam and jetsam of ships that had wrecked on the sand banks, and painted blue, it is said, from a job lot of blue paint, pilfered from the navy yards in the dock. Even today it is a dodgy warren of run down streets, derelict buildings, and wasteland.  A couple of pubs survive, there are places for the buying and selling of cars, and there is a fish and chip shop. It is an area for the most part neglected, save for an original music hall that has been refurbished and survives as a community cinema, café and museum full of treasures. Blue Town is a decaying echo of its former self when one it must have been teeming with life: pubs and hotels that are now to be recognised through fading painted signs, shops, houses and hovels, brothels, street food and street walkers, and press gangs taking young men from their homes for the King’s Shilling. It is small wonder that the government felt it necessary to build an impregnable wall between Blue Town itself with the men who lived there to service the ships and the women who lived there to service the men, and the dockyard.

Situated on a corner of the Isle of Sheppey and at the mouth of the Thames Estuary, Sheerness is a half-land between the urban and the rural, a liminal place where the borders are uncertain and edges, barriers, containment and fortifications abound: borders between sea and shore, between man and animal, between foreign foes and native defenders, between floods and dry land, between island and mainland, between outsider and insider, between incomers and 'Swampy' natives. The estuary is where worlds meet: freshwater meets salt water, ships come from Europe and around the globe to London, and the city trades with the rest of the world. It is a place of exchange, of ebbs and flows.

Sheerness has been made impregnable, for the Isle of Sheppey is the only place in Britain that has been victim to successful foreign invasion in modern times. The Romans came here, saw and conquered as the first invaders in 55 BC, sailing not up the river Swale that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the mainland, before joining the Thames at the Medway beyond Sheerness. The town began as a fort built by Henry VIII, on what was then an unoccupied promontory, to protect Chatham’s Royal Dockyard during the wars with the French. That was in the early sixteenth century. The first dockyard was built to clean the hulls of ships based at Chatham. More than a hundred years later, in 1665, the English were at war again not with the French this time but with the Dutch. In June 1667 the Dutch attacked and, for the first and only time since the Romans came up the Swale, England was invaded by a foreign power. Once the enemy had been seen off, work began on expanding and equipping the modest dockyard into a proper port. Hulks were sunk on the mud flats to make breakwaters and so eventually extend the land. Other hulks became lodgings, offices and storehouses, creating a strange place that was both of the land and of the sea, ‘a kind of town’ sunk and sinking into the mud flats, surrounded by sea and marshland, vulnerable but a perfect clear promontory from which to defend both Chatham and the Medway, and London and the Thames.

The town was an unstable water world where paradoxically, the thing in shortest supply was water itself, fresh drinking water having to be brought in from Chatham. This peculiar place grew piecemeal. Houses were constructed on land from short planks brought ashore from the hulks, painted with stolen regulation naval blue paint to create what were known as Blue Houses, until eventually there were so many of them that they became Blue Town.  Elsewhere in Sheerness, in what is now the town centre but was once called Marine Town, just behind Boots the Chemist on the High Street, adjacent to a Tandoori restaurant and hidden behind a crumbling concrete wall, overgrown and forgotten, is the old Jewish cemetery where the corpses of the merchants and money lenders who plied their trade between one ship and another, and between ship and shore, are buried. Nature has now taken over: the tombstones stacked against the wall are covered in mosses and lichens, and in the small plot is a micro nature reserve.

As wars came and went, as ships grew bigger, and as commerce increased on the estuary, so Sheerness grew, thrived and adapted to changing times. Blue Town, with its warren of small improvised wooden buildings thrived and survived for two and a half centuries, a tight, ramshackle kind of town-within-a-town. It had the look and feel of the American Wild West. Most of it was destroyed by fire over the centuries and what was left was torn down in the 1960s in preparation for a civic redevelopment that never happened.

Since the Dutch raid every effort has been made to secure not the island but the port, which is effectively an island upon an island encircled by waterways, the sea of the Thames Estuary on one side and man-made canals on the other. The canals remain, with a crossing point that is probably never noticed by the cars that use it to come into the big Tesco car park that it leads to. And within the fluvial protected town of Sheerness, is the further protection of the wall that keeps the dockyard heavily defended from the rest of the town. The wall still serves its purpose and getting in and out of the docks is not easy without passes and paperwork. No doubt there is smuggling still under starlit skies, as there was back in the Blue Town days, of humans, drugs, contraband and cash. Creatures from far away come in on the many ships and boats that make their way to Sheerness from around the world. Maybe even scorpions make occasional visits and meet up with their relatives in the dock wall.

Amongst the stars the constellation of Scorpio sits low in the sky, far away across the heavens from Orion, whom Diana sent the scorpion to sting in the foot when he made indecent advances to her. Immortality in the sky was Diana’s reward to the scorpion and in November when the Scorpio stars are at their highest, the poison in the real scorpion’s tail is at its most venomous. This is the perfect month to go searching for the stinging creatures, though at this increasingly chilly time of year there is little for the scorpions to feed on this time of year and their sluggish metabolism is surviving on the last spider eaten before All Hallows Eve and the coming of winter.