Love them or loathe them, spiders around the house are on the alert now. Although they travel at surprising speed, they don’t always outwit their enemies

The scene: a cosy living room in winter.

There’s a movement by the fireplace; a dark leggy shape scuttles along the skirting board. For many of us it’s an unwelcome sight, a precursor to the inevitable house spider in the bath.

One very ‘housey’ spider (Tegenaria parietina) is commonly known as the cardinal spider because it was rumoured to have frightened Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – Henry VIII’s chief adviser in the early 16th Century.

The huge Tegenaria spiders are a fascinating group and particularly obvious when they race over our carpets. The spider enthusiast, W.S. Bristowe, estimated that a female house spider could travel 330 times her body length in 10 seconds, but that he could exhaust them by chasing them with a pencil. After 20 seconds they collapsed with fatigue.

He even went so far as to taste one. They’re “nutty”, apparently.

There are eight species of ‘house spider’ in the British Isles, many very similar to one another, and many happy living outdoors. But our homes provide valuable shelters for certain species during the winter.

In autumn, adult males leave their webs to search for the larger females, and this is when we see them most often. After mating, the male dies within a few weeks, but his mate will spend winter as our guest and her youngsters will emerge in spring.

You’d think that the safety of being indoors would mean protection, but there are hazards even here. The frail-looking daddy long legs spider (Pholcus phalangioides), which spins cobwebs in hidden corners and behind furniture, uses its long legs to fling sticky threads over other spiders. When its prey is tightly-bound, it sucks the hapless spider dry, a true eight-legged David v Goliath contest.

For more information on spiders, check out the British Arachnological Society.