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The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is the classic example of a catadromous fish but with a life history so complex and incredible that it has only more or less fully unravelled over the last hundred or so years.

Eel bucks and elvers: tales from the riverbank

Two river-based activities closely associated with the Thames islands, particularly those nearer to London and Oxford: the cultivation of osier willows (Salix viminalis) and the trapping of eels
Eel pie and mash was, and to some degree still is, served in traditional London pie houses, such as Luigi Manze’s venerable old pie and mash shop in Walthamstow and F. Cooke’s on Broadway Market, Hackney.

"Excellent smoked, pickled, grilled, boiled or otherwise cooked fresh."

By Peter Holthusen

 

The clear running waters of ice-fed streams are one of the most recognisable sounds of life’s emergence from winter’s slumber, while the still waters of lakes and ponds, once covered in ice sheets, also ripple in the breeze as swans, geese, coots and other waterfowl are able to dip and feed
beneath the now shimmering surface.

For over 10,000 years the River Thames has meandered from source to sea, periodically throwing up mudbanks, carving parallel channels on bends and creating islands along much of its length as it flows from the misty, windswept marshlands of the estuary, through London’s teeming metropolis, and on to the lush, tranquil water meadows of Oxfordshire.

Throughout its liquid history, two river-based activities were closely associated with the Thames islands, particularly those nearer to London and Oxford. These were the cultivation of osier willows (Salix viminalis) and the trapping of eels.

 

There are around 190 of these islands spread along the river’s 215-mile course from source to sea, and they are known as eyots, pronounced ‘aits’, a term that is used almost exclusively for islands in the Thames.

Throughout its liquid history, two river-based activities were closely associated with the Thames islands, particularly those nearer to London and Oxford. These were the cultivation of osier willows (Salix viminalis) and the trapping of eels. Historically, many of the islands were primarily used for the growing and harvesting of osier willows, which were planted to help protect the islands from erosion by the river, and were also cultivated for basket making and other crafts.

The remnants of this industry can still be seen today on many of the islands along the Thames that are still overgrown with the progeny of crops that were harvested well into the 1930’s.

Another skilled body of artisans used osier willows for more intricate work in such things as the manufacture of traps for crayfish, conical pottles for carrying strawberries and large basket-like structures called ‘bucks’, which were used to catch eels. Traditionally, eel bucks made of osier shoots were placed upstream to catch the migrating eels. The bucks were set where there was a good current and were raised during the day to allow passage for the barges and other river traffic.

Eel bucks or eel baskets are a type of fish trap that was prevalent along the Thames up to the 20th century. They were used primarily to catch eels which were a staple part of the London diet, particularly during the reign of Henry VIII and in Victorian times. The eel bucks were often strung together in a fishing weir. Construction of these weirs was actually outlawed under the terms of the Magna Carta in 1215. However, the practice continued unabated, often with adverse effects on navigation.

Several islands in the Thames reflect the historical presence of bucks at these points – for example Buck Ait, an uninhabited island positioned towards the Oxfordshire bank of the river on the reach above Shiplake Lock near Sonning, and neighbouring Handbuck Eyot, another small uninhabited island lying between the villages of Shiplake, and Wargrave in Berkshire, close to Marsh Lock. There were also eel bucks in St Patrick’s Stream on the bank opposite upstream. This stream is believed to have been a tributary of the River Loddon which became an outfall when the water level was raised by the building of Shiplake Lock.

Today, the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is the classic example of a catadromous fish but with a life history so complex and incredible that it has only more or less fully unravelled over the last hundred or so years. In its appearance and its characteristics, however, the eel has been known and familiar for as long human beings have looked into the water. With its silvery colour and serpentine shape, it is unlikely to be mistaken for anything else; although lampreys are superficially smaller, and they have suckers instead of jaws and gill pores on either side of the head. Out of the water, and eels do sometimes come out of the water, a small eel might at first sight be mistaken for a Slow Worm, but the presence of fins would soon betray its true nature.

The name ‘eel’ is Old English but appears in many other old European languages. ‘Elver’ for the young of the species is 17th century, a variant of ‘eel-fare’ from the previous century, which meant ‘the passage of the young fish up a river’.

When living in fresh water, European eels are called ‘yellow eels’, although they are usually only yellowish beneath, tending to be brown above. They feed on crustaceans, small fish and other aquatic creatures and also scavenge on dead matter. ‘Fresh water’ is something of a misnomer for the eels’ habitats because, as well as rivers and lakes, they are likely to be found in some fairly unsavoury spots, such as ditches, sewers and other places in which organic food can sourced and that are not seriously polluted (although, in practice, eels are probably more tolerant of pollution than almost any other native fish). Despite their small eyes, they have good vision and a very acute sense of smell, which are clear advantages for an animal that feeds mainly at night in dark places.

Eels live in fresh water for many years; although between 10 and 20 years is the average, some have been found that were over 50 years of age. There comes a point, however, in response to an unknown stimulus connected with their body fat content, when their colour changes and they become known, appropriately, as ‘silver eels’. They then migrate downstream to the sea and all European eels eventually find their way into and across the Atlantic Ocean, to finish in the Sargasso Sea where they spawn, which is a region in the gyre at a point halfway between Bermuda and the Leeward Islands. They are the only European fish to migrate from one continent to another. They travel at around 12 kilometres (7½ miles) per day and apparently navigate by a combination of star position, sensing of the earth’s magnetic field and smell.

It has been speculated that this bizarre journey originated at a time in evolutionary history when the European and American continents were closer together. Once the eels have reached their final destination they spawn, using the Sargassum seaweed for which the sea is named as cover from predators until they are mature. Once they have spawned, the silver eels die.

The baby eels are tiny, flattened creatures, very unlike their parents, and take a year to make the return journey across the Atlantic. They undergo some metamorphosis on the way, becoming ‘glass eels, and finally arrive in British coastal waters as ‘elvers’. After a period of readjustment, the elvers make their way upriver into fresh water in spring, sometimes emerging from the water to negotiate obstacles, such as waterfalls, by wriggling through wet vegetation.

Eels are very important prey for many creatures, including Pike and other large fish, herons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Goosanders, otters and introduced species of mink. They have long been a significant food for humans too; they have a high fat content and are considered highly nutritious.

Consequently, very large numbers of migrating silver eels never reach the Sargasso Sea, or even the Atlantic Ocean, because they are intercepted by traps set in river estuaries. In ancient times, the eel spear, a vicious barbed weapon not unlike Neptune’s trident, was a familiar implement with which the highly skilled fishermen caught their meal. More recently, it has been a slightly different weapon that was shovelled into the mud of the river bottom to pinion the eels between its flattened tines.

Eels are excellent smoked, pickled, grilled, boiled or otherwise cooked fresh. Historically, the quantities of eels eaten were clearly both important and prodigious. Many Domesday Book entries refer to places sited on rivers yielding 1,000 or 2,000 eels each year, sometimes recording quantities as ‘sticks of eels’, each stick being 25; the entry for Dorchester, southeast of Oxford, stated 1,000 eels and 1,000 lampreys.

A mid-17th century recipe for eel pie was given in ‘Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book’:

To bake Eels in a pie: After you have drawn your eels, chop them into pieces three or
four inches long, and put them in a pan: season them with Pepper, Salt, Ginger, grate
Raisins and Onions small chopped, and cover them with Stock. Then boil them gently
until the flesh will easily come from the bones. Put the flesh into a pie dish with a small
piece of lemon, a good lump of butter, and enough of your stock to cover them: then
put on your cover of pastry and bake your pie very hot, about three quarters of an hour.

 

Even better are spatch-cocked eels, an old Oxfordshire speciality, in which the eels are boned, cut into short pieces, dipped in egg yolks and breadcrumbs and then fried until crisp in butter with plenty of herbs. The most celebrated and excellent of all ways of eating eels, however, are those forever associated with London: eel pie and jellied eels.

Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the paste alive …
(‘King Lear’, Act 2, Scene 4)

 

Jellied eels are a speciality of London’s East End, where street stalls, the most famous being Tubby Isaac’s stall in Aldgate, sell them in china bowls sprinkled with hot chilli vinegar. Eel pie and mash was, and to some degree still is, served in traditional London pie houses, such as Luigi Manze’s venerable old pie and mash shop in Walthamstow and F. Cooke’s on Broadway Market, Hackney, although today you are more likely to have meat in the pie with the eels as a side order.

The elvers reaching the rivers are just as vulnerable as the adults going in the opposite direction and they are also caught in large numbers, at one time for the production of elver cakes. Izaak Walton, author of ‘The Compleat Angler’ knew of it:

I have seen in the beginning of July, in a river not far from Canterbury, some parts of it
covered over with young Eels about the thickness of a straw; and these Eels did lie on top
of that water, as thick as motes are said to be in the sun: and I have heard the like of other
rivers, as namely, in the Severn, where they are called yelvers; and in a pond or mere near
unto Staffordshire, where about a set time in summer, such small Eels abound so much,
that many of the poorer sort of people that inhabit near to it, take such Eels out of this
mere with sieves or sheets, and make a kind of Eel-cake out of them, and eat it like as
bread.

 

In recent years fishermen along the Severn have caught just a few million of the animals through the entire season, but in 2015 they claim to have landed up to 100 million. While elvers have remained in demand in countries such as France and Japan, dwindling eel numbers have seen many British chefs, including Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc remove them from their menus.

The transparent, worm-like fish have in recent years become as expensive as caviar, costing around £4 for a 20g portion, but now prices have come down to just £1.70. However, the increase in eel numbers last season has seen restaurants being able to offer the tiny creatures on their menus for the first time in decades.

In the Fens north of Ely eel traps and lines were prepared ready for St Valentine’s Day, for it was once believed that if the sun shone on 14th February the eels would be on the run before the week ended. The importance of eels in the early economy of the Fens was very great. Rents and debts were paid and land was sold in ‘sticks’ of … eels and the Domesday recorders carefully noted the value of the eels in Fenland parishes … For the privilege of quarrying stone at Barnack, near Peterborough, for the building of their monastery, the Ely monks paid 4,000 eels a year. This gave rise to the saying that the Cathedral was built with eels.

The city of Ely in Cambridgeshire is certainly one of the few places apparently named after eels, originally being the Old English ‘el-ge’, meaning ‘eel district’, although this was later changed to ‘eleg’, ‘eel island’. According to The Venerable Bede, it was named for the great number of eels caught locally.

Eel Pie Island is an alternative name for Twickenham Ait in the Thames, where parties of picnickers used to gather in order to dine on the aforesaid delicacy. Today, it has an almost mythical status among Londoners of a certain age who remember the birth of the R&B music scene there in the early 1960’s. Rather surprisingly, eels frequently appear as heraldic symbols and, less surprisingly, as inn names in places where they were once an important food fish.

Eels also had a wide range of medicinal uses. A treatment for warts involved rubbing them with eel’s blood. A garter made of eel skin was very widely thought to be beneficial in curing cramp, or indeed preventing it, and swimmers would wear an eel-skin garter around the leg.

Fortunately, the future of the European eel is looking brighter and conservationists now believe the decline of this once critically endangered species has been halted and perhaps reversed. The flooding experienced across much of the UK over the last three winters could actually benefit the species by washing juvenile eels over barriers – including flood defences, weirs, locks, sluices and dams – that might otherwise prevent them from getting inland.

As a consequence, the Environment Agency and the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) are now working hard to accelerate the recovery of the European eel, with the re-stocking of many of our rivers and streams from thousands of elvers recently harvested in the Severn Estuary.

Whether that old expression “Slippery as an eel” will mean something to our grandchildren, no one can yet say, but it is hoped the lowering of eel bucks strung together in a fishing weir could once again be a familiar sight along the riverbank and of life on the Upper Thames.

 

- Peter Holthusen

 

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