Every autumn, when the moon is at its darkest, there’s a stirring on the bottom of Old Alresford Pond. The eels have got the call to start their seaward migration down the Itchen Valley. Turning towards the faster-moving water of the River Arle, they slither through the river and wriggle over marshy land at the start of their journey to their salt-water breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea. This is on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, over 3,000 miles away.
Until 1980, many of these migrating eels would have been caught at Alresford Eel House. This unusual 1820s building straddles the River Arle beside The Wayfarer’s Way, 500m west of The Dean in Alresford. The little brick house stands on three arches with water channels running through them. The river keeper used to go there during the dark quarters of the moon, in the months of September to December. By hurricane lamp, he would close the sluices of the two outer channels to guide the fast-flowing stream through the central channel, which contains the eel trap. This device uses the force of the river to push the eels over a fixed metal grid and into a holding box. The river keeper would scoop the eels out by the bucket and keep them alive in a hazel keep net in the pool downstream. The following morning, a fish dealer would buy the night’s catch, empty it into a tank on a horse and cart and drive it to Alresford Station. From there it would be craned onto a steam train and transported alive to Billingsgate fish market in London.
London street vendors chopped the gelatinous fresh eels into rounds then boiled them in water, vinegar and spices, a mixture which set into jellied eels when cooled. Served with pie and mash from stalls in the East End, Londoners enjoyed cheap, nutritious fast food, whilst the river keeper supplemented his income considerably. The river keeper would catch fifty to sixty pounds of eels each time the Eel House was used and by 1980 the fish dealer was paying him £1 per pound – so why did the eel trapping stop?
David Woods, chairman of the Eel House Committee, has a theory that the Eel House was abandoned because the Watercress Line had closed and so the eel distribution network had fallen apart. By 2006, the abandoned building was only held up by the ivy which smothered it. Fortunately, it was saved and restored by The Alresford Society, then leased to the New Alresford Town Trust. The Trust has restored the sluices and the eel trap and now volunteers demonstrate the two hundred year-old system in full working order to the public. At first, the simple building seems tranquil as you approach it along a footpath beside a tree-fringed pool. This impression is shattered by the thundering interior, where the river roils and hisses its way through the iron trap. I’m quite sure nothing, not even a slippery eel, would be able to wriggle back out again.
The Trust has recently obtained an educational trapping licence and aims to arrange visits from local schools, letting the children see and handle the eels before releasing them to continue their migration. My eight year old son was quite keen on this idea. He said, ‘I’d like to feel them wriggling, but I’d want a tap near me to wash my hands if I wanted to scratch my nose.’
The Trust also hopes to tag eels as part of a study to track their migration by satellite. Europe’s eel population has crashed by 99% since 1980 and marine biologists need to understand their far-flung life cycle better, in order to save the species. A few years ago, tagged river Itchen eels were tracked unexpectedly turning eastward from the Solent, sweeping round Kent, up the North Sea and over the top of Scotland – surely the longest way round to the Atlantic Ocean, but entirely powered by the strong currents sweeping east. The last tagged eel stopped transmitting near the Hebrides. The satellite picked the signal up again in Lisbon a few weeks later – when the stomach of the shark which had eaten the eel was cut open in the market. Just imagine what other perils, ocean trenches and undersea mountain ranges Alresford’s eels might encounter on their epic journey this autumn.
Alresford Eel House will open on 1st April, 20th May, 15th July, 27th August and 16th September 2018. For details, please see