Last year, on the September Heritage Open Day, we visited the Eel House on the Wayfarer’s Way footpath alongside the River Arle in Arlesford, Hampshire,
This is from the information boards and leaflets about the Eel House,
The small brick building, known as the Eel House dates from the 1820’s, and was originally part of the Arlebury Estate. There are three brick lined channels under the Eel House, to house the iron grills to trap eels, although their present function is to control river flow. Traditionally, there are two methods for catching silver eels – one is a fyke net (see image below), and the other is with a fixed trap, which uses the force of the river to push the silver eel, on its way downstream, over a grid and into a holding box.
Eels start life in deep in the Sargasso Sea between Bermuda and the Bahamas, off the east coast of the USA. During their first year they migrate to the European coast on ocean currents. They grow from larvae into ‘glass eels’ and enter fresh water in the spring. Their colour darkens as they develop into elvers and they gradually migrate upstream to colonise reed beds in rivers, lakes, and ponds, where they live for up to 20 years. When fully grown an eel is almost snake like – brown with yellow flanks, with a fin along the top edge of its body. They are up to a metre in length. In time the eel’s colour lightens to a silver/blue.
On between six and eight autumnal nights, where there is little moonlight, the eels begin their migration back to the Sargasso Sea. On these nights a river keeper would use a hurricane lamp for illumination, open the sluices, set traps, and manoeuvre the catch into a boat shaped box. When the box was full the keeper would await the arrival of merchants from as far away as Billingsgate in London, who would take the eels away in tanks to be sold, while alive, at fish markets.
Buildings constructed specifically for eel trapping are extremely rare in the UK. The Eel House is open to visitors on Bank holidays and Heritage Open Days.