Ely was built on the back of eels. As they span and swam under the watery fenlands of East Anglia they quietly allowed fenlanders to build a fortune upon them. You could say that they were the backbone of Ely’s medieval wealth. Thousands of eel bones rising and falling under the boggy marsh spine of the Fens. A coral reef of bought and sold. A single vertebrae rising up into a single East Anglian ridge – Cherry Hill, crowned with our Cathedral.
As I write this I can look directly out of my window and watch Ely Cathedral from my window as it settles back against the sunset. 80,000 slippery, medieval eels paid for the stone needed for its enormous edifice. East Anglia, where I live, is flat and marshy and virtually devoid of any kind of building material apart from thatch. When the cathedral was raised on the only hummock for miles around, most of the Fens was permanently flooded. Boats carried the rough hewn rocks from Peterborough and were traded at the dock only a stone’s throw from our house. Even today it is possible to hear fenlanders talking of the Cathedral as the “Ship” of the fens.
Eels swam along that watery spine of grass and marsh, carving into the undulating swimming paths, tracking the map dashes of salt dams and boggy land. As babies they were translucent and became known as glass eels. Suddenly, like phoenixes, butterflies - (and other mysteries), they would appear after a gap of time as adults.
When the fin de siècle Italian, Battista Grassi, watched glass eels slowly turning into the pearlescent white of the adult eel in the Mediterranean, a final piece of the jigsaw fell into place. It was salt, salt in the wound, salt in the pan – the salt to their game that finally turned those translucent ghosts into the slippery angullidae adults found in the Sargasso Sea.
But all those eels need to be caught. Someone needs to bait the willow traps – great willow cages reminiscent of lobster pots, hidden in the peaty meres of the boggy fens.
England (and Ely) has one remaining traditional eel catcher. He still uses the willow traps of his forebears and refuses to use the nets that have decimated their numbers over Europe. He wears a battered old brown wide brimmed hat – perfect for sitting out on a damp brackish morning. His face is long - almost melancholy – as if he has stepped out of a Holbein painting, suddenly out of time and place.
Our eel catcher watches them both ways - the glassy crystal unformed babies leaving the fens and their migration backwards as adults ready to lurk in the murky nocturnal eel pits underneath the sedge and reed warblers. I often found him at festivals and shows. The Ely Eel Festival was a given. He liked to answer questions.
Most often, “What did he bait his traps with?”
He grinned and answered the question with glee – road kill, rotten meat, anything nasty or pungent – the eels would smell it for miles. Eels can crawl over ground, dig through sand - needs must. A grassland plain, after rain, can be covered in a night.
Also, “how did he know when he had a night of eel-catching ahead of him?”
This, again, was easy. He was most authoritative on the subject. Eels moved with the tide. The silvery mirror of a full moon or the inky darkness of the new was best. Then they rose up out of their watery burrows and fed or hunted. Or migrated – silvery guts dissolving as they started their long journey, almost half a year, towards the Sargasso Sea.
And then there were the quiet, thoughtful questions that he turned over carefully in the palm of his hand before answering. What passed the hours after simple contemplation had palled? What did he think about over the hours, hunched in his coracle?
He liked poetry, he said. The firm saxon rhythms of beat and metre that could drum and pulse against the sides of his boat. Words. Words were important. After all, it was the passed on words of his mother and her mother before her that had maintained the history of their eel-catching family – stories, diaries, rhymes that could take him right back along the spine of his ancestors to the 15th century. Long, arterial, tendril roots that tethered him to the silt of The Wash.
He thought. He thought about how he would pass it on. This job of his. Almost a burden or family curse. He had no sons, he said, and it was sons who were supposed to carry on the family line. However, he was modern. Knew that the world had changed. He had a teenage daughter. Sometimes she was interested. She liked making the traps but she didn’t like killing them. A metaphorical eel catcher.
I’m much the same. A metaphorical eel-eater. When we first moved here I ate my first eel – straight from the fish and chip shop down the road. Biting into the oily sweetness from a polystyrene clam-shell as we sat on the kitchen floor surrounded by packing boxes. But I felt terribly guilty. Couldn’t eat an animal that is virtually extinct. I still like to stand on the brink of the Ouse though – staring into the muddy waters. Wondering if I will catch the glimpse of a fin, the gleam of a lampreyed scale.