The Slippery Eel in the Room
By Peter Coates
During the Quantocks workshop, the cliché ‘elephant in the room’ surfaced on at least a couple of occasions (the room in question being a dark wood-panelled and excruciatingly cosy sitting room-cum-bar, complete with roaring fire). As I recall, among the elephants alluded to were the alleged ‘whiteness’ of the English countryside (which brings to mind one of the most wonderful of all academic article titles: ‘the unbearable whiteness of skiing’) and the hunting/control of the deer population on the Quantocks.
The animal that never got a mention was the conger eel and the form of hunting that did not feature in discussion was glatting. This now obsolete pursuit graced a place that there simply wasn’t time to include among the field trips: Kilve Beach. With its astonishing wave-cut platforms, blue lias limestone pavements, and fossil-bearing strata exposed at low tide, Kilve Beach is the major attraction along the three-mile lowland coastal strip of the AONB area. (By contrast, the moorland heights of nearby Exmoor National Park plunge directly into the water in ‘hogs-back’ shape, forming the highest sea cliffs in England.) Where the stream that flows off the Quantocks’ eastern escarpment down Holford Combe debouches into the Bristol Channel (Severn Sea) was once a small port, Kilve Pill, where culm, a poor quality coal, was imported from Wales for lime-burning, and French brandy was smuggled in for storage at The Chantry.
I’d come across an intriguing, fleeting mention of this particular form of organized wildlife pursuit in Vincent Waite’s Portrait of the Quantocks (1964). Glatting refers to the hunting of conger eels with dogs at Kilve Beach. A glatt is the local name for a conger eel (a German word, glatt means smooth and/or slippery; aalglatt translates as slippery as an eel). There was no further information in Waite’s book, save for a reference to framed photos of this peculiar practice in the Hood Arms pub on the main road through Kilve village. This was reason enough for an advance party of workshop attendees to repair to this former coaching inn for lunch. Now as it happened, the table we chose, under a majestic trophy stag (the antlers made a perfect hat rack) was immediately opposite the glatting photos and an explanatory board.
We wondered where Petra Van Dam had disappeared to after we placed our orders. It turned out that she’d been off to conduct a spontaneous oral history interview with a group of locals who looked like more or less permanent fixtures of the barroom at lunchtime. I then headed off in their direction to conduct a follow-up session, to firm up some of the details and clarify some ambiguities. Between the text on the board and our two research trips across the room, we managed to piece together sufficient information to provide a satisfactory overall picture of glatting. Organized by a local gamekeeper, glatting was pursued by groups of men in the autumn when the lowest tides of the year revealed the greatest expanse of estuarine mud at the foreshore. ‘Fish dogs’ such as spaniels, which did not require special training, identified the rocks under which the conger eels were concealed in the thick mud. Using staffs made of saplings of ash, men levered up the embedded rocks, Men and dogs would then pursue the sea-ward fleeing eels and manoeuvre them into wheat sacks with their four-foot long sticks. These ash sticks were known as glatting irons and a specimen, deployed for the last time in 1955, is displayed in the pub as well.
One of the old photos in the pub showed a mutt sniffing an eel, perhaps with a view to taking a bite out of it. Conger eels are fierce and often large creatures (one of the men in the pub referred to specimens as thick as a beefy man’s neck) and sometimes took a bite out of a hunter’s hand. Glatting flourished in particular during the lean years of the two world wars, but had died out by the 1950s, when more palatable sources of nourishment became available in cash-strapped local communities. Conger eel, we were told, is far less tasty than its freshwater counterpart, so it was a relief to consume alternative forms of protein. From the numbers of people gathered on the beach for gatting (women came along too), it appears to have been quite a spectacle, though it’s not clear whether these crowds were a regular occurrence or feature confined to the hunt’s final days.
In the few days since returning from Halsway Manor, I’ve not been able to glean much additional information about glatting. There are brief mentions in Grahame Farr’s Somerset Harbours (1954) and The Victoria County History of Somerset (volume II, 1911). The photos in the Hood Arms are also reproduced in Berta Lawrence’s Quantock Country (1952). We need to know more. Was glatting a more widespread regional practice along the Bristol Channel? Why was the German word for conger eel adopted? Was glatting a feature of the North Sea coast of Germany as well? In its initial stages, according to David Moon, the research methodology will be fairly straightforward: return to the Hood Arms any lunchtime and buy the boys a few pints of Exmoor Gold or Newcastle Brown.