Fish and flour go together as bye-products of nearly all our large rivers. The combination comes about thus: Wherever there is a water-mill, a mill cut is made to take the water to it. The larger the river, the bigger and deeper the mill cut and dam, unless the mill is built across an arm of the stream itself. This mill-dam, as every trout-fisher knows, holds the biggest fish, and where there are no trout, or few trout, it will be full of big fish, while in the pool below there are perhaps as many more. Of all the food fishes of our rivers the eel is really far the most important. He flourishes everywhere, in the smallest pools and brooks as well as in the largest rivers, and grows up to a weight of 9 lb. or 10 lb., and sometimes, though rarely, more. His price indicates his worth, and never falls below 10d. per lb. Consequently he is valuable as well as plentiful, and the millers know this well. On nearly all rivers the millers have eel-traps, some of the ancient sort being "bucks," made of withes, and worked by expensive, old-fashioned machinery like the mill gear. Another and most paying dodge of the machine-made order is worked in the mill itself, and makes an annexe to the mill-wheel.
I once spent an agreeable hour watching the making of barley meal and the catching of eels, literally side by side. It was sufficiently good fun to make me put my gun away for the afternoon, and give up a couple of hours' walk, with the chance of a duck, to watch the mill and eel-traps working.
They were both in a perfect old-world bye-end of the Thames Valley, in the meads at the back of the forgotten but perfect abbey of the third order at Dorchester, under the tall east window of which the River Thame was running bank full, fringed with giant poplars, from which the rooks were flying to look at their last year's nests in the abbey trees.
The mill was, as might be supposed, the Abbey Mill; but on driving up the lane I was surprised to see how good and large was the miller's house, a fine dwelling of red and grey brick; and what a length of frontage the old mill showed, built of wood, as most of them are, but with two sets of stones, and space for two wheels. Only one was at work, and that was grinding barley-meal - meal from nasty, foreign barley full of dirt; but the miller had English barley-meal too, soft as velvet and sweet as a new-baked loaf. Stalactites of finest meal dust hung from every nail, peg, cobweb, and rope end on the walls, fine meal strewed the floor, coarse meal poured from the polished shoots, to which the sacks hung by bright steel hooks, and on both floors ancient grindstones stood like monuments of past work and energy, while below and beside all this dust and floury dryness roared the flooded waters of the dam and the beating floats of the wheel. "Have you any eels?" I asked. "Come and see," said the miller.
He stopped his wheel, unbolted the door, and we looked up the mill dam, two hundred yards long, straight as a line, embanked by double rows of ancient yews, the banks made and the trees planted by the monks five hundred years ago. Then we stepped into the wheel-house, where the water, all yellow and foaming, was pouring into two compartments set with iron gratings below, on which it rose and foamed. Seizing a long pole with prongs like walrus teeth, the miller felt below the water on the bars. "Here's one, anyway," he said, and by a dexterous haul scooped up a monster eel on to the floor. In a box which he hauled from the dam he had more, some of 5-lb. weight, which had come down with the flood - an easy and profitable fishery, for the eels can lie in the trap till he hauls them out, and sell well summer and winter. It pays as well as a poultry yard. Once he took a 9-lb. fish; 2-1/2 lb. to 4 lb. are common.