It's amazing just how little people out there in the big wide world - meaning the world outside the UK that is - know about Wales. Mountains, singing and rugby they will tell you. And that's often all they can come up with.

Oh yes, and coracles of course. They all know about our funny shaped little boats. Many of them are convinced that each and every one of us has our own personal coracle tied up against the garden wall, ready for a spot of fishing after we come home from work.

Reality, of course, is very different. Few of us in Wales have ever sat in a coracle, some have never even seen one and only an interested few know anything about their history.

Coracles, small river craft that were used for fishing and, occasionally, for transport, were once found throughout Britain. Large versions of the modern coracle were possibly what early man used to explore the coast around the country and even the small fishing versions that we see today have been in use since long before the Romans came to Britain.

Coracles on the River Teifi, 1972

The word coracle comes from the Welsh word cwrwgl which is, in turn, related to the Irish curagh. The first recorded use of the term coracle, in this country at least, was in the 16th century but long before - and since - coracle-type craft were in use in places as diverse as Vietnam, Iraq and India.

These days coracles are to be seen mainly in the more rural parts of Britain, on estuaries and rivers like the Spey in Scotland and the Boyne in Ireland. They are also used in south west England while in Wales they are to found on the Teifi and Tywi Rivers in the west of the country.

The frame of the coracle is traditionally made from wicker, each boat having willow or ash struts across the base and sides. They were originally covered by animal hides but, more recently, canvas or callico has replaced the hides. When painted with pitch or tar the hulls of these lightweight little boats are totally waterproof.

Weighing just over 12 kg, each coracle was designed to be carried on a man's back, a strap over the chest holding the boat steady.

There is no single blueprint or definitive style for a coracle, these little craft being unique in design. They were tailored for the river conditions they would have to face during their working lives.

So, a Teifi coracle is invariably flat bottomed because it has to cope with the waterfalls and rapids at Cenarth Falls. A coracle from the Carmarthen area, on the other hand, is rounder and deeper as there are no rapids on the River Tywi.

A typical River Teifi coracle in Manordeifi Old Church, Pembrokeshire


On the Teifi and Tywi coracles are used mainly for net fishing. A net is stretched out between two boats which drift with the current, salmon or sewin swimming into the net as they go. If further propulsion is required, the fisherman uses a paddle held over the bows and moves the coracle by a figure of eight motion - quite a skilled and difficult manoeuver to carry out.

By the beginning of the t20th century coracle numbers had greatly decreased in Wales, due to the decrease in the quantity of salmon available and the increasing industrialization of the towns and rivers. Now they are in use only on the Teifi and Tywi where a small number of fishermen continue the salmon fishing trade.

A coracle centre and museum exists at Cenarth and in 1990 the Coracle Society was formed. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010, its members regularly taking part in meets and giving talks and lectures.

Perhaps the most amazing feat concerning a coracle took place in 1974 when Bernard Thomas sailed his boat across the English Channel. It took him nearly 14 hours but he managed the trip successfully, a tribute to the sea worthiness of the Welsh coracle.

Coracle fishing has now almost died out - and so, too, the coracles. Only the interest of the general public, visitors and residents alike will keep them going. They are important part of our heritage and culture, one which has to survive.

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