Wales

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.

Tagged with:

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments.

  • Comment number 4. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 12 Mar 2013 18:42

    In primary school we were often taken on school trips around our home county of Pembrokeshire and one of these trips took us to Cenarth. This was a long way in those pre-motor car owning days and none of us had ever seen a coracle before. Those, like me used to clinker boats built by shipwrights looked on in awe at how the local men used these little craft on the river Teifi. Some of us were offered a ‘ride’ in a coracle and being used to being afloat I jumped at the chance. But there was no jumping in or out of a coracle, compared with the sturdy timber boats I was used to, these craft were flimsy and unstable. It was fascinating to watch these expert fishermen ‘row’ these craft with a single paddle, which they seemed to tuck around and under an arm. The fisherman I was with in this coracle let me have a go and I rapidly became expert at turning a coracle round in circles in its own length! Another memory, this must have been about 1954, is my asking the fisherman what he had done to his arm, which was badly scarred. “Oh, that’s Otter bites,” he told me, “they sometimes get caught up in the trammel nets, and they bite when we are trying to let them free.”
    The other thing about coracles that springs to mind, is that St Justinian allegedly travelled in his coracle from Brittany to Ramsey Island , to set up a Christian cell there. Well, all I can say is, if he did that then he would have been a dead cert for an Olympic Gold Medal in rowing or canoeing were he alive today.

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 4: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 4: 0
    Loading…
  • Comment number 3. Posted by Phil

    on 11 Mar 2013 07:33

    CS Lewis, like his friend Tolkien, was well aware of Celtic history and culture so if he hadn't actually seen a coracle he would have read about them and seen pictures. It's only a small step to putting them into the Narnia chronicles.

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 3: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 3: 0
    Loading…
  • Comment number 2. Posted by Lucy

    on 10 Mar 2013 15:02

    It's a real shame there aren't more coracles around...I'd love to have a go in one! Personally the only mention of them that I had ever heard was in the Narnia stories! I didn't even know they were associated with Wales in particular or that they had been so popular in the past.

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 2: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 2: 0
    Loading…
  • Comment number 1. Posted by Terry N

    on 10 Mar 2013 14:50

    This takes me back to a time when we didn't mess around with computers and phones and people interacted with the natural environment and each other. You can't paddle a laptop up the Teifi and catch salmon.

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 1: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 1: 0
    Loading…

More Posts

Previous