The Coracle - a one person boat with an ancient lineage.
Coracles (from the Welsh "cwrwgl") have a history dating back thousands of years. The coracle was originally covered with animal skins and in some countries they are still made this way. In Wales they are now skinned with calico which is waterproofed using a bitumastic paint. For those interested in researching the subject there are two excellent resources. The National Coracle Centre is to be found at Cenarth Falls, Newcastle Emlyn, Dyfed. Martin Fowler has a display which illustrates the history and diversity of the craft. He tells me that 12 people have licences to fish the River Teifi for salmon and sea trout using the coracle. The Centre can supply the woven, Teifi-style coracle and instruct in its use.
The Greenwood Trust of Coalbrookdale, Telford in Shropshire, is a charity devoted to education and training in the old country arts. They run courses on coracle construction and use but also cover a range of other interesting skills. They can teach you how to make a long bow and instruct you in coppice management and coppice crafts. They demonstrate blacksmithing and a range of woodland related crafts.
Thanks to Terry Kenny, coracle maker, of Newport, Shropshire for the photographs.
Peter Badge, chairman of the Coracle Society, has kindly contributed an historical note:
Coracles have been in use in the British Isles from pre-Roman times. Whilst their prime use is for the purposes of transport and fishing, it has been recorded that they have been used both militarily and by the security forces. There is clear evidence that Wellington used them during his campaigns in India. In the same country last year an Indian newspaper showed a photograph of an Indian coracle being used in the pursuit of a dangerous criminal.
Coracles are to be found, not only in the British Isles and Ireland, but can be seen in India, Vietnam and Tibet. Until very recently they were to be found in Iraq and reports, currently unverified, exist of them in Norway and close to Chernobyl.
Coracles have not been seen in Scotland for 150 years but they were in use in Ireland until the late 1940's. They are, however, principally to be found nowadays in three West Walian rivers, namely: The Teifi, The Towy and The Taf. Here they are used for net fishing, with the net being held between two coracles which drift down with the current, taking a salmon or sewin at restricted times of the year. All these coracles, however, have to be licensed. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly. There remain traditional coracle builders on the Severn at Iron-Bridge and Shrewsbury. In its hey day, towards the end of the last century, there were more coracles to be found on the River Severn than on any other river in the British Isles. The principal use of these coracles on the Severn at Iron-Bridge was as a ferry as there were very few bridges over that river in the area and the locals resented having to pay a toll on the famous Iron-Bridge. At Shrewsbury they were used principally for rod and line fishing. There is also a tradition of coracles in North Wales and they were to be seen until the 1950's in the Llangollen section of the River Dee.
Coracles are distinguished from other river craft by their weight, construction and propulsion. The coracles are traditionally made of willow ar ash laths and covered with calico or canvas impregnated with pitch and tar or, more recently, bitumastic paint. They weigh between 25 and 40 pounds and so can be carried on the shoulders of the coracle man who frequently, in the case of the fisherman, would walk 5 - 10 miles before drifting down with the current. They are invariably propelled with a single paddle held in two hands over the bow, executing a figure of 8 movement. Fishermen use a similar stroke but with one hand only over the side of the craft, permitting the holding of the net in the other. The Coracle Society actively seeks to preserve and protect the tradition of old coracle makers and users, of whom there are few. It also exists to encourage a new wave of coracle makers who are increasing in numbers and are very much the product of the excellent coracle making courses which were held at the Bewdley Museum and are currently held at the Greenwood Trust in Iron-Bridge.