The Welsh Coracle


A History of the Welsh Coracle

Picture this: It was a few years ago, in the charming county of Carmarthenshire Leigh, our talented carpenter, stumbled upon a hidden gem—a coracle. Now, Leigh is not your ordinary carpenter; he’s an advocate for preserving the art of true craftsmanship. Naturally, he was captivated by the traditional methods and remarkable skill that went into crafting this small boat. Leaving with the coracle in hand, Leigh’s fascination with these unique vessels was ignited. And it was a fortuitous encounter with the coracle expert, Karl Chattington, that propelled his passion even further. Recently, Karl completed a custom-made coracle for Leigh, and this week marked their inaugural voyage together. So, what exactly is a coracle, you ask? Today, we’re diving into the rich history of this quintessentially Welsh boat.

The Coracle: A Quirky Watercraft

Imagine a small, oval-shaped boat with a flat bottom, featuring one pointed end and one blunt end. Meet the coracle! Unlike most other boats, it doesn’t have a keel. Instead, it’s incredibly lightweight for easy portability yet sturdy enough to support a single individual in the water. With its unique design, the coracle thrives in shallow waters, requiring only around an inch or 3cm of depth. This allows it to reach parts of rivers that are inaccessible to other craft. And when it comes to steering, a coracle relies on a single paddle, maneuvering in a figure-eight motion through the water.

Coracle at Penderyn Antiques

A Journey through Time: Unearthing the Coracle’s Roots

The deep-rooted connection between Wales and the coracle dates back to ancient times, possibly even to the Bronze Age or the last Ice Age. The Romans, when they arrived in Wales in 55 BC, encountered coracles and were intrigued by them. These unique boats are even mentioned by the Roman historian Pliny and other writers of that era. Interestingly, it is believed that the Romans drew inspiration from coracles ten years later when they needed to cross a flooded river in Spain, building their own coracles for the task.

Fast forward to the seventh century, where the Welsh poet Aneirin referenced coracles in one of his poems, highlighting their significance. In the Middle Ages, the Welsh laws stated that a coracle was worth eight pence, emphasizing their practical value. Giraldus Cambrensis, a prominent figure in the twelfth century, described coracles he encountered during his journey through Wales in 1188.

Back then, Wales was abundant with dense woodlands, and the rivers served as the ancient “motorways.” Resourceful locals used materials readily available to craft these practical coracles, enabling them to navigate and traverse the waterways. While coracles are mainly used for fishing today, there is a growing recognition of their recreational potential. Presently, the coracle is primarily employed for fishing on three rivers in South-west Wales: the Tywi, the Teifi, and the Taf. However, historical records indicate that coracles were not limited to these rivers alone. They were also spotted on the rivers Dee, Dwyryd, Conwy in North Wales, as well as the rivers Usk, Wye, Severn in mid-Wales, and the rivers Cleddau, Nevern, and Loughour in South Wales. Surprisingly, coracles might have been even more popular on these rivers during the Middle Ages, as evidence suggests that they only appeared on the river Teifi at the end of the eighteenth century.

The Craftsmanship Behind Coracles: Weaving the Story

While there are local variations in coracle design, each one consists of a framework made from willow or ash, shaped like half of an Easter egg. A light wooden board is placed atop the framework, serving as the seat for the coracle fisherman. Attached to it is a strap for easy transport and a wooden club holder for fish striking. The exterior of the framework is covered, historically with the hide of a single animal, such as an ox or a horse. The hide was stretched over the frame and secured with animal hair ropes or leather strips, then waterproofed using the animal’s fat. Imagine the weight and unwieldiness when the hide got wet! By the late eighteenth century, flannel from Welsh woollen mills became a substitute for animal hide. This flannel was impregnated with tar and resin and coated with three layers of pitch. As the Industrial Revolution unfolded in the nineteenth century, factories began producing affordable and durable materials like calico and canvas. These materials became the preferred choice for covering coracle frames for the past century. The material is then coated with tar or bitumen paint to ensure waterproofing. Today’s coracles weigh between 11 and 18 kilograms, approximately half the weight of their hide-covered ancestors. In recent years, some coracle builders have even experimented with synthetic materials like Terylene and fiberglass, resulting in even lighter coracles. Due to the demanding nature of small, shallow, and rocky rivers, coracles endure significant wear and tear. While holes can be patched with pitch, a coracle typically requires a new cover every two years. Depending on usage, a coracle can last anywhere from two to twenty years.

The Art of Fishing: A Delicate Dance with the River

When it comes to fishing, two coracles play a crucial role. A net is arched between them and dragged along with the current. This net acts like a bag, allowing the fish to be easily captured when the time is right. As the net is trawled along the river, some may assume that coracle fishermen are depleting the salmon population. However, this is far from the truth. Coracles can only catch one large salmon at a time, given their limited space. Fishing licenses are highly regulated, with only a few granted, and fishing is restricted to five months of the year.

Coracle on the Water

Exploring the Three Rivers: Tywi, Teifi, and Taf

Although the basic pattern remains consistent, there are distinct variations among the coracles used on the three major rivers in Wales. These variations stem from the unique characteristics of each river. For example, the Tywi coracle suits a slower-flowing river, whereas the Taf coracle, like the Tywi, flows into Carmarthen Bay. However, there are notable differences between the two. Planks are used instead of basketwork in the Taf coracle, and it lacks diagonal laths, making it a heavier vessel. Traditionally, a natural curved piece of wood split in half and joined with iron formed the front end of the Taf coracle, ensuring its symmetry. The paddle used on the Taf river is slightly shorter than the one utilized on the Tywi. In recent times, the coracles on both rivers have become more similar in design.

A Timeless Tradition: Celebrating the Coracle’s Legacy

The bond between Carmarthenshire and the coracle is undeniably strong. Coracle Way, located near the Tywi River, pays homage to these boats, while the Coracle Tavern sits proudly in the town center. Every June, Carmarthen hosts a lively coracle festival, featuring exciting coracle races. Meanwhile, the Cilgerran Coracle Regatta, a tradition spanning over half a century, takes place on the third Saturday of August. Attendees gather along the steep bank, beneath the towering Cilgerran Castle, to witness thrilling races and captivating demonstrations. If you’re interested in experiencing the rich history of coracles, you can find examples on display at the Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagan’s, Aberystwyth’s Ceredigion Museum, Scolton Country Park, and the National Coracle Centre in Cenarth. Cenarth itself celebrates its deep connection to coracles with a splendid metal sculpture of a coracle fisherman, as well as various examples of coracles found in craft shops and pubs. In 1990, the Coracle Society was established with the aim of preserving the traditional craft of coracle building and usage, rekindling interest in regions where coracles are no longer employed, and promoting coracles as leisure craft throughout the British Isles. The society has been successful thus far, with new coracle builders emerging and an increasing number of people embracing coracles for leisure activities.

The coracle is a fascinating part of Welsh heritage, tracing its roots back thousands of years. Its unique design, portability, and shallow water capabilities made it an essential means of transportation and a tool for fishing in Wales’ river-rich landscapes. Today, while coracles continue to be used for fishing in select rivers, their presence is expanding as people recognize their recreational potential. Whether you’re watching coracle races, visiting a museum, or even trying your hand at coracle fishing, immersing yourself in the world of coracles promises a delightful adventure into the vibrant history and cultural significance of this distinctively Welsh boat.

Welsh Coracle