Until a few weeks ago I’d never been within 100 metres of a coracle.
I’d seen one from afar at the odd away game at Shrewsbury Town’s Gay Meadow ground back in the day, where local coracle maker Fred Davies used to sit in one of his boats during matches and retrieve any misplaced clearances that wound up in Severn.
I’d seen them on TV, thought they were synonymous with Wales and knew that they were an ancient form of boat, still used for fishing on a number of Welsh rivers but that was about it.
So when my partner suggested heading off for a three-day coracle-making course could be an interesting weekend break I was slightly bemused.
It didn’t help that she’s great at making stuff – me, not so much. But why not, eh?
After an early Friday morning start, along a thankfully quiet M4, and having negotiated some tricky, steep switchback lanes, we arrived at Middle Ninfa Farm, near Llanellen in the Brecon Beacons, along with about a dozen boat-building hopefuls.
One of the tutors – Richard Lewis – has lived at the farm for over 20 years, where he grows about an acre of willow: the basic raw material for the structure of the coracle.
The other tutor – Mick Petts – is the Welsh artist perhaps best known for the impressive land sculpture Sultan the Pit Pony near Caerphilly – the largest earth sculpture in the UK.
Mick explained he’s been interested in coracles for over 20 years and has helped build scores of them since.
He gave us a brief history lesson explaining that coracles and their pumped-up big brothers, curraghs, are believed to have been around for approximately 5000 years.
Curraghs – more commonly claimed as an Irish boat – are larger seagoing vessels and one theory proposes the ancient inhabitants of Wales used them to transport the bluestones to Stonehenge from an ancient quarry at Craig Rhos-y-Felin, first by river, then by sea.
Coracles are smaller, have no keel and are an ideal vessel for one person to use on a river. Their size was dictated by the fact they were designed to be covered with just one animal hide, usually from a cow, but a horse-hide could also be used, waterproofed with pitch.
We were told coracles aren’t a uniquely Welsh boat and can be found in Europe, North America, the Middle, and the Far East, before getting a quick rundown of the Welsh types we would be making.
The different designs have evolved due to the locally available materials to make the vessel from, what it would be used for and the conditions of the waterway they would be used on.
The coracles on offer were the Teifi, Tywi, Tâf, Cleddau, Llwchwr, Usk, Wye, Dyfi, Welshpool, Dee, Llangollen, Conwy and Dwyryd.
Some, especially from the north, had fiendishly complicated structures and involved more advanced woodworking skills using lathes.
We opted for the Tâf, a relatively compact design with a beautiful teardrop outline. A smaller construction, it seemed easier for one person to carry on their shoulders, useful for my partner if she ever decided to nip off for a quick paddle on Roath Park Lake!
After we were taught the bend-and-twist technique for making the willow structure, we were handed a knife, a mallet, some secateurs and set about staking out the outline of our coracle on the ground.
The first task was to construct the main structure out of thicker willow rods. We got off on the wrong foot, deciding to take the bark off the withies to help them dry more quickly.
A big mistake. After spending hours laboriously whittling away, we found they kept snapping once we tried to bend them to shape.
It was back to the drawing board and after cutting more willow we finally started to build our boat in earnest.
The coracles were constructed upside down with the framework pushed about three inches into the ground to support it as you build around the seat.
After our early whittling disaster, by the end of Friday, we were behind some of the other coracle makers. A few already had things that looked like a boat. Ours comprised some sticks curving over a little wooden bench.
Thankfully we made better progress on day two. The side struts were put in place, the seat was tied into the frame giving it more rigidity, then thinner rods of willow were woven around the outside to create the tension that pulls the frame together.
The moment of truth came as we carefully lifted the frame out of the ground with Mick’s help. Some of the bigger boats being made by other people started to spring open at this stage, but fortunately, our sporty Tâf model kept its shape, and amazingly it was starting to look like a coracle!
By day three it was time to attach the calico covering; a laborious process requiring some mean needle-working skills, before building up the gunwale with more willow.
And we were nearly there. We should have covered the cloth with a couple of coats of bitumen paint but it wouldn’t have dried in time for the drive home.
That presented the final challenge of the weekend, as we’d forgotten to work out how the hell it was going to fit into the back of a Mazda 3. But 45 minutes later we’d tugged and teased it into the car and headed home at the end of an intensely satisfying weekend.
It was incredible to think that we had built something using basically the same design and techniques as our ancient ancestors. But sadly it’s a dying craft.
The decline in fish stocks has dramatically reduced the number of fisheries worked in Wales. In the 1860s it’s estimated that there were 400 coracle men on the river Tywi alone. Last year there were just 21 pairs of coracles licensed to fish across the whole of west Wales.
The obvious knock-on effect of the decline has been to reduce still further the number of boats being made. There’s even a doubt the course we attended will run again next year, which would be an awful shame.
In the meantime, efforts are being made to ensure the coracle doesn’t fade from memory completely.
Earlier this month Heritage Lottery funding was awarded to the Carmarthen Coracle and Netsmen’s Association and they will use the money to produce coracle educational packs for schools and record the old traditions before they are gone forever.