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CORACLES

Coracle fishermen, Cenarth

The coracle has been known for many centuries in

Coracle near Cilgerran
Wales. It is a keel-less, bowl-shaped fishing boat, made of willow and originally covered with horse or ox hide.
Teifi Coracle

Teifi Coracle

Teifi Coracle fishermen

By the end of the eighteenth century, flannel, dipped in a boiling mixture of tar and rosin, had replaced animal hides as a covering. Since the late nineteenth century, the cheaper canvas or calico has been used, which needs only a single coat of pitch to make the coracle waterproof.

Teifi coracle man with a coracle on his back

Picture by J Hassell, 1798, showing a coracle and salmon 'near Aberystwyth'

The advantages of the coracle are its manoeuvrability and lightness. The fisherman uses one ore and sits facing the blunt end. The fact that it only draws three or four inches of water makes it ideal for netting or angling in shallow or rock-strewn rivers.

 About a hundred years ago there were 300 coracles on the Teifi River alone. Due to the efficiency of this method of fishing the angling fraternity have influenced and enforced the creation of certain laws and licences so that now there are few coracles in use for fishing and controlling sheep-dipping operations.

The first report of her Majesty's Inspectors on Salmon Fisheries (1863) saw the coracle as invaluable to a poacher and described the coracle man as 'often lawless and always aggressive...difficult to detect and almost impossible to capture'.

There were many designs of coracle to suit the characteristics of a particular river. It is known that coracles were used on the Teifi (Cardigan); Tywi ( Carmarthen), Taf ( Cardiff), Cleddau (Haverfordwest), Wye (Chepstow), Usk, Dyfi (Machynlleth), Nevern and Loughor. There were three types on the Severn based around Ironbridge, Welshpool and Shrewsbury. In north Wales they were used on the Dee, and Conway.

The Teifi coracle

The Teifi coracle weighs about 136 kg (300lbs) and measures about 1.70 x 1.0 m (5ft 6 ins by 3 ft). They were made with 40 hazel or willow canes and 17 willow or ash laths.

The Rheidol and the Ystwyth

It is generally thought that coracles were not used on the Rheidol or Ystwyth near Aberystwyth, but Lewis Morris, writing in 1755, says that good salmon were to be caught on the Rheidol, and J. Hassell drew a picture 'near Aberystwyth' in about 1796 showing coracles and salmon. The spoil from the lead mines polluted the two rivers after about 1850, killing many of the fish.

Nets

The nets used by the coracle fishers have a special local design. Until recently they were hand-made by the fishermen. The raw materials were hemp or linen thread for the mesh and horse hair or cow hair for the foot rope.

References to Coracles and Salmon in documents.

To fish or cross streams they used boats made of willow, not oblong nor pointed at either end but almost rather in the form of a triangle and covered in rawhide, the fishermen carried these boats on their shoulders’.

Gerald of Wales, 1188

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the price of salmon was often slightly less than beef, mutton and veal.

‘The Teifi is famous for the largest and finest salmon in Great Britain … The common price is two pence or three pence per pound but … not infrequently for one penny per pound’.

Edward Daniel Clarke, A tour through the south of England, Wales, and part of Ireland, made during the summer of 1791. ( London, 1793)

‘The least unsteadiness overturns them and many lives are yearly lost in the Welsh rivers. Cardigan coracles were made of light willows worked at four inches asunder and flannel, well tarred, put around. The flannel would last five or six years, but the woodwork was renewed every year. A large one measured 4 ft 9ins x 3 ft 10 ins deep.

Christopher Sykes, Journal of a Tour in Wales, 1796

NLW MS 2258C (Typescript copy of his tour of Wales)

‘At Aberystwyth the Autumnal fishing for salmon and sewin is excellent’.

Rev W. Bingley, Excursions in North Wales, including Aberystwith and the Devil's Bridge intended as a guide to Tourists. 3rd edition, ( London, 1839), p. 180

At Aberystwyth, ‘Fish not plentiful except salmon’.

Corbet Hue, ‘Journal of a Tour through N Wales, 1810

NLW, MS 23218

 

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