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CORACLE

Coracle, Cenarth

The coracle has been known for many centuries in Wales. It is a keel-less, bowl-shaped fishing boat, made of willow and originally covered with horse or ox hide.

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.

Ceredigion Museum display

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.

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

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 less than fifty 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, 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 weighs about 13.6 kg (30lbs) 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.

It is generally thought that coracles were not used on the Rheidol or Ystwyth (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.

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.

The Coracle was described by Gerald of Wales in 1188

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.

http://www.coracle-fishing.net/index.htm

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'.

Wicker work in shape, much resembling the bowl of a spoon. This is covered with materials composed of old blankets and canvas and being properly secured with a thick varnish or pitch.

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

the Teify has another picturesque feature - the Coracles. They are a sort of Welsh Canoe, in shape well enough compared to half a walnut-shell; and are made of wicker covered with hides or pitched canvas. They give character to the scenery; fishermen, with them upon their heads, have the wild look of South Sea Islanders carrying their canoes; but in water their tub-like form brings to mind Shakespeare's witch -'Thither in a sieve I'll sail'

Newell, Robert Hasell, (1821) Rev, Letters on the Scenery of Wales ... p. 67

We passed the Dovey, which flows to the north of Machynlleth and it divides it from Merionethshire, over an old stone bridge, from which we were gratified by sight entirely new us, the management of coracles, and the mode of fishing from them. These little water conveyances are, you know, of high antiquity, receiving theirname from the Coria, all skins, with which they were originally covered. They have now indeed dropped their right to this appellation; the course pitched canvas been substituted as a coating it in the room of leather. Intended to carry only one person each, they are not more than five feet long, and four broad, rounded at the corners, and constructed of wickerwork; and are consequently sufficiently light to be conveyed on the back of the fishermen to his home, when the labour of the day is concluded. Simple as this construction is, we find the ancient Britons encountered the waves of the ocean in them, voyaging in their wicker baskets covered with a leather to the island Mictis; a perilous undertaking, whether the name be applicable to the Isle of Wight, or to one of the Cassiterides. the man who manages the coracle is seated exactly in the centre of it, and directors its motion by the action of a small paddle, with which it is truly astonishing how completely he commands this apparently awkward vessel. To Coracles and usually go together in order to assist each other in fishing; and operation of singular address and activity, the right hand being employed all the time in paddling, the left hand in conducting the net, and teeth in holding the line attached to it.

Warner, Richard, Rev (1763-1857) A Walk through Wales in Aug, 1797, (Bath, 1798), p. 91-2

The fishermen of the Teify and many other coracles in South Wales ...

Leigh, Samuel, Guide to Wales and Monmouthshire, (1831; 3rd edition, 1835), p. 13

Kilgerran Castle, Coracles and salmon fishing

Rev Joseph Romilly's Tour of Wales, 1837, Edited by Rev M.G.R. Morris, Llandysul, 1998, p. 56

Cilgerran (Taken over the Teifi on a coracle)

Wyndham, Henry Penruddocke, (1736-1819), A Gentleman's Tour through Monmouthshire and Wales, made in the months of June and July, 1774

Cilgerran. The water being low at the bottom of the hill, our horses were led through it [the Teifi] while we, one by one, were ferried in a coracle. Two fishermen in the town were engaged to conduct us safely across and, throwing the boats over their shoulders, were at the Teify's side in an instant. The guide sat in one coracle and as soon as we were properly balanced in the other, he paddled us over with his right hand, while, with his left, he held the sides of the boats together. A twisted withe is fixed to each side of the centre of the seat which serves as a handle to the fisherman when he carries it, and as a circle to confine you to the precise spot, where an exact equilibrium can only prevent you from being upset. The dexterity of the natives, who fish in these coracles is amazing, though it frequently happens to the most expert, that a large fish will pull both the man and the boat under water'. [Quotes Geraldus Cambrensis p. 273 in Latin]

Wyndham, H.P., A Gentleman's Tour through Monmouthshire and Wales, made in the months of June and July, 1774 and in the months of June, July and August, 1777(1781), p. 85-6

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