You may have heard of coracles, or even seen someone paddling one down a Welsh river, but how much do you know about them? You may even be asking yourself; What is a coracle? Read all about the fascinating history of this pre-Roman type of boat that still exists in Wales today.
What is a coracle?
A coracle, or a 'cwrwgl' as it was originally named in Welsh, is a small one-person boat made out of woven wood and a waterproof covering. They were used in the UK over 2000 years ago, dating back to pre-Roman times, and they are still used today – most commonly for fishing.
Boats of this kind have been built and used by different cultures around the world for thousands of years. Traditionally in Wales, the pattern created by the willow weaving correlates to the river it was built by, giving each boat a marker of its origin.
Presence in Wales
While most places no longer use coracles, there are patches of Wales where the art of making a coracle is preserved. There are also places in West Wales where you can get a license to allow you to use a coracle, which is necessary these days if you want to use the boats.
On the River Teifi, the River Towy and the River Taf, people still use the boats for fishing. Licensed coracle fishers secure a net between two coracles then drift down the river in hope of catching fish as they go. There used to be a coracle community in North Wales too, on the River Dee at Llangollen.
How they are made
Back in the day, coracles were made from willow and animal skin to ensure they were lightweight, waterproof and affordable. Nowadays, they consist of thin strips of willow or ash that is interwoven to create the bowl shape. This is then covered with a reinforced material, like painted canvas.
Recently, Kieren Jones, a course leader at Central St Martins art school, brought some of his MA Material Futures students to try traditional coracle making in the Brecon Beacons. You can hear about their time and see the finished products in the short video at the top of the page.
Build your own coracle
If you want to have a go at making your own coracle, you can attend a course at the same place as the Central St Martins students went to in the video. At Middle Ninfa Farm in Llanellen, which is near Abergavenny in the Brecon Beacons, you can spend three days building your own coracle alongside the Usk Valley. One of the tutors, Richard Lewis, has lived at Middle Ninfa Farm for over 20 years. He tends an acre of willow beds to keep the supply of coracle-building materials healthy.
Find out more
If you are captivated by these special boats, visit the popular National Coracle Centre at Cenarth Falls in Carmarthenshire. It is a museum and workshop space that houses coracles from all around the world.
The displays tell you all about the history of the craft, the different varieties of coracles and how they are made. From there you can also borrow a woven Teifi-style coracle to use on the local river.