Coracles of the World
The Coracle, or Cwrwgl, is today closely associated with the Afon Tywi. Its only real 'rival' is the coracle of the Teifi. The latter river has its outlet to the sea in Ceredigion, as most readers of this piece will know. On the Teifi the boats are normally shorter in design than those of the Tywi, but are otherwise very similar in construction.
Yet this one-man boat has a proud ancestry in many other parts of the world. The craft was used throughout the British Isles in pre-Roman times. In those early times it was normally made from animal skins stretched over a light wooden frame; now the animal skins have been substituted by calico waterproofed with pitch and tar, or a bitumastic paint. More often still, the wooden lath-based coracle has been replaced altogether by a fibreglass construction. Until the nineteen-fifties, coracles were a fairly common sight on rivers elsewhere in the British Isles, such as the River Severn, the River Dee in North Wales, and the River Shannon in Ireland. On the Severn they were used as an alternative to the payment of tolls across the Ironbridge, that symbol of the early Industrial Revolution. Most often, though, they were used as fishing craft as they still are today.
The coracle has not been seen in use on Scottish waters for a century-and-a-half; probably the earlier demise of the craft there has something to do with the rugged nature of many rivers in the Highlands.
The coracle may now only be associated with a few very specific areas of Wales, but especially in former times it was in much more widespread use in many parts of the world. They can still be seen (though naturally they are not called by the name of 'coracle' or 'cwrwgl') in countries such as Tibet, Vietnam, India, and some states of the former Soviet Union. Wellington used them in his military campaigns in Asia. The North American 'Bull-Boat' is really only a type of coracle.
It is really no surprise that a similar design should have been in such common use. The boats are simple in concept, robust, and, weighing only around 25 - 40 pounds, can be carried on one man's back. One of the pictures illustrating this article shows a group of men doing just that, as they are about to put their boats on to the waters of the Tywi. This picture was taken towards the end of the nineteenth century, so today's concrete road bridge is not in evidence.
The coracle made an ideal fishing-boat for the rivers. The fisherman only had one oar to carry, an important consideration when he frequently had to walk several miles to the riverbank with the craft on his back. The boats were then paddled upstream with this single oar, using a one-handed (certainly on the return journey) figure-of-eight motion to ensure the boat moved in a reasonably straight line.
On the downstream leg of the jorney, forward motion was largely provided by the current, with the oar-hand mainly being used to steer the boat. The other hand was used to hold the fisherman's share of the net as it was stretched across the river from colleague to colleague in pursuit of the quarry of trout, sewen, and salmon. Nowadays there are only of handful of fishing licences, and fish for the table are more likely to have come from a fish-farm. But coracles can still sometimes be seen on the Tywi, and the National Coracle Centre at Cenarth Falls (on the A484, near to Newcastle Emlyn) is well worthy of a visit.
L to R: Coracles about to fish on Afon Tywi; a coracle in fast water on Afon Towy; a coracle on Afon Wysg [River Usk].