In a quest to learn more about Britain’s traditional boats, Mary-Ann Ochota attempts to master an ancient craft on a wild Welsh river
“Manoeuvering is fiendish – paddle in one hand, fishing net in the other,” says Mary-Ann of her coracle adventure.
Below the village of Cilgerran in Pembrokeshire, the River Teifi surges noiselessly through a steep, tree-covered valley. It’s a dark night, the moon is yet to rise and the thick sky blankets us. “Look at that,” Mark Dellar murmurs, at the haze forming above the black water. “The old men used to call that ‘Salmon Mist’. It’s a good sign, it means the fish might be running.”
I flick my headtorch on, step gingerly into my coracle, and we push off from the bank into the velvet night. Mark is a Teifi netsman, entitled to fish the river for salmon and sea trout (known as sewin), using handmade nets trawled between two coracles. It’s the way it has been done for generations. Tonight, I’m joining him as a helper, or ‘gwas’, Welsh for ‘servant’.
With the rough net in one hand and a smooth wooden paddle in the other, floating on a dark river waiting for the tug of a fish, I can’t help thinking that I could have travelled in time and wouldn’t know it.
Along with timber log boats, the coracle – a small, rounded craft made from a wooden or wickerwork frame covered with animal hide – is the most ancient type of boat in human history. It’s certainly played a role in Britain since the Bronze Age, around 2,500BC, and probably earlier.
Nowadays, most coraclers have swapped animal hides for stretched fabric waterproofed with tar, or the 21st-century innovation, pond-liner fabric. The coracle I’m in is pretty traditional – a willow lath frame with a twisted hazel rim, and a calico ‘hull’ stretched taut and hardened with bitumen paint.
Earlier that day, Mark had coached me in the art of coracling. The boat may be simple, but mastering the manoeuvring is fiendish.
“It takes about 10 minutes to learn the basics. And then about 10 years to get good at it!” Mark chuckles as I flail at the water with my paddle. Coraclers face the way they are travelling, and paddle over the front of the boat in a figure of eight ‘sculling’ motion. Get it wrong and you find yourself spinning in circles or simply floating off down the river.
To help with fishing, I need to paddle one-handed, positioning my coracle in the right part of the flow of the river, and maintaining the tension of the net in my other hand. Our quarry are fish travelling from the Atlantic Ocean to their birthplace spawning grounds upriver. Coracle-caught sewin and salmon have European protected geographical status – up there with the likes of Champagne or Parma ham.
“I think the old men would be surprised that there’s so much interest in coracle-fishing heritage. For them, it was just a way of life. But I think they would also be proud of us, for keeping it going,” Mark says. “And of course, the quality of the fish speaks for itself.” The sewin I taste is delicious, a vibrant pink fillet with rich, earthy flavours. It’s a real treat, worthy of accolade.
SALMON SLIPPING AWAY
A century ago, fish were abundant here from April to September. Thousands of Teifi salmon were sent to cities across England, commanding top prices. Trout would be kept for local sale and as food for the family. But salmon fish stocks are now drastically low and Mark and his fellow netsmen are worried. An estimated 6,000 salmon ran up the Teifi to spawn in 2010 – fewer than 2,000 ran in 2015.
All 12 licensed Teifi netsmen declared a voluntary catch-andrelease programme for any salmon they caught this year.
“Even though we’ve got commercial licences, this is now about preservation, not making money,” Mark explains.
Fish numbers have crashed because of reduced survival rates at sea – due to climate change and habitat destruction – and environmental pollution events that can destroy whole breeding beds and a generation of
“Get it wrong and you spin in circles or float off down river”
young fish in one go. In this rural area, river pollution is mostly agricultural fertiliser run-off and slurry overflows from farms (see page 52).
The netsmen want to keep the fishing heritage alive, but not at the expense of their beloved river.
“Even when you’re not fishing, it’s a pleasure to be out on the river in a coracle. They’re quiet, you’re close to the water. And maybe because they’re not plastic,” he thumps the side of his coracle, making a dull baskety noise, “wildlife such as otters and kingfishers just watch you pass. They don’t bother with us at all.”
Back at our night fishing, Mark calls instructions in hushed tones. There are three braided markers on the main net-line – so it doesn’t matter that it’s pitch black, I know to keep feeding the net out until I feel the next braid under my fingers. As the river gets shallower, we pull the net up, gripping the line in our teeth as our hands reach to gather the slack. The key is to keep the net skimming the river bottom, rather than dragging along loosely or drifting in mid water. Mark knows every inch of this river and moves to the right place with ninja-like skill. I paddle with all my might, trying not to let the side down. When we reach the end of the run, catchless, some 600m later, we swing our coracles on to our backs like turtle shells, walk down the riverbank, and prepare to go again. It’s a strange combination of calm and exhilarating. And I don’t mind at all if the sewin miss our net. Mark agrees. “There’s a reason they call it fishing, not catching.”
Author Mary-Ann navigates the Teifi in the river’s distinctive coracle
ABOVE Teifi netsmen in their coracles on the river in 1972 – they are paddling with one arm, holding the net between them with the other LEFT Coracles have been in use for centuries, dating back to pre-Roman times. Ancient Britons used them for fishing and transport
Britain Afloat Mary-Ann explores the design and history of six traditional boats in the BBC series, Britain Afloat – coracles, punts, narrow boats, the rowing eight, Mersey sailing boats and Thames sailing barges. Watch on BBC2, Saturdays, 8pm, or catch up on iPlayer.
LEFT between them as they paddle, allowing it to skim along the river bottom BELOW The walk back to the start, carrying the coracles