Learn to build a boat from the Iron Age

The ancient craft of constructing coracles is being revived in the Welsh Marches. Rupert Isaacson took to the waters

Since the Iron Age, the fast-flowing rivers of the Welsh Borders have supported small dark fishermen in small dark boats shaped like circular tea trays that deftly ply the white-water currents between the deeper pools where the salmon lie. Until recently these coracle men, as they are known, were a dying breed, but in recent years coracles have seen something of a resurgence, especially on the rivers Wye and Teme in the west of Britain.

Fashioned according to an ancient design, coracles are made by stretching calico or hide over an ash, willow or hazel framework. The calico is then sealed with pitch or, if it's hide, lanolin is used. The result of this labour is a small boat, but this is where the problems begin.

Lacking a rudder, the coracle is near impossible to steer for the uninitiated. You have to use a single-bladed paddle in a specially adapted figure-of- eight motion, continually spinning and half rocking the boat across the river's current. A skilled coracler can navigate long stretches of river, even stretches of white water. In 1974 Bernard Thomas actually crossed the Channel in a coracle in 13.5 hours, and there are now three major coracle regattas in the UK.

Several coracle builders in the Welsh Marches now offer 2-4 day courses in both constructing and propelling the craft. Take one of these courses and you'll not only learn the basics of how to use the thing, but you'll actually own a boat that you can take anywhere, and which may even fit into the back of a small car - depending on the boat's design.

Peter Faulkner of the border village of Leintwardine has emerged as the guru of the coracle revival. His courses are both physically and mentally demanding, but great fun. If you don't want to actually build or buy a coracle, you can just show up and take a lesson or two in paddling these infernally difficult, yet highly manoeuvrable boats. If you do get hooked, it is possible to spend several days paddling down the Wye and Teme, camping on the banks or staying in B&Bs in the local towns.

Be prepared for some frustration as construction is one thing, but mastering the noble art of propulsion is another i.e. they are far easier to build than paddle! Unlike a canoe, coracles cannot take two paddlers, so you have to learn to steer and go forward right from the start - but because it's a flat circular thing, the coracle has to be coaxed and chivvied with delicate little rapid strokes where the paddle is turned this way and that in the water according to the demands of the current. Basically, you'll spend a lot of time in the beginning going round in circles. But once it begins to come together the effect is strangely satisfying - you skim along the surface of the water like a dragonfly, hovering in the lulls between rapids, shooting over the rocks, and settling in the deeper pools to rotate slowly on the current looking for the elusive fish below.

If you decide to take a full coracle building and paddling course, you get all the tuition, the building materials - leather or calico, pitch or lanolin, wood to make the frame and paddle - all thrown in. Peter Faulkner is pleased to offer full board accommodation, or if you prefer, he can help you to find something in the village (either within walking distance or a short drive away).

All you have to bring is a fishing rod for the evenings, a sense of adventure, or just a taste for good beer.

FACT FILE

Contact

Peter Faulkner Coracles, 24 Watlin Street, Leintwardine, Hereford and Worcester, SY7 0LW;

tel: 01547 540629.

Season

Spring to late autumn.

Accommodation

The Faulkners offer full board accommodation, or, if you prefer it, there are B&Bs and camping/caravan sites locally.

Age

Minimum of 18 years.

Disabled

Contact Peter Faulkner personally to discuss arrangements.

Insurance

If guests need holiday insurance, they should acquire their own. It is worth bearing in mind that coracle use is not usually regarded as a water sport.

Safety Staff have no specific medical training Tariffs

Price, including full board, instruction, materials and use of equipment on a four-day coracle-making course is pounds 500. Plus day visits.

Access

Leintwardine is 9 miles west of Ludlow on the A4113. The nearest station is Ludlow; pick-ups can be arranged, but you'll need a car with a roof rack to get your coracle home!

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