‘There’s nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.’
(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows)
I LOVE making things. When I was little I made a Pokémon pinball machine, as well as my own cardboard laptop complete with springy keys and interchangeable screens. These days I favour knitting, sewing and pyrography, but I also recently discovered an organisation called the Heritage Crafts Association, who have published a Red List of traditional crafts in danger of dying out. Being in love with all things rural and crafty, I’ve decided to work my way down the list and see which tasty new skills I can master.
When I revealed my plan to my lovely friend Vivian, she was thrilled! She volunteers at the ancient farm where I work, and is already highly skilled in woodwork and other crafts. I knew she’d be the perfect person to help me discover a few new crafts, and before I knew it we’d booked ourselves onto a coracle making workshop with wood craftsman Alistair Phillips, quite possibly one of the nicest people I’ve met. On Friday, we popped up to Henley-on-Thames in the sunshine and, after a cup of tea, began our workshop in the balmy warmth of Alistair’s garden. Beside us a chaffinch gobbled up a damselfly, and red kites filled the sky above; the house was only six miles from the original holding pens of their successful conservation programme in the 1980s.
The coracle, also known as a currach, bull boat, quffa or parasil, is a small boat that dates back thousands of years, found in cave paintings from the early Bronze Age and possibly even the Ice Age. They are traditionally made using a woven frame built from locally foraged wood, with animal hair ropework and a waterproof cow hide. We made ours using ash laths for the basketwork and PVC fabric for the waterproof shell; authenticity is all very well but I’d rather my boat stayed afloat, and I was very happy to use what is, essentially, lorry plastic.
Coracles are also fantastic for getting up close to wildlife, as you are able to float quietly down small rivers that other boats may not be able to access.
The ash laths had been soaked for a few weeks before to make them bendier, which meant we could weave them together to form a basket shape, using G Clamps to secure the structure while we nailed everything together. We attached the PVC lining out in the sunshine, as the heat made it more supple and easier to pull the fabric tight across the wooden frame.
Seven hours later, we had created our very own coracles! We plopped them down on Alistair’s pond and paddled around with the frogs to get used to the technique, before transporting our coracles five minutes down the road to a secluded pool in the depths of a beech and oak woodland. Here we bobbed around blissfully for an hour, listening to green and spotted woodpeckers calling to one another, and discussing the Latin roots of medicinal plants. Quite honestly, one of the most sublime days I’ve ever experienced. I’m now looking forward to finding ponds and streams around Hampshire in which to have a few more watery adventures…
Alistair runs several two-day coracle courses each year and I cannot recommend them enough! You can find out more on his website here.