16 NOVEMBER 1907, Page 27


AWIDE river skirting the base of the gentle knoll upon which is situated—or, rather, upon which reclines, for it is so remarkably peaceful-looking an old place—the ancient town of the West adds a touch of dignity to its pleasant position, as it has added a touch of interest to its history. A broad road, with a fringe of quay divided off by festoons of chain looped to low, stout iron posts, runs along the riverside. Down the road in the dusk of an August evening come two fishermen carrying coracles upon their backs. To a stranger it is as startling a sight as it would have been had he, in the course of his morning's walk along the same road, seen the boat-builder in his yard across the way using a stone adze in trimming the rudder- post of the barge he was working at. The coracle of the ancient Briton afloat on the same tide—for our river is tidal—as that carrying the Lusitania ' ! True, for there are the coracles, the only difference between them and their distant relatives being that, instead of the wicker-and-ash framework being covered with bide, it is now covered with tarred canvas ; an advantage when it comes to carrying, for a present-day coracle is accounted heavy at over thirty pounds, whereas there is an old Welsh saying, "Llwyth gwr ei gorwg," a man's load is his coracle,—that is, a man must have a coracle as heavy as he can carry, or it will not carry him. Could the seats be taken out, and the canvas-covered coracles of to-day nested, a reasonably strong man could carry half-a-dozen. The carrying hide appealed strongly, apparently, to the first users, for the primary meaning of its Welsh name, "corwg," is carcase. Possibly the bide-covering in its association with a carcase, together with the method of carrying, accounted for the secondary, and now exclusive, use of the word in the sense of a boat. It is impossible to conceive of any boat simpler in its construction. For gunwale, an oval rim, four or five feet long and three feet or so wide, formed of a few plaited withies ; attached to it flat ashen strips, bent and interlaced to form the shallow boat body, a foot or so deep ; a seat with a broad leather strap let into it for carrying purposes, and the boat itself is complete. A long, narrow- bladed paddle affords the means of propulsion and handling generally. If belonging to a fisherman, as it almost invariably does, a small wooden hammer, or " knocker," for stunning a struggling fish by a blow on the head, also finds a place at one end of the seat, slipped into a loop of rope or leather. When the boat is being carried, the strap is passed over the head and shoulders, coming well down on the chest. As the seat then rests firmly against the broad of the back, the whole is carried without joggle and friction, the broad end rising above the bead like a gigantic hood, and the other falling down the back of the legs, above or below knee- level, according to the height of the carrier. A disposition of the paddle under one arm, and at an angle athwart the small of the back, gives freedom in walking by preventing the lower edge of the coracle knocking against the legs. The burden forms part and parcel of the bearer, and is carried as easily and lightly as a snail carries its shell. Both are the results of long evolution towards the end of gaining the easiest way of carrying a light but unwieldy load.

On the water the coracle will not compare in grace with a boat or canoe. With a draught so light as not to be worth measuring, it is at the mercy of every slight cross- current and eddy. Even when the current is strong and steady, it is acted upon so unequally, owing to its fiat bottom, absence of keel, and the lack of any continuous "run" of line from stem to stern, as to make its move- ment at best one of light bobbing and turning. The use of the paddle counteracts the latter, but the water has no steadying grip upon the whole. No great speed can be got out of a coraole, its main practical use being to follow the drift of river or tide for fishing purposes. And so in- differently, owing to its shape and lightness, does it stem a current, that if he do not care to wait for the flood to carry him on the return journey, the ooracler will land, coolly shoulder his boat and gear, and walk the four or five miles between him and his cottage home. To feel thoroughly at ease in a coracle, it is necessary to have been reared in it from early boyhood. It goes without saying that boys take as kindly to coracles as they do to boats and the water generally ; and smaller coracles are frequently made by the fishermen for their boys, so that they may help with the fishing, and bring all the catch and the profit to one home. So expert do the youngsters become that they will frequently turn somersaults in their cranky craft, whereas one unaccustomed to them, however good an ordinary boatman, feels that a hearty cough would mean his having to take to the water. Why any one who cannot swim should enter a coracle is hard to say, but it is sometimes done. But the precaution is then taken of fastening one end of a short line round the waist, and the other to the seat. "If he should get upset," said one of the fishermen on the quay, " we always know where to find him, for the coracle acts as a buoy." " But what about the man who is being buoyed ? " "Oh, if he can't manage to get hold of the coracle, he has to wait until we get to him. But we are not long in reaohing him if we are about." "If we are about" ! As shortly ex- pressed a transition between life and a tombstone notification of its loss, one would imagine, as the usual two-fathom length of buoying-line. This safety-line is, however, chiefly used when a father is training his boy as a fisherman. When two men fish together, beginning at the ends, the long, fine net is first divided between, and flaked in, the two coracles. They then go out to the middle of the river, part, and paddling one to either side, serve out the net as they go. This requires skill, to be done quickly, and so that the net may run out square and true, for only one hand is available for paddling, the other being engaged in serving out the net. But when a fisherman

takes his boy as partner the whole of the net is in the father's boat, and, commencing operations on one side instead of the middle of the river, the boy simply holds the rope at one end of the net whilst his father paddles to the other side, paying out the net as he goes. In either case,

after the net has been shot, it is a matter of drifting with the current or tide, maintaining the net square the while to catch the salmon, always travelling in the reverse direction against the current. Drifting slowly along in the dusk or dark—for fishing is rarely carried on in daylight, unless the water is 0!

" the right colour," after a freshet—should the net catch suddenly in a snag the jerk may be enough to upset a coracle unless the coracler is on the alert, and ready to use his paddle to counteract the tilt of the pull. A large fish striking and struggling in the net may have the same effect. To train the boy to keep wide awake, a wise father may when drifting give the net a sudden, strong tug. If the boy is on the watch, well and good. He readily avoids capsizing by a deft stroke or two of the paddle. If otherwise, as likely as not, over goes the coracle, and out tumbles the budding fisherman. It is here that the safety-line comes in useful, whether the boy can swim or not, for there is no danger of his being carried by the current away from his coracle, which, although overturned, offers itself as a good float to hang on to. His father being on the watch for the result of his experiment, soon rights the coracle, if necessary, and helps his lad into it, with probably a word or two of caution against the danger of not being prepared for a snag or big fish,—never a testing pull. It is not likely, after such a lesson, that he will again be taken unawares. He will have acquired that sixth sense of subconsciously using the others. In spite of its instability, practised hands will do very well in the way of fishing in a good season, catches of forty or fifty pounds not being out of the way.

. A Welsh coracle is rarely used for anything but fishing. Its Irish equivalent, the corragh, apparently does other work, the writers of that charming book, "Irish Yester- days," being responsible for the chronicling of the following feat and cargo amongst the Isles of Aran :—" It was eight o'clock when the anchor was let go in Kilronan Bay opposite the principal Island. Round the steamer flocked battered punts and tarred canvas corraghs with their bows high out of the water and in a storm of Irish the process of disembarking began. The phrase but feebly expresses the spectacle of a kitchen table lowered from the deck and laid on its back in a corragh, or the feat of placing an old woman sitting in the table, with a gander in her lap. The corragh has no keel, and a sneeze is rightly believed to be fatal to its equilibrium. But an Aran old woman and an Aran gander can rush in where Sir Isaac Newton might fear to tread." A Welsh coracle could cer- tainly not have held more than the gander, in addition to the coracler, in this peculiar " manifest " of an Irish corragh.

The allurement of a coracle lies not merely in its rude simplicity, lightness, and instability, but in the fact that, with the exception of lighter covering, it is precisely the same craft that the ancient Briton—and probably his still more distant ancestor—did his fishing in. It is a " prehistoric peep " in the working concrete of to-day. In the Western town referred to, it is possible, as it were, to breakfast on a cutlet from a salmon caught overnight by an ancient Briton. For if his ghost, wandering along the river-bank which he was so familiar with when in the flesh, came across a coracle, and were the shade sufficiently materialised, it might step familiarly into it, and push off into the stream to fish, without realising that it was not in its own boat,—at the same time that, propped against the cruet-stand, is the day's newspaper, giving an account of the trial trip of the latest in liners, and the news of yesterday in Japan.