Coracles on the River Taff

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31 May 2016

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Back in May 2013 we saw Coracle Society member, Karl Chattington, on the river Taff near Sophia Gardens retrieving cricket balls from the nearby SWALEC stadium.  He had been used as a publicity stunt for the forthcoming Champions Trophy fixtures which featured the mighty West Indian Chris Gayle - a renowned hitter of sixes!

To our knowledge, Karl, was the first person on a coracle on the river Taff for over a century!  One of the earliest references to the existence of coracles on the river is from Julies Caesar Ibbetson’s (1759 – 1817) painting ‘Cardiff from the West’ which now can be seen at Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums.  In the painting we see one coracle on the river and two others on the bank.  The coracles are similar to the Teifi construction but with a longer paddle characteristic of a Tywi type. 

Moving on to around 1825 we have an account of James Lucas drowning whilst net fishing from a coracle near the Royal Hotel.  A wooden coracle carving has recently been unveiled commemorating his passing at Bute Park.

Another drowning incident happened at the latter end of 1908 when a young boy, Cromwell Davies, was drowned at Quaker’s Yard near Merthyr Tydfil.  The Tywi coraclemen of Carmarthen had assisted the local population in searching for the young child and subsequently recovered the body three weeks later.

Apart from the brief cameo appearance by Karl as mentioned earlier no other coracles had been seen on the river Taff for a long time.  This all changed on a wet Wednesday afternoon in the middle of May 2016.  As part of the Living Taff Project let by Paul Barrett and Chris Powell it was decided to reintroduce the coracle onto the river.  To celebrate this momentous occasion Cwmni Da television production company from Caernarfon came down to film.  Paul and Chris had been busy for months, constructing a Tywi type craft and were excited at the prospect of its inaugural launch.  Neither had been on a coracle before therefore it was left to myself to find out if it floated! 

It was decided the best place to launch ‘Bonesig’ was from the lower end of Bute Park by the 90 seat Waterbus.  Thankfully ‘Bonesig’s maiden voyage went without any mishap and both Paul and Chris must be commended for constructing such a fine craft!  Incidentally the coracle was built at the World of Boats in Cardiff Bay and were given plenty of advice and guidance by Karl Chattington and Andy Keward who is rebuilding the schooner Elena.  It was a lovely feeling, even with the rain coming down heavily, being able to reintroduce the coracle back onto the river Taff.  Special praise must be given to Meinir Gwilym, the presenter for Cwmni Da, for volunteering to accompany me on the quest.  She was totally oblivious to the history of the coracle before coming down to south Wales and never actually been in one before!  To her immense credit, after a crash course in how to use a coracle, she was able to circumnavigate the treacherous waters of the Taff with no problem!  It would be good to have her as a member one day.  Her coracle was made at Ironbridge and kindly given to Paul Barrett.

It was certainly a good day for everyone – we were certainly wet but not from falling into the river!  I sincerely hope both Paul and Chris will continue to attract visitors to Cardiff bay and with their next coracle be able to launch their own as they are due to have coracle lessons at St Fagans early June.  It was a privilege to launch ‘Bonesig’ on her maiden voyage and fortunately were able to avoid the busy traffic of the water buses!  Both Paul and Chris hope to see more coracles on the Taff and it is their intention one day to hold coracle races.  I will certainly keep everyone informed.

Dylan Jones