I never expected to find myself battling through an underworld of 20-foot reeds, scraping under willow branches with my eyeballs at water level, colliding with hawthorn bushes and inadvertently acquiring an outfit of spiders, mud and foliage – but it turns out that having an adventure by coracle is incredibly good fun!
This outing was facilitated by Alistair Phillips of WoodWorks and Coracles, as a reunion activity for a group of volunteers who’d met when building a cob roundhouse. All being of a similarly outdoorsy type, keen to learn new skills and explore the countryside, we travelled to Oxfordshire and had our first tentative wobble in a coracle on the pond in Alistair’s garden.
Traditionally, coracles are made using a willow frame with a skin of calico coated in tar. Alistair’s modern coracles use ash with strong plastic instead of calico, making them more durable and lighter to carry. We used the PVC offcuts to make pirate hats, and, sporting the height of coracling fashion, we set off for the river.
Within moments of launching our tough yet precarious crafts onto the River Thame (a tributary of the Thames), we were mastering the art of moving the paddle side to side in twisting strokes – known as sculling – to propel ourselves through the water. A gentle current nudged us downstream but not before we’d starred briefly in an improvised attempt at Swan Lake. Stay tuned for the drama of me stuck under a tree...
Forging through the first jungle of reeds, we broke out between neatly manicured private lawns and drifted steadily towards a bridge with a series of archways that presented an alarmingly swift choice for the novice not quite yet in control…
Rapids! Tiny ones! We plunged gently down a stony shelf below the bridge, one by one, popping out the other side – except our admiral, Cliff, who capsized! He emerged from the shadows bravely, hatless, and with one dry shoulder. Tipping the water from his little boat, he climbed back in and we set off once more down the peaceful, dark green tunnel between hedgerows dense and tangled with August’s bushy sprawl.
It was a privilege to paddle along the quiet river, seeing things from a perspective usually reserved for river-dwelling creatures. We saw no other humans on our one-mile, three-hour journey, only swans, ducks, and perhaps a mink below the surface of the water. We heard the call of a kingfisher, hidden from view by the English jungle. Several times, I got stuck in the thick reed beds and once under that tree, but my loyal, bedraggled companions shunted me along and we all agreed that travelling by coracle was definitely the way to explore Britain’s secret waterways.
You can make a coracle of your own with Alistair by contacting him at www.woodworksandcoracles.co.uk. We also whittled wooden spoons – well, at least a rough impression of a spoon – and turned some lovely bowls.
Here's some Alistair made earlier...