Caught by the River

The Coracle Maker

17th January 2008

My name is Bernard Thomas. My father was a coracle man, but because of the war and then bringing up children I didn’t start making them until I was about 52. I go fishing at night. The number on the side is B1. In the dark the bailiff comes and sees the number and say ‘Oh, that’s Bernard Thomas’. The nets are now made from jute or nylon, but in my younger days we made them from horse hair, the skills were handed down from father to son. There is such a tranquility in the gorge – yes it’s beautiful. When it gets dark you can look up into the sky and count stars.Once you know it is dark enough so that the fish can’t see the net, then you can fish. Fish are very scarce now these days. It’s because of modern ideas, fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides, but also sheep dip, they do reckon from where it is used fish will die up to two miles away.

I can tell you, many years ago when I started I was averaging 5–6 Salmon a night, and a load of Sewin. Now last year I caught one Salmon all season. I catch mostly Sewin these days. A Sewin is a sea trout and you get them up to about seven pounds.
Eels don’t come up here so much anymore. They work on a seven-year cycle and come back to where they came from. Up the Gulf Stream they hit fresh water, millions of them – and they go across land at night. 7–12 years later they start coming back to breed. I make coracles between October and January when the frost means the sap is down. I soak the willows in the river for five days. Then I make the frame. The willow is all split and chamfered before, so the frame only takes five hours to make. I keep it out until it loses all its water before applying oil and preservative. The frame is covered with linen, which is then sealed with pitch and linseed oil.
I had an argument with someone in a pub once about how man arrived on these islands. I said ‘well, it must have been in a coracle’ and they said nobody could cross the ocean in a coracle. So I did it. In 1974 I went to a place called St Margaret’s Bay.
It took three attempts but eventually I crossed in thirteen and a half hours before finally landing in France.

Illustrations by David Sparshott, with thanks to Scania @ Howies