Paddle back in time

1st November 2002 at 00:00
A Yorkshire teacher has revived the ancient art of coracle making, reports Jessie Anderson.

The ancient art of coracle building has made a comeback at Ripon College, a secondary modern school with technology status, in Yorkshire. Steve Carrigan, head of design and technology at the college, was asked by David and Hazel Purvis of Ripon Youth and Community Arts if he could run a coracle-building class. He took up the challenge and was hooked.

About a dozen of the school's Year 9 and 10 pupils - mostly boys - took up coracle building as part of their skills section for the Duke of Edinburgh Award. They have now produced their coracles, and they are all a step nearer to their award, having learned a good deal about design and technology - and even a little needlework and history - along the way. Carrigan sees the exercise as "a great way of blending old and new technology".

Local firms came up with help and materials. A timber yard provided thin, 12ft-long ash laths which were soaked for about a week in a tank constructed by a local plumbing firm. By then they were sufficiently pliable to bend into the correct skeletal shape.

Calico was used as a covering. Traditionally, hide would have been used, however, which would have cost pound;300 to pound;400 for each coracle, whereas calico costs about pound;15. The calico had to be stitched into position to take out the wrinkles. (Admittedly, most of the "needlework" was undertaken by the school's learning support assistants.) Once smoothly in place, the fabric was given three coats of bitumen. This was done one Saturday and, by Sunday, the craft were sufficiently waterproofed to be launched on the nearby canal. The paddle handles were made of broom shanks. "We'd have been better with rake or hoe handles, which are longer," says Carrigan. The actual paddle was made from marine ply and the whole paddle held together with waterproof glue and galvanised nails.

The craft are quite water-worthy, provided they don't get punctured by stones or other sharp objects, which is why they are stored upside down.

As well as the satisfaction of building the coracles, which all the children took to enthusiastically, they had a great deal of fun with them once they were afloat, learning the necessary "skulling draw stroke" to propel the craft. "They don't steer easily as they have no keel," explains Carrigan. "You're at the mercy of the tide, the current and the wind."

And they don't go anywhere fast. The old-time fishermen who used them weren't going anywhere fast, either, but they could clear a river of salmon very quickly.

Steve Carrigan (tel: 01765 604564) is happy to advise schools wishing to build their own coracles

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