Ancient crafts: recreating the dawn of history

An ancient boat building skill has earned Peter Faulkner an international reputation

Britain, being an island, has long had a tradition of being involved with the sea, and among the most historic craft used to navigate both inland waters and the open sea are the ancient coracles and currachs, which go back to the dawn of history. 

But these craft are still around today, and among those who build them is Herefordshire Mason Peter Faulkner, a leading specialist in skin boats, who made his first hide coracle in 1987. 

Peter’s boats are constructed from wholly sustainable materials mirroring the geographical inertia of ‘old-time’ craftsmen, as all raw materials – hazel, willow, timber and hides – are sourced locally. 

He is planning a cross-Channel venture next year using a currach with a crew of eight to ten, all members of Arrow Lodge No. 2240, Province of Herefordshire. 

However, he is also bringing along two extras in case of ‘mal de mare.’ A TV crew is also expected to follow them – but not in a currach! The journey is for charity – the Province’s 2008 Festival as well as local organisations such as Air Ambulance. 

Peter explains: “A coracle is a keel-less fresh water craft propelled by one paddle, whereas a currach is a sea-going craft. The former may well have existed in some form as long as 100,000 years ago. We do know that currachs were being used around these islands in Mesolithic times.” 

The Mesolithic – or middle stone age – period was nearly 10,000 years ago, and last year Peter built a 21-feet currach of the period for Archaeolink, Aberdeenshire. He adds: “I was not taught how to make a coracle but in 1987 went to a traditional maker at Ironbridge in Shropshire and took photos, measurements and notes, then went back home and constructed my first coracle, ‘Teme Dipper.’ 

“In this boat I traversed the river Teme – 85 miles – the Severn – 165 miles, the Wye – 100 miles – and part of the Shannon. This coracle hangs in my workshop today, rather battered but proud. The learning curve continues to this day.” 

But, as he will be 65 in August, is it not time to hang up his paddle? Not a bit of it, he says. “Retirement isn’t in my vocabulary. My big dream is to build a 38-feet currach, using my usual materials, and to cross the Atlantic. I already have a crew list.” 

So how did he get into such an unusual occupation? He explains: “Returning to the village where I grew up – Leintwardine in Herefordshire – I built a coracle to travel down the local river – the Teme – in which I learned to swim and explore. My three brothers and I, together with other village children, had a Tom Sawyer-type childhood in the 1950s – we roamed freely and learned to survive. 

“My prototype was, I thought, a one-off, but a chance meeting with John Leach, the Somerset potter, changed all that, when he asked me to make him a coracle – my first customer. Now, some 200 skin coracles later, I have an international business and reputation.” 

In 1996 he was commissioned by the Kilmartin House Trust in Argyll to lead a project to construct a sea-going skin boat or currach. Peter sourced all the materials for the framework and the eight hides this craft required. 

He also designed the hull, and with a team of volunteers constructed the 22 feet by seven feet basket at Mayo Abbey, Co. Mayo, Ireland and later sailed from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland to Argyll in Scotland. The journey was featured in BBC Scotland’s documentary Columba’s Crossing, about St Colombo, who founded the Iona community on that remote Scottish island. 

In 2002 he attempted to cross the Channel from France to England on the prevailing wind, but unfortunately the wind died and they had to be towed back to Dover. However, the following month he competed successfully in the Great River Race down the tidal Thames in a 13-feet coracle with a crew of six, completing the 22 miles in four hours and 20 minutes. 

In 2005, he did the same journey again – in less than four hours. However, in 2003, during the memorable August heatwave of that year, he took 11 days to travel down the Thames from Cricklade in Wiltshire to Teddington Lock in a coracle – four feet six inches in diameter – but it was very slack water, and he was paddling for seven hours a day. 

Peter, who lives at Clungunford in Shropshire, is a Yeoman member of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, and is currently chairman of The Coracle Society. He travels abroad to exhibit his craft, and is regularly featured in the media from boating magazines to numerous TV appearances, and recently received an invitation to visit Japan. 

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