When we were at the Coracle Regatta in Bures earlier in the year Steve and Dick said that we'd just missed one of their friends Quentin Page, and that he was a font of wisdom on all things to do with coracles. So, we eventually got his email and dropped him a line and there were a fair number of emails exchanged before Quentin agreed to meet with us. We looked up his address on Google Street View before we set out and we could immediately tell which house was his without even looking at the numbers. We arrived in good time and he came out to greet us before inviting us round the back of his house to the workshop where all of the coracle magic happens.
Like all good storytellers, Quentin started at the beginning and tells us that he started fishing as a boy of five and coracling from the age of 8. He watched the fisherman in their coracles on the Stour at Harwich and this inspired him to learn and get out onto the water. Most of his family members worked on the railways but it was his Grandfather, who was a cabinet maker, who eventually taught him the skills to make his own coracle when he was in his early twenties. Quentin has now been making them for fifty years and they certainly are a sight to behold. He explained with great enthusiasm how he sources the wood, which must be from a suitable ash tree, from local land owners and takes it to be cut on a bench saw to a specific size. Then he stacks the lathes with air in between them, and allows them to season for just the right amount of time, leaving them still pliable enough to make into the shape of the hull. The size of the hull varies on the type of coracle and the amount of people or equipment it should carry. Fishing boats are a different shape to pleasure boats, the former have a straight front side to help with hauling fish and nets into the boat, whereas pleasure boats are more circular. It takes a week to mould to the frame into the correct shape.
The ash is also the perfect wood for making the paddles and he brought a great selection of different types out for us to see. Each paddle has different characteristics: shorter and wider for use on the river, longer and thinner for the estuary, and with a hooked end for river keeping activities. There is even a paddle for poaching which is made for silent paddling to help evade the game keeper. Each of them were beautifully carved by hand following the grain of the wood, expertly chosen by Quentin for the particular type. He'd even sanded one down using dried dogfish skin.
Most of the boats we saw at the coracle regatta in Bures were made with canvas but Quentin's are made with cow hides and so are furry on the inside, with the different types of cow such as Belgian Blue or Belted Galloway determining the colour of the fur inside. The tail is left attached and used to form the painter on the front (the rope to pull the boat), some of which were still a full length of hair. He sources the hides from a local abattoir and goes to inspect them for size and quality as they are removed from the animal and they'll only be large enough if the cow or bull is over around 5 years old. Once he has selected a suitable hide, he drags it into his pickup and drives it home. He has a curing shed out the back and puts them into a large vat with gallons of water, salt and alum (quantities are a trade secret) which cures the hide to prevent rotting and remove any moisture. This process takes five hours as when he applies the hide to the frame he folds the corners, and moulds in drainage points before it dries solid. One of Quentin's favourite sayings is 'the hide I need is walking about eating grass'.
They are very stable and Quentin says that his boats have never capsized and that you can stand on the seat and still not go in over the side. The boat can carry one hundredweight, which equates to 2 people, a large dog, nets and a catch of fish. See the picture above for how big they are. The net he uses is a 50' trawl net which he had specially made by a man in Clacton from a from 2000 year old design that he sketched on a piece of paper.
He catches a lot of different fish in the river estuary including dabs, sole, herring, three type of mullet, garfish and bass, although there are no plaice or flounders to be caught nowadays. When he's caught some fish he'll fly a special flag to inform his neighbours of the catch and they'll all share in the bounty when he returns to shore … mullet steaks for all!
After chatting about the boats we were invited inside his house for a quick look at the the makes from horsehair, on contraptions that he's made himself from wood. First he drops the individual fibres on to the floor and gathers them up in a particular way to create a rollag. The next stage is to wind them together into plys which are then in turn wound into string, then cord and finally rope. He had examples of each of these which were all light and very strong. Whilst there we noticed a cauldron that he had on his open fire, which was mounted on a crane so that it could be moved into and out of the fireplace whilst full. There ensued a great story about how he'd acquired the pot from a gypsy, who also gave him a recipe for cooking hedgehog. So armed with the knowledge and the pot Quentin returned home with his dog. The lurcher was adept at catching hedgehog, especially from the nearby churchyard, and caught two of them on the way home. He prepared them and cooked them in the pot before making a pie. He invited the gypsy over to try the pie, and after tasting it gave it a full seal of approval. The dog would catch lots of 'fur and feather' and kept the family fed for fifteen years. They even made a special coat in which you could conceal two pheasants.
Time came for us to leave and we bid a farewell to Mr. Page. He has become known far and wide for his coracle building and was even asked to make 15 coracles for Ridley Scott as well as to appear in the Film Robin Hood, something that brought him quite a lot of enjoyment. He had plenty more stories to tell, and a great enthusiasm for them, so we're sure we'll be able to catch up with him soon for some more tales of life as a coracle builder in the Stour Valley.