River Wye Crafts

The advent of the railway in the mid 19th century signalled the death of the River Wye as a trading passage, but it wasn't the death of boat-building.

For hundreds of years, barges, boats and trows had traded along the river, supporting a host of industries including pubs, rope makers, coal merchants, sail makers, fishermen, basket makers and, of course, boat builders. Boat building was a thriving industry. There was Jordan’s of course, who continued in the business for decades, and other less familiar boatbuilding names such as Richard Lewis, Thomas Maund, John Easton, and William Radford. 

In April 1834 Radford had the distinction of launching the Water Witch at Hereford. It was the largest vessel built above the Wye bridge and at 80 feet long it would have been an impressive sight. The Wye Tour in the mid 19th century created a mini boat building boom, as demand for spaces on boats outstripped supply. But today, in the early part of the 21st century, boat building on the Wye passes with barely a mention. Boats have been built, however, some ordinary, others extraordinary.

John Fishpool, 72

‘It would seat three or four people at a push, if they weren’t too heavy. Even with me in, it didn’t sink!’ John Fishpool

‘In 1960, I was 15 and decided I would make a boat in father’s carpentry shop. I made it out of ply and glued and screwed it together with hundreds of brass screws, all put in by hand. I made the oars as well. When it was finished it could seat three or four people at a push, if they weren’t too heavy. Even with me in, it didn’t sink! I launched it at Foy because it was fairly close to Brampton Abbotts. My father had a Morris 1000 and we to tied it onto the roof rack but it was almost bigger than the car and was difficult to see the road at times. We parked at Foy Bridge and launched it and rowed up and down the river. I had it a couple of years and then sold it to the landlord of the Kerne Bridge Inn. I don’t know what happened to it after that.’

Charles Lyster, 58

Lives in Llangrove in a restored cottage with attached barn containing his workshop. He is an adventurer and sailor, smokes a pipe and does snow-holing in the Scottish mountains in the winter, just for fun. He runs Royal Yachting Association RYA courses on Driac, his 1930 classic yacht. In 2002, he built a replica Norwegian longboat, christened Yggdrasil. However, it is not strictly a longboat, but a Faering, the smallest traditional working boat from the fjords. It was launched on the Wye at Ross in 2002.

‘I wanted a boat that would row and sail. In this country boats have specialised over a long period of time. A boat is either a specialist rowing boat or a sailing dinghy, and it is impossible to move between the two. But a Faering is just that, in between the two; it rows and sails. I saw one when we were on holiday in Norway in 2000 and was struck by how beautiful and simply built it was, very much a folk artisan construction, done with simple tools with ordinary people, not finely finished or beautifully varnished.’

The Faering nearly died out in the early 20th century in Norway, and it was thanks to Øystein Faerøyvik, who travelled the length of Norway, photographing and measuring remaining models, that ensured the methods in construction were recorded. These are the designs Charles used and they have barely changed from 800AD. He used wood from the Doward, selecting each piece, chopping it down and bringing it home to his workshop. After many months in the making, Yggdrasil was launched at Ross Rowing Club, the four-person crew enjoying a summer’s day cruise up to Backney, drawing some intrigued onlookers.’

The Hereford Bull

2012 was a golden year. The Olympics came to a buoyant London, the sun shone (most of the time) and the Queen celebrated her Diamond anniversary with year-long celebrations. A year before, in a quiet corner of Herefordshire, an idea was being hatched that would result in the commissioning of a craft for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames. Bob Tabor, then Deputy Lieutenant, was thrown the gauntlet by Lord Lieutenant Lady Darnley. Bob’s excellent organisational skills saw him pull together a crack team of maritime people, among them Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks, from the Golden Valley, Ray Hunter of Ledbury and Tommy Neilsen, the traditional boat builders from Gloucester.

It was an ambitious plan, but with no funding available, there was no guarantee it was going to happen. However, the appearance of a mysterious benefactor gave the project the green light and traditional boat builders in Gloucester, T Neilsen & Co, were commissioned.

The Wye Coracle

William Dew of Kerne Bridge is described as the last recorded coracle user on the River Wye, though, with the growth in this small craft’s popularity, this claim could be contested in the future. Following Dew’s death in 1931, his coracle was donated to Hereford Museum. It’s a pretty sorry sight today, variously described as ‘a pickled prune’ and ‘a badly crashed raven’s nest’, but it’s worth taking a moment to remember Dew’s skill in a coracle. In her memoirs, Dew’s granddaughter Nancy Howell remembers him: ‘It was a curious sight to see grandfather looking like a giant tortoise, returning home in the evening across the meadows, his truckle on his back secured by a wide strap attached to the seat. He would fish for salmon with a rod and reel, and walked to Ross market, where he sold it for 6p a pound. He often went out on the river in his coracle for the sheer joy of it, even when it was in flood. He was quite fearless!’

Pete Redding 50.

Pete is originally from Pershore and has been living in Hereford for seven years, with lengthy excursions to Australia (canoed Catherine Gorge, bypassing some impressive canyons and a few crocodiles along the way) France and Poland. He and his family chose Hereford as their home because of its closeness to the Welsh hills and the River Wye. He works in social housing as a learning and development officer. Two years ago, he swapped canoes for coracles, introducing the Coracle Regatta to the River Carnival.

‘It was through the River Carnival that I first came across coracles. I’d seen them, I knew what they were, but I’d never got close to one or had a chance to paddle one. But then I had a go, which very quickly led to the coracle being left at my house, which is where it sits today.’

River Carnival

‘All the boats were decorated. One year I entered as Miss Muffet and the boat was decorated as a web with a very large spider that had eyes on it.’

After lying dormant for a few decades, the Wye River Carnival was resurrected in 2014 by a group of volunteers. In 2018, it enters its fourth year, freshly invigorated, with the River Wye slap-bang in the middle of celebrations. In the heady days of the river carnival in the late 1960s and mid 1970s, over 8,000 spectators hugged the banks of the Wye watching the stream of floats, followed by spectacular firework displays. Companies, clubs and associations would all have a float.

Gary McLeod was a young spectator of the river carnival and later on, a competitor:

‘As a kid, we lived up the college and I always remember the old man used to bring me down once a year to the River Carnival and it was a hell of a big thing. All the firms had their floats on the river and there were some fantastic boats, with big batteries for the lights. There were different categories, so Bulmers and Painters would be in A category for example and others would be in B.

‘We launched one float at Hunderton Ferry and by the time we got to the Great Western Bridge the battery had run out, and this thing went down the river just as a silver calico thing, people couldn’t make out what we were.’

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