Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Saturday, 5 April 2008 11:27 UK

'Coracle king' to hang up paddle

By Gilbert John
BBC News

Bernard Thomas
Bernard Thomas will stop fishing on the Teifi at the end of July

An 85-year-old man nicknamed the coracle king, who devoted his life to netting salmon, says his fishing days are coming to an end.

Bernard Thomas from Llechryd, Ceredigion, started fishing the river Teifi with his father when he was four.

But Mr Thomas, who crossed the English Channel in his coracle, will be hanging up his paddle at the end of the season.

The coracle has been in use for centuries in Wales, having been noted by the Romans in the 1st Century.

"The river is everything to me," Mr Thomas said.

"In my younger days I used to fly fish with the coracle and take my girlfriend with me.

"They're very obedient in a coracle," he joked.

Mr Thomas, who lives alone in a cottage by the river, says coracles are very safe crafts to use "providing you were taught properly and have a foot in each corner".

Mr Thomas's father who was a coracle fisher in the summer and a rabbit trapper in winter taught him his craft.

He said he has made hundreds of coracles during his life and said no two were exactly the same.

The structure is made of a framework of split and interwoven willow rods.

The outer layer was originally an animal skin but today it has been replaced by calico.

"You need to split the willows - not saw them - and keep them dry until August when the temperature of the river is up.

Bernard Thomas
Mr Thomas crossed the English Channel after three attempts

"Then you need to soak them for five days in the river and then use them to make the coracle. Then you need to weave hazel around the top. The paddle is made from ash," he said.

Mr Thomas said he used one arm for rowing and another arm for trawling the net for fish.

He said the number of salmon in the Teifi river had reduced and he had gone from catching between five and six 20lb fish each night to hardly any.

In 1974 Mr Thomas crossed the English Channel to France in 13-and-a-half hours.

He said he succeeded on his third attempt, leaving St Margaret's Bay in Kent at midnight and arriving on the French coast at around 1330 the following afternoon.

During World War II, Mr Thomas joined the merchant navy and recalls vividly two weeks adrift in a lifeboat after being torpedoed.

He also crashed a microlight aircraft and nearly shot down a British Spitfire by mistake.

But a reminder of the war came recently when an elderly couple approached him while he was preparing to go out on the river.

"The woman asked is she could sit in the coracle, she stepped in, closed her eyes and started feeling around the front.

"The she started crying pitifully," he said.

He was told by the woman, as a 12-year-old Jewish girl, she had been taken by members of the French resistance from her village on the river Seine to safely.

"She had been blindfolded and put in the craft - she wanted to feel inside the coracle - she said this had laid the ghost to rest after all those years," Mr Thomas added.

Hear Mr Thomas's story on Country Focus, BBC Radio Wales, Sunday, 0732 BST

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