'Coracles, cloaks and bivvy bags' by Thom Jones

12th March 2020

I’ve been lucky enough to attend the IATEFL conference every year since....well, ever. The first time I went I distinctly remember the young David Crystal trying to sneak in around the back in short trousers and his school cap, with an exercise book filled with adolescent linguistic thoughts*. 

It was easy to see, year after year, how much the event means to so many people, in so many places.  With that in mind I first persuaded my colleagues to get behind the idea of making our journey count, and using it to raise awareness and support for the IATEFL Projects charity arm of the organisation. IATEFL have never asked me to do this, and, often on learning how I plan to make the journey each year, have even expressly asked me not to!

I have cycled from Frankfurt to Manchester, from Ty Newydd (The Welsh National Writing Centre in Llanystumdwy), from London and walked Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve even dragged friends along, Gary Motteram, Julian Sayarer, Simon Wright and Matt Yallop have generously given both time and energy. Last year I couldn’t do it as my wife was heavily pregnant but was delighted that Emily Bryson and others had taken it on, cycling from Glasgow.

Along the way I’ve cycled, walked, got rained on, slept under hedges, woken up wet and cold at 3am and questioned my own judgement and, always, arrived exhausted and barely able to function/speak coherently through the conference**. I’m always embarrassed if people choose to congratulate me, it’s really nothing much; leave a couple of days earlier, be uncomfortable, have a little slice of mild adventure, raise some money for a good cause. In a sense I think that’s my point: for many of us that attend, it is easy to get to the conference. By choosing to travel in a longer/less comfy/laborious way, I’m trying to highlight how easy it is for many of us to go, and how easily we can help other people get the chance to join us. 

This year I’m travelling by river, canal and beck from York to Manchester. It’s not far, as the crow flies, about 100 kilometres. So I’m going in a coracle. ‘What is a coracle?’ I hear you cry. It’s like a canoe, but it can tell the future (this joke is copyright of Dorothy Zemach. Thanks Dorothy!). It’s not. It’s a very small boat. The smallest. Humans have been using them or craft like them, across the world for thousands of years. ‘Yes, but what does Robert Louis Stephenson say about travelling in one in Treasure Island, Thom?’ I hear you ask:

"I began after a little to grow very bold and sat up to try my skill at paddling. But even a small change in the disposition of the weight will produce violent changes in the behaviour of a coracle. And I had hardly moved before the boat, giving up at once her gentle dancing movement, ran straight down a slope of water so steep that it made me giddy, and struck her nose, with a spout of spray, deep into the side of the next wave. I was drenched and terrified, and fell instantly back into my old position, whereupon the coracle seemed to find her head again and led me as softly as before among the billows. It was plain she was not to be interfered with, and at that rate, since I could in no way influence her course, what hope had I left of reaching land?"

That. I’m hoping to avoid that. My own coracle is fibreglass and wood, and small, and goes nowhere fast. I brought it late at night on eBay. I don’t even drink alcohol. I have no excuse. I’ve just always loved playing about on water.

When I first decided to do this I tried paddling upriver with a waterproof bag of kit. I didn’t fall in. I’ve got a map of the route and have been told it will be ‘easy’ and that it is ‘impossible’. Both maybe true on different bits. I’ll sleep somewhere by the river, in my bivvy bag, if it rains, under the coracle. I’ll wear a life jacket and a nautical hat, at a jaunty angle. Because....because I might fall in but I’ll look rakish while doing so.

‘Coronavirus!’ I hear you scream. Well you might. Lap of the Gods at this stage. If IATEFL 2020 goes ahead, I’ll see you in Manchester, soaked but cheerful. If it doesn’t, I’ll go anyway. Not out of pigheadedness, but because if we can’t all meet up and share expertise, ideas and laughter this April, I’d like to celebrate the fact that we want to and will again AND by donating to IATEFL Projects we can make sure others can too.


*while this may not be 100% actually ‘true’, per se, it’s a pleasing image of the great man!

**many have commented that this appears to be true at every conference I attend. Harsh, but possibly true...


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